MAYFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio — Actress Geena Davis says the film “Thelma and Louise” changed the course of her life.
At the 125th opening luncheon of the National Council of Jewish Women/Cleveland on Monday (Sept. 23) at Landerhaven, Davis told a sold-out crowd of about 650 that women’s reaction to the classic film made her realize just how few opportunities there were to see empowered female characters on screen.
“When that movie came out, suddenly women wanted to share with me what they thought of the movie, how it impacted them, how many times they saw it,” Davis said. “If I ever needed a lesson in the power of media images, I certainly had it.”
The 1991 film, about two female friends who embark on a road trip with unforeseen consequences, was a critical and commercial success. Davis received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance.
“If you think about it, what’s the best part of watching a movie — being able to identify with the characters and living vicariously through them,” she said. “So ever since then, I’ve made my acting choices with the women in the audience in mind.”
It also eventually inspired her to found the Geena Davis Institute on Gender Media, which engages film and television creators to dramatically increase the percentages of female characters — and reduce gender stereotyping — in media made for children 11 and younger.
“The motto of our institute is, ‘If she can see it, she can be it,’ and it’s literally true,” she said. “Media images are incredibly powerful.”
At the end of the 90-minute program, titled “Starring Geena Davis: A Powerful Voice for Gender Equality,” Davis received the NCJW/Cleveland 125th Anniversary Powerful Voice Award. The annual award goes to a nationally known individual who strongly represents the mission of NCJW to change the lives of women, children and families.
Cindy Glazer, vice president of program and education for NCJW/Cleveland, presented the award — a glass sculpture created and designed by local artist Shayna Roth Pentecost — to Davis.
“As an actor, I’ve long been aware of how there are fewer really great roles for women,” Davis said. “I’ve been lucky enough to play some parts, such as the first female president of the United States on TV, and these experiences have led me to a profound interest in the way women and girls are portrayed on screen.”
Davis, a native of Massachusetts who lives in Los Angeles, won a Golden Globe Award for her role as President Mackenzie Allen in the television series “Commander in Chief,” which aired on ABC in 2005-06.
Another strong female character portrayed by Davis was Dottie Hinson, the standout women’s baseball player in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own.” That role earned her a Best Actress Golden Globe Award nomination.
Even though Davis is 6 feet tall, she said she was “a late-blooming athlete” and didn’t know how to play baseball or any other sport when she was cast as Hinson.
“I had very good coaches and was training to play baseball, and very soon, the coaches start saying, ‘You actually have some untapped athletic ability,’ which was an amazing compliment I never expected to hear,” she said.
“It turned out I am very coordinated, and it just took until I was 36. But it dramatically improved my self-image.”
After that experience, Davis said she learned to play some other sports, including archery after watching it during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
“I thought it was a beautiful sport, very dramatic,” she said. “I wondered if I’d be good at that, so I took it up at 41. I became insanely obsessed with it, totally immersed in it, practicing for four or five hours a day.”
In 1999, Davis was a semifinalist on the U.S. Olympic archery team that took part in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
“I tell you this story because it turns out I’m not the only one who was inspired to do archery through seeing images,” she said.
In 2012, Davis noted, participation in archery by girls shot up 105 percent after two movies highlighting girls in the sport came out that summer: “The Hunger Games” and “Brave.”
“Girls left the theater and bought a bow,” she said. “It was an absolutely instant reaction.”
When her daughter was a toddler, Davis said she decided to collect data on how many female characters there were in movies and television shows made specifically for young children.
“When she was 2, I started showing her some preschool TV shows,” she said. “From the very first thing we sat down and watched, I immediately noticed that there seemed to be far more male characters than female characters.
“I remember asking girlfriends if they noticed, and none of them did. I decided I needed the data.”
Davis, 63, said her institute, founded in 2004, has done the largest amount of research ever into gender fiction for children and families.
“In a world that is half female, the message is that women and girls are far less valuable than men and boys,” she said. “For example, in family-rated films, for every female speaking character, there are two male speaking characters, and women characters are on the screen only a third of the amount of time as male characters.
“So what message are we sending to boys and girls at a very young age if the female characters are one-dimensional, narrowly stereotyped or simply not there at all? The message is the more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. Girls’ self-esteem goes down, and boys’ self-esteem goes up.”
The solution, Davis said, is to dramatically improve how female characters are portrayed to boys as well as girls.
“Boys have to also see women and girls doing interesting and important things,” she said.
Davis said she collected the data so she could go directly to executives in the entertainment industry and share it with them “in a very private and collegial way.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing for about 12 years now,” she said. “The reaction was they couldn’t believe it, that they were leaving out that many female characters.”
Davis said 68 percent of executives who have heard her presentation have agreed to change two or more of their projects, so that women are more equally represented.
“So we’re having an impact,” she said.
“The time for change is now,” she added. “All of us, men and women, can become aware of our implicit biases and work to make very conscious decisions to overcome them.
“And we can start doing that today by realizing how powerfully impacted we are by popular culture. The lives of women and girls are at stake.”
Through her institute, Davis co-founded the annual Bentonville Film Festival, which facilitates actionable change toward balanced, diverse and inclusive media, in 2015 in Bentonville, Ark. She was executive producer of the 2018 documentary, “This Changes Everything,” featuring celebrities discussing gender inequality in film.
After Davis’s talk, Lisa Damour, executive director for Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, based in Shaker Heights, asked Davis several questions related to her work with the institute.
Davis was introduced by event co-chairs Debbie Kalette, Allison Levine and Marci Moses.
Sheila Katz, new CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women based in Washington, D.C., said she has long admired Davis for her work in helping to address gender inequity in film and television. Katz added that Cleveland has “one of the strongest and most envied” sections of the NCJW.
Before the luncheon, Davis spoke to more than 200 students from area high schools at Landerhaven. In a moderated conversation with Damour, Davis discussed gender bias in the media and encouraged the students to pay attention and become savvy media consumers.