"Well, darling, look out, 'cause my hair is coming down!" That was Thelma Dickinson—played by Geena Davis—breaking away from her cruel husband in the iconic 1991 film Thelma & Louise. As an actor, Davis has embraced strong, well-written female characters—from the tough-as-nails catcher in A League of Their Own to her Golden Globe-winning portrayal of the president on the TV series Commander in Chief. She won an Academy Award for her role in The Accidental Tourist.
Yet females are still woefully underrepresented in film and television, and she brings attention to this through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. She's also a special envoy for women and girls in the field of technology for the United Nations International Telecommunication Union.
As part of American University's All-American Weekend, Davis recently spoke at a special event hosted by the Kennedy Political Union in Bender Arena. Jennifer Lawless, a School of Public Affairs professor and a nationally recognized expert on women in politics, moderated the discussion.
Against the Odds
Davis spoke about her journey from aspiring thespian to movie star. She decided to major in acting at Boston University. "Whatever the odds, I had this unshakeable, idiotic faith that I was going to be able to be in the movies," she said. In her first BU class orientation, the professor warned Davis and a hundred other freshmen that only about 1 percent of them would ever earn a living as an actor. "I swear to God I went, 'These poor kids!'" she recalled, to laughter.
Her first acting job came in the comedy classic Tootsie. Many more roles would follow. Getting cast in A League of Their Own challenged her to find untapped athletic ability. "I had to play the best baseball player anyone had ever seen," she said. "The problem being I didn't know how to play baseball, or any sport at all." She prepared for the role and eventually developed a knack for the playing field. "Sports dramatically improved my self-image," she added.
After that, she got involved with the Women's Sports Foundation and encouraged girls to pursue athletics. And she trained competitively in archery, qualifying as a semi-finalist in the Olympic trials for the 2000 games.
Role of a Lifetime
Thelma & Louise was a cultural phenomenon, and Davis and co-star Susan Sarandon graced the cover of Time magazine. "It changed the course of my life. It cemented my passion for empowering women, and it has driven my commitment ever since then," she said. Davis noted the controversy that the movie sparked, with commentators fretting over women with guns. "If I ever needed a lesson in the power of media images, I certainly had it now," she explained. "Ever since then, I've made choices with women in the audience in mind."
Gender in Media
It was while watching children's TV shows with her daughter when she noticed a scarcity of female characters. Then, Davis decided to get the data. She would form the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has amassed a large body of research on gender in entertainment.
She shared the discouraging news with the audience. Female characters wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing in G-rated, animated movies as they do in R-rated films. In family films, 81 percent of the job-holding characters are male, with females usually serving as "eye candy." In movie crowd scenes, just 17 percent of non-speaking characters are women.
"What message are we sending to boys and girls, at a very vulnerable age, if the female characters are one-dimensional, sidelined, stereotyped, hyper-sexualized, or simply not there at all?" Davis asked. "Think how dramatically different our world would be if children grew up and entered the workforce without these biases that we're unconsciously giving them."
Cracking the Ceiling
During the question-and-answer session with professor Lawless, Davis expressed frustration over the glacial pace of change on gender equity in media. Yet she's heartened by movies like Tangled and Frozen. "They're kind of re-telling the princess story, to have it not be that she needs the man to rescue her."
One student asked about breaking the glass ceiling while also getting married and having children. "Balance is overrated. I think that you can't really achieve balance. You can just do the best you can with what's going on," Davis said. "You just have to be ambitious in all areas, and try to make it work."
After the event, sophomore Sara Pierson said she was impressed with Davis. "She was a great speaker. She was very charismatic. And I loved hearing how she grew as a person with her athletics," Pierson said. She mentioned seeing the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, which included contributions from both Davis and Lawless.
"The thing I liked best was the way she combined blunt humor with statistics. So it appealed to all audiences," said Megan Crowley, also a sophomore.
Not Politics as Usual
This was a notable evening for the student-run KPU. "In our 46-year history, this is the first time the Kennedy Political Union has hosted an Academy Award-winning actor," KPU Director Tyler Bowders said at the event.
Bowders started as director in May, and he's hoping to broaden students' understanding of political activism. "It's not just your typical, white male senator," he said in an interview earlier this year. "Even an Oscar winner who does archery on the side can have things that are inherently political to talk about."