Geena Davis doesn't think the film industry has been all that progressive when it comes to the inclusion of women up until recently. In an exclusive interview for this week's issue of People, Davis said that when she first began working in Hollywood, she was optimistic that seeing middle-aged actresses be successful meant that change was on the horizon.
"When I first started out, was a time when every year at the Oscars Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close and Sally Field were nominated for these incredible movies starring them and getting awards," Davis shared. "I’d heard the concept that women over 40 don’t work, but I thought ‘They’re changing everything. This is how it’s going to be, and I won’t have to worry about anything.’ And that didn’t turn out to be true. It didn’t really change anything".
Davis on Thelma & Louise reaction: "It was mindblowing"
Davis went on to say how even after she'd won an Academy Award for the 1989 film The Accidental Tourist, she felt that the recognition didn't have much of an impact on her career. "Winning the Oscar… makes you feel incredible and appreciated," Davis says, reflecting on the achievement. "But I don’t know that it changes your career. I really don’t know if anybody hired me because of the Oscar after that".
After 1991's Thelma & Louise, which she starred in alongside Susan Sarandon, Davis was more hopeful than ever about the prospects for female-led projects in Hollywood. "When Thelma & Louise came out and we saw the reaction to that movie, it was mind-blowing what a nerve it struck," Davis said of the empowering feminist film. "And all the press said, ‘This changes everything! Now we’re going to see so many movies with women.’ And I was like ‘Hot dog — I’m going to be in a movie that changes everything'".
Davis "kept waiting for" Hollywood to change for women
Davis said that despite its critical success, the impact of Thelma & Louise was nowhere near as radical as she'd imagined. Neither was the impact of her next film A League of Their Own in 1992, regardless of the fact that critics had said it would lead to more female-driven sports movies. "I kept waiting for it to happen," Davis recalled, referring to her long-standing hope for the industry to shift away from its male-dominated state.
And it wasn't just Davis' movies that seemed to promise a shifting landscape for women in Hollywood. "Some other movie would come along and do really well: First Wives Club did really well, and I thought, ‘Okay, well, now…'" she recounted before sharing a staggering statistic. "And the numbers have never moved. And in fact, the ratio of male to female characters on screen in films has been exactly the same since 1946".
Davis on gender parity in film: "There's still a lot of work to do"
Davis said that in recent years however, things have certainly improved when it comes to representation of women in Hollywood. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has contributed to researching statistics related to gender parity within the industry that are then shared with film studios and television networks. "It finally has happened," Davis said.
"We have just found, both that in kids’ TV and kids’ movies, we’ve reached gender parity with the lead characters — which is historic, it’s never happened," she went on to explain. "It’s been decades and decades where it was two-to-one, and now it’s equal. But there’s still a lot of work to do in the supporting characters, in the group scenes and crowd scenes, still very limited number of female characters".
Davis tells media creators to make roles female and diverse
Davis may currently be working as an actress, but she still devotes her time to advocating for more balanced representation through her institution. One piece of advice she has for creators is to see where there is room for diversity within their scripts, and change characters accordingly.
"My simplest advice to creators is: whatever you’re already going to make, before you cast it and before you shoot it, just go through it and see if there’s any characters that can become female — or any type of diversity — and change the first name," Davis suggested. “That’s a fabulous way to make it gender-balanced. That’s one of the reasons we’re having so many more female characters now".
Davis is also hopeful that her continued efforts to see better representation of women on screen will have a positive impact on her own career. "So far it has not benefited me personally," Davis mentioned. "I made a point of saying change the characters to female, and then cast me. Because I don’t really see any reason why all of this effort shouldn’t benefit me directly!"