Three decades after Thelma & Louise revved up the film industry and audiences, star Geena Davis tells Vogue’s Jessica Montague why she is still on a mission to deliver much more for women through movies.
Geena Davis is the first to admit the impact Thelma & Louise had on her career. As the film celebrates its 30-year anniversary this month, the actor happily recalls not only how it revolutionised the road-trip genre and established a new standard for feminist cinema, but also set her on a new career path.
“Thelma & Louise really changed my life tremendously. I went as far as I could possibly go in trying to get cast. I made it my life’s mission and thank god it worked out!” says Davis over Zoom from Los Angeles.
“I think it was such a great script and great characters rather than: ‘Oh man, I know this movie is going to strike a nerve and be a cultural signpost.’ None of us working on the movie had any idea it would get the reaction that it did.”
Three decades on, the story of two best friends who became outlaws and chose to take their own lives in spectacular fashion rather than be caught, is considered a classic. In the next week, Davis, now 65, will appear alongside co-star Susan Sarandon at a sold-out screening of the film at the famous The Greek Theatre in LA to mark the milestone.
Davis was known for quirky roles in films like Beetlejuice and The Accidental Tourist (for which she won a Best Supporting actor Oscar) before being cast as Thelma, the unhappy housewife turned fugitive. The 1991 film, directed by Ridley Scott, proved a key turning point.
“It really brought home for me very powerfully how few opportunities we give women to feel inspired coming out of a movie,” she says. “From then on I decided: ‘Well, I’m going to really think about what choices I make.’”
She continues: “We were the worst role models as far as the stuff we did [in the film], but we were still inspiring because we were in charge of our own destiny. We made our own decisions, for good and bad. That, I think, is important for women to see – female characters in control of their lives and making their own decisions.”
Davis went on to helm several major Hollywood releases of the 1990s, including as an all-star female baseballer in A League of Their Own, a knife-wielding heroine in spy action thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight, and even the first female President of the United States in the TV series Commander in Chief. But Thelma & Louise and its message of female empowerment also influenced her more recent work in setting up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM) in 2004.
After sitting down with her then-toddler daughter to watch a children’s show, Davis was struck by the vast imbalance of male to female characters. For the greater part of the last two decades, she’s been collecting research data and feeding this back to creators and film companies to help create gender balance, foster inclusion and reduce negative stereotyping on screen. She started off with children’s programs then moved into broader family entertainment, all the while maintaining an acting career and being a mother of three, including twin sons.
Davis’ work with the institute was featured in Vogue Australia’s March issue, focused on “conscious creativity” and the actor was invited to participate in this year’s Vogue Codes program. Now in its sixth year, Davis will appear in a prerecorded segment as part of the Vogue Codes Summit on June 18 where she discusses the event tagline – “if she can see it, she can be it” – as well as Vogue’s recent work spotlighting female STEM role models for young girls.
“I didn’t intend in the beginning to take this on as some life mission or anything, I just wanted to find out what other people were seeing and thinking,” insists the actor. “When I saw that even the people creating [these shows] could absolutely not see what they were making, it made me realise, ‘well, if I had the data then maybe that would make a difference.’”
The institute’s advocacy – working privately and collegially with creators from within Hollywood – has been significant. The top 25 children’s TV shows in the US recently reached parity for male and female characters, an achievement Davis describes as “historic”.
Off screen, the GDIGM has developed its own research tool, the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ), which is groundbreaking audio and visual software used to analyse film content and provide a breakdown of things like gender and race, as well as a new artificial intelligence tool Spellcheck for Bias, which can feed key information back to studios simply by reading the script.
“Before they make anything they can run it through, find out what they’ve got and then say: ‘Wow, we’re really failing women here’ or, ‘We only have 20 per cent diversity when it should be X’,” shares Davis. “We have pilot programs with a number of studios where we’re testing it out for them and using their material.”
Davis was awarded an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, for her work in late 2019. In her acceptance speech she challenged members of the industry audience to return to their office the next day and look at how they could improve gender parity in their projects.
“There’s definitely much still more to go and I’m very encouraged by having made some significant progress that we’re on the right track,” she says. “We’re talking about something that seems completely normal. It’s not a radical idea.”
To find out more and book tickets – virtual or in-person – for Vogue Codes Summit or other events, go to vogue.com.au/vogue-codes