Geena Davis is an actor, archer, advocate, and the Founder and Chair of the non-profit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Geena Davis is an actor, archer, advocate, and all-around badass! She made her feature film debut starring opposite Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. She went on to star in many films including The Fly, Beetlejuice, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Stuart Little, A League of Their Own, and The Accidental Tourist for which she won her first Academy Award. She was again nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for her performance in Thelma & Louise.
Geena is also the Founder and Chair of the non-profit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which engages film and television creators to dramatically increase the percentage of female characters and reduce gender stereotyping in media made for children 11 and under. In 2019, Geena was honored with a second Oscar, this time the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in recognition of the work Geena has done over the decades to achieve gender parity on screen in film and television. She is now recognized for her tireless advocacy of women and girls nearly as much as for her acting accomplishments.
In this conversation with Jay, Geena discusses her activism in Hollywood, as well as her latest book, Dying of Politeness: A Memoir, where she chronicles her “journey to badassery” and makes a powerful case for why Hollywood has a crucial role to play in promoting women’s rights around the globe.
To learn more about the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, click here.
Geena Davis: Once we gain ultimate control of our lives, we decide we are never giving it up.
Jay VO: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
Jay VO: And today on our show, Geena Davis.
Geena Davis is an actor, archer, advocate and all around badass! A two time Academy Award winner, she is one of Hollywood’s most respected actors, appearing in several roles that have become landmarks and symbols of feminism, self agency, and empowerment. But she wasn’t always as confident and loud about her beliefs as she is today. Finding her voice took her a while.
Geena Davis: I was in a place where I still couldn’t actually say no to anything and I didn’t think about, well, I could just leave or I could just actually say I’m not doing it. but I caved in and I did it and, and oh, felt, ugh,
Jay VO: But her rich life experiences, working alongside legends such as Susan Surandon in Thelma and Louise, taught her important life lessons.
Geena Davis: I saw what could be possible if you were able to actually. simply say what you think, not, I’m not talking about being controversial or argumentative or anything like that. Simply, a feeling comes to you and you and you say it.
Jay VO: After achieving fame and success in Hollywood, starring in ground breaking films such as The Accidental Tourist, A League of their Own, and many others, Geena went on to found and Chair her non-profit the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Her goal is to engage film and television creators, getting them to dramatically increase the percentage of female characters and reduce gender stereotyping.
Geena Davis: Women are not 50% of legislators around the world. but it’s fiction and you can make it up, be anything you want.
Jay VO: Geena and I share many of the same goals and values, and I am proud to call her my friend. This is her second appearance on our show, and she is here to talk about her new book, “Dying of Politeness” where she chronicles her “journey to badassery” and makes a powerful case for why Hollywood has a crucial role to play in promoting women’s rights around the globe.
Jay Ruderman: So Geena, great to see you and welcome to All About Change. It’s my honor to have you on as a guest and I really, really enjoyed your book. It was, it was, uh, it just flew through it, uh, it was very well written and I loved the story of your life.
Geena Davis: I’m so glad. Thank you.
Jay Ruderman: Your book really focuses on your lifelong graduation from being unfailingly polite to being a badass. But knowing you, I think you’ve always been a badass. You’re one of the most accomplished people that I have known and have succeeded in everything from acting to archery to activism. How did this happen that you became unfailingly polite in all aspects of your life.
Geena Davis: Well, it, it’s my parents. I mean, they were, and, instilled it on me. My mom’s favorite story about me, when I was growing up, was we were in church one day when I was a baby, and I was sitting on her lap and somehow I rocked and hit the pew in front with my head and made a huge crack sound and everything stopped. and my mom hugged me and said, “shh shh shh. And she didn’t say a peep!” And that was my mom’s favorite story, that I was able to suppress my emotions when needed.
Jay Ruderman: So that was a value in your family. To be polite, not to disturb
Geena Davis: Yes
Jay Ruderman: Not to, impose yourself in any, in any
Geena Davis: Don’t impose in any way, in any way, yeah.
Jay Ruderman: You grew up in Massachusetts and, and you had a paper route. And you talk about, delivering a paper to an older man that you would go up to his apartment on the second floor and, and that, you know, he would ask you for a hug and then later inappropriately touch you and, can you talk about what happened when you told your mother about it and what did she do?
Geena Davis: Yeah, he touched me inappropriately, repeatedly, uh, you know, every time I, I went there. And I was so naive that I didn’t know anything about anything. I didn’t even know those were parts that weren’t meant to be touched by somebody else. But it was curious to me. I remember my mom was washing dishes and I was standing nearby. And I said, you know what’s weird? This is was what happens to me when I go to his house, Mr. Teller’s house. And I did it, did it on her, I did it to her. I touched her that way. And she blew through the ceiling.
I mean, she, I, I didn’t know what had happened to her, what had caused this enormous reaction, but she, um blazed out the front door and strode up the street, uh, in the middle of the road and disappeared, behind the house. And I, I thought, oh my God, what have I done? What is the deal?
But she finally came back and said, you are never to go in his house again. You leave the paper down at the bottom of the stairs and that’s all we ever talked. We never talked about it after.
Jay Ruderman: And you were young at the time, like, like I think 10 years old,
Geena Davis: I was 10. Yeah, I was 10.
Jay Ruderman: Why was this never brought to the police?
Geena Davis: Oh. I think different age thing. And also, I don’t think my mom would’ve been able to bear talking to police about it or, you know, I, I don’t, she felt that stopping it from continuing to happen would be enough, I think. But uh, but it was probably the whole not don’t stir the pot kind of mentality.
Jay Ruderman: Right. you talk in the book about being diagnosed, later in life with ADD. You talk about it as being sort of a power.
Geena Davis: Mmm.
Jay Ruderman: Do you think that having ADD contributed to your success in life?
Geena Davis: I do, I do actually. I didn’t know what it was that was torturing me when I was highly distracted, you know, like, uh, studying for tests or completing the term paper or, or things like that were very difficult for me. And I castigated myself relentlessly about being, um, a bad person because I couldn’t do that stuff. But the tremendous upside for me is that you also hyper focus. You know, when something, when the gears mesh, suddenly you’re in a really great sweet spot where you can accomplish so much. And I think that’s really helped me with the different things that I take up. I always say that, I have to be careful what I get interested in because eventually I will want to go to the Olympics in it, whatever it is.
Jay Ruderman: And you have, you’ve really reached the top in almost everything that you’ve attempted to do. In your early forties, you put all your efforts into archery and became extremely successful, was ranked in the, in the top in the, in the thirties in the country. But you were dealing with a negative voice that your coach helped you deal with.
Geena Davis (reading from her book): As I tuned into it more, I realized that in fact, I was hearing this negative self-talk about everything. It wasn’t just when I was shooting, the voice was interested in trashing me all day long. I think a lot of people are subject to that, to hearing an ongoing internal monologue about how we’re gonna get laughed at or we’re not good enough, as if life isn’t hard enough already. We need to beat ourselves up. Once Don helped me realize what the self-sabotaging voice in my head can do to archery, I started to work on eradicating it from the rest of my life as well.
Jay Ruderman: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And, and have, have you been successful in negating that, that, negative voice.
Geena Davis: Yeah. I’ve taken it all, I’ve taken the power away from it. It’s not like it never happens, but it’s instinctual now. Something happened just this morning, in fact, where I started saying, oh no, you screwed up. And then my other voice says, Nope, you didn’t. It’s all good, So, that’s how I worked on getting it to quiet was to counteract it every time.
Jay Ruderman: That’s great. And that’s such an important lesson that people can learn from. When you were, going through as, as a young actress, you obviously experienced sexual harassment. And have handled it in different ways. Can you describe a scene, which I think has happened to a lot of actors where there was an intimate scene that you were going to, perform in a movie, but the director, in the presence of the producer, made you perform it on him.
Geena Davis: Yeah. You know, it was actually an audition for a role. And there was a scene, it’s, it was a comedy, and there was a scene in the movie. I played a nymph maniacal vampire, of course.
There’s a scene in the movie where she’s trying to seduce a news reporter. She gets on his lap and, and is, uh, you know, kissing him.
And then she clutches his face to her breast.
So that was the scene that they chose for the audition. And it was just, the producer and the director there, there wasn’t any casting director. And the director said, okay, let’s do this scene.
And I still, I started saying the words and he said, no, no, no, but do it to me. And I just laughed. I said, oh, well, you’re right. Yeah. Okay. and he said, I’m serious to sit on my lap. Do I? I can’t tell how you, I can’t tell how well you can act the scene unless I actually experience you doing it. And I was so frozen and I looked at the producer and he’s just kind of grinning and striking his shoulders, you know, oh, well that’s the way things are.
I was in a place where I still couldn’t actually say no to anything and I didn’t think about, well, I could just leave or I could just actually say I’m not doing it. but I caved in and I did it and, and oh, felt, ugh, you know, just thinking about it now, I feel so awful about it.
Jay Ruderman: I’m sorry. But I’m sure that that type of thing has happened to so many women over the years.
Geena Davis: So much. Yes. Yes. And worse, you know, much worse.
Jay Ruderman: Do you think that, things like that have changed in, you know, with the Me Too movement that, people are on guard and it happens less than it used to happen.
Geena Davis: I hope that it’s happening less. I know that, there’s this tremendous awareness about it and, when, uh, Harvey Weinstein all that exploded, some people were able to come forward and, share their experience with him and, and talk about it. So I, I, like to think that it’s significantly less now, because we’ve been made aware of it. We have been made somewhat familiarized with it and made comfortable with it. And, for example no agent is ever gonna send their client to a hotel suite anymore, for their auditions. So, I’m hopeful about it.
Jay Ruderman: You write about another experience that was not sexual harassment but was definitely made you traumatized, when you’re in this movie Quick Change with Bill Murray and how he screamed at you and, and that really, really made you feel uncomfortable.
Geena Davis: Right, right. It was the morning of the first day of shooting in New York and we were shooting a scene outside on, at an intersection and I had gotten all ready to act and I was in the makeup trailer, and the wardrobe people said, “Hey, just wait here a second. We forgot the belt.”
So I’m waiting and uh, the assistant director comes and says, we’re ready for you. I said, yeah, they wanna bring me the belt. Should I wait here for it or on the set? He said, yeah, just wait a second. We have time. So, uh, so I’m waiting there and like moments later, the door bangs open and Bill Murray comes storming in, with a ferocious expression on his face. “What the fuck are you doing? Get the fuck out there. What the fuck are you trying to ruin my fucking movie? And he got, came around and got behind me and was like, breathing down my neck. “Move, move, move! Faster!”
Ugh, I was just like traumatized. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I, I, just went into a, an altered state or something and we get to the intersection and there’s of course a hundred crew and there’s about 300 extras playing a crowd that gathers. And then there’s a real crowd that gathered behind, behind a tape. so there’s probably 700 people there. And he’s screaming at me at the top of his lungs and points to my mark on the ground and says, stand there, roll it. We started shooting the scene and, and, uh, fortunately I didn’t have any lines in it because I couldn’t have spoken. I was just literally just shaking and teeth, teeth clattering, and after a few takes Bill kind of nudged me with his elbow and said, “What’s with you? Come on. It’s all good.”
Jay Ruderman: Wow.
Geena Davis: Yeah, and, and then I saw him do that to somebody else. Almost every day. He’d tear somebody apart.
Jay Ruderman: I know you described a scene later on in life where you were on a set and, and I believe the director gave you a hug that was completely, like innocent, but said something like, oh, I just felt up Geena Davis. And immediately you responded “oh that’s so inappropriate.”
Geena Davis: Yeah
Jay Ruderman: And you were proud of that moment.
Geena Davis: Right
Jay Ruderman: There was no delay between thinking, oh, this doesn’t feel right – to saying something about it. It was immediate.
Geena Davis: Right, right. It’s such a small incident, but it was monumental in my life and that’s why I remembered it, and put it in the book was because, I said the right thing at the right time, and I lived as somebody who always thought of something that they should have said later. And I was really gleeful about it when it happened. I said, well, that’s inappropriate. And he was so shocked. “No, no, I’m a feminist, blah, blah, blah.” But, it was very meaningful for me.
Jay Ruderman: How did you decide that you wanted to be a badass, and how do you define being a badass?
Geena Davis: I knew that there were a lot of things I wanted to do and accomplish and, acting was the thing that I was absolutely ridiculously positive, that would happen, that that would, I was gonna go away and become an actor in film.
But there was lots of other things I wanted to do and I kept running into people saying, You can’t do that. You shouldn’t do that. You’re being too loud. You’re being too much. And I kept falling into those traps because I clearly didn’t wanna be shushed, you know, I wanted to expand and do what I wanted and be myself. And you’re right, I always wanted to be a badass. And so by definition of badass, let me think. I guess in my mind it’s just being somebody who lives the way they think.
[clip from Thelma & Louise]
Jay Ruderman: Do you think that Susan Sarandon was the first person you met, that you’re like, wow, she is a badass.
Geena Davis: Yeah, definitely. And the first woman that I’d ever met, that was, that was like that. It was astounding to me meeting her and seeing how she moves through the world was shocking. Just because I’d never seen a woman like that. I’d never been in the extended presence of a woman like that.
Jay Ruderman: So when you were in Thelma & Louise with her, that was a transformative experience for you.
Geena Davis: It was the most transformative experience in my life. Yes, for sure. It really changed the course of my life, because I saw what could be possible if you were able to actually, simply say what you think. Not, I’m not talking about being controversial or argumentative or anything like that. Simply, a feeling comes to you and you say it. So that became my, my goal was to be like her.
Jay Ruderman: Can you just describe the time where Susan Sarandon stood up for you and, there was, an attempt, to have you go topless in the car. And…
Geena Davis: It’s a small incident, but it really illustrates how hesitant I was still to speak up for myself. I don’t know where he got the idea, but, we were walking to lunch and Ridley Scott, the director, said, Hey, you know that scene this afternoon where you guys are riding the car and you’re just feeling so free and so liberated and, and, and what, what if you were just to sit up, sit up on the back of the seat in the car and, and just take your t-shirt off and wave it around. Sort of like, was it Brandy Chastain who did that in the, the soccer anyway, um, and I said, uh, I think they want me to have lunch right away so I better go have lunch. Uh, because I just couldn’t think of what to say,
Jay Ruderman: How do you get out of it?
Geena Davis: To try to get out of it. Yes, exactly.
And you know, if I was another person, I would’ve said, oh, come on ,you know, no. But Susan was another person. I told her, I said, ehh, Susan – Ridley wants me to take my top off in the next scene. And she was already eating lunch and she throws down her silverware and says, oh, for heaven’s sake.
And she goes, over and says “Ridley. Geena’s not taking her top off.” And came back and continued eating. And I was like why can’t I do that? So easy and natural and non-confrontational. But, you know.
Jay Ruderman: That’s beautiful.
Geena Davis: Yeah
Jay Ruderman: Why do you think the movie Thelma & Louise has been so important to women for decades?
Geena Davis: Right. And I’ll point out that none of us had any clue that it would get the reaction that it got. We had no idea. We were hoping some people would go to it. It was a sort of small budget and, we didn’t know if they’d like it. So anyway. It really exploded. And, and it made me think a lot about why, why is that?
How is it that, a movie, where the two lead characters kill themselves at the end, why women are able to come and, and, some men too, come out of it feeling inspired! And empowered!
And I realized that it was because once we gain ultimate control of our lives, we decide we are never giving it up.
And if we were to, know, let ourselves be arrested or whatever, we’d be giving up control of our lives again. We take it as far as it can possibly go. And I think that’s what speaks to people, you know, that there’s been people over the years who said, oh, I wish they didn’t drive off the cliff. And I’m like, that’s the whole point!
Jay Ruderman: Right.
Geena Davis: And I think that’s why it still speaks to people and it’s so arresting, you know, that I, maybe that’s why it’s lasted so long.
Jay Ruderman: It was shocking and, and it was so, such a beautiful movie. Do you still keep in touch with her? Have you guys remained friends, you know, all these years?
Geena Davis: Yes. We are very good friends. Yes. We stay in in close contact.
Jay Ruderman: And you’re both very passionate activists.
Geena Davis: Right? Exactly. You know, I, I don’t know if I consider what I do being an activist, I think of myself more as an advocate because I don’t try to rouse the public, to get involved. But my technique is to go directly to the people that I want to change, and share data with them, which, which is meant to encourage them to change.
[movie clip – A League of Their Own]
Jay Ruderman: A League of Their Own was also a real landmark film for women. I, you know, I, I’m a real baseball person. I loved the movie. Could you describe how, when you were interviewed by reporters about being a feminist and what, what, how did you respond to those questions?
Geena Davis: A lot of reporters came to the set that wanted to interview us while we were shooting. Everyone invariably said, in a sort of hush, hush, naughty way, would you call this a feminist movie? And I would say, yeah. They said, what? What, it is? Yeah, no, it is. Sure. they said, well wait, so do you mean that you are a feminist? And I said, yeah. Oh, yeah.
They reacted like I had two heads. All of a sudden it was like so shocking. But you have to remember that at that time, ‘91 or ‘92, the word feminist was like, toxic. Everybody was saying, I’m not a feminist but… you know, I believe in women’s equal rights. It doesn’t make sense. but I just had decided that I’m gonna just say yes.
Jay Ruderman: This is your inner advocate coming out and just saying, Nope, this is what I believe.
Geena Davis: I did. See that was another case of saying, I don’t care.
Jay Ruderman: You were one of the top actors in the business. You went from Tootsie, you were in Beetlegeuse, Thelma & Louise, The Accidental Tourist for which you won an Oscar, A League of Their Own. What happened when you turned 40?
Geena Davis: I was very familiar with this idea that floats around Hollywood that roles for women dry up when you hit 40. Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange and Glenn Close and Sally Field were all sort of a step ahead of me, generation. Uh, not quite a generation, but they were ahead of me, and I thought, well, it’s not gonna happen to them. They’re paving the way, you know, and it’s gonna change for everybody. Uh, if they don’t fix it, it’s not gonna happen to me. Cuz look at the parts that I’m getting. You know, I’ve got incredible roles. but it literally was, once there was a four in front of my age, things started drying up.
Jay Ruderman: And I take it that things really haven’t changed all that much.
Geena Davis: Well, no. And you know, now obviously I have all this research to go by, and we found in our most recent study of film that only 5% of characters are women 50 and over. So you’re talking about an incredibly small little window for women over 50 to, you know, to get roles, to get work. I have a theory about why that happens, about why women don’t work that much after 40. And it’s because it, if somebody’s writing a script, much larger percentage of scripts are written by men. If there has to be a woman, she’s the girlfriend, she’s the wife, she’s the daughter, whatever, of the lead character. But all the other characters are default male. Because people just have that in their heads. It’s, uh, you know, we’ve been conditioned to think that, well, the plumber’s a man and the police officer’s a man, and the judge and the, you know, whoever it is are male, and so they don’t make those characters female. So what I’m proposing around town is that before they cast a movie, look at the parts and see who could be male or female, and then see both for those roles. So there’s gonna be lots of parts that women could play. As long as you’re not in a sexual relationship with someone, typically won’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman, or a person of color or someone who’s with a disability or someone with a large body type, or over 50.
Geena Davis (reading from her book): In the first Stuart Little, there’s a scene with a remote controlled boat race on the lake in Central Park, and I happened to be watching as an assistant director set up the child extras. I noticed he was giving all the remotes to boys and then choosing girls to stand behind the boys to cheer them on.
I went over to the AD and quietly said, Hey, what would you think about giving half of the remotes to girls? . He looked at me as though thunderstruck. Yes, yes, of course. He said, and winced. He couldn’t believe that he hadn’t thought of it himself, but the point was he couldn’t. All he was doing was what the culture dictated.
Only boys like mechanical things. And he fixed it immediately when he realized how unconsciously he’d followed gender stereotyping. He still talks about it all these years later.
Jay Ruderman: I’ve really been impressed with your advocacy, within the industry and, the impact that you’ve had. And you talk about your initial research in that, the three speaking roles that men would have or, or male roles would have, there’d be only one female. And of the occupations that were portrayed, 81% of jobs were held by males. And regarding political office, of the 127 characters in political office, only 12 were female, when actually 21% of global office holders were female. So, it seems like you really were able to concretely point out the disparity that, that was just naturally happening in the industry.
Geena Davis: What struck me when I had those numbers was, a lot of the numbers for occupations were lower onscreen than in real life. And 20%, it’s a failure that, that we’re not 50%. Women are not 50% of legislators around the world. But it’s fiction and you can make it up, be anything you want. And unconsciously, people were choosing to make it worse than the abysmal reality, where in fact, if something happens on screen, it’s very likely to happen in real life.
Jay Ruderman: Exactly. And you went on to to talk later about how your plan was working, that in the fall of 2019, female leads and male leads reached gender parity in family films. And then in 2020, the same happened for TV for children.
Geena Davis: Right.
Jay Ruderman: So, these are huge successes. Obviously there’s a lot more to be done.
Geena Davis: Yeah.
Jay Ruderman: But I’m wondering if you could talk about, because I really believe what you’re saying. That what people see impacts real life. And can you talk a little bit about the CSI effect?
Geena Davis: That is a phenomenon where when there were all those CSI programs on TV, and by the way, that was the most well represented occupation of, of female characters was, uh, forensic scientists. Suddenly women were, wanted to study forensic science in droves. Colleges were almost unable to keep up with the demand for courses in forensic science because of the interest of women suddenly just exploding.
But I’ll tell you another story about the impact of characters. Fox asked us, a couple of years ago, to study the impact of the character Dana Scully on X-Files played by Gillian Anderson. And so we did a big study. I surveyed, uh thousands of women in STEM and 64% of them said that they were inspired to go into a STEM career because of Dana Scully. One character of one series, and more than half of women are going into the field because of that one character. It is astounding.the impact that they can have.
Jay Ruderman: And I think you also talked about how in archery, in addition to your own example, the movie Hunger Games, the character Katniss and, and after that film came out, so many girls went into archery.
Geena Davis: Absolutely.
Jay Ruderman: Uh, that’s another example of how entertainment really impacts people’s lives.
Geena Davis (reading from her book): There are woefully few women CEO’s in the world, but there can be lots of them in films. How long will it take to fix the problem of corporate boards being so unequal? Well, they can be half women tomorrow on screen. How are we possibly gonna get a lot more girls to go into the science, technology, engineering and math careers? There can be droves of women in STEM jobs right now in fiction, and girls and women will see them and say, that could be me too.
Jay Ruderman: That’s awesome. Gina, I really want to thank you for your time. Thank you for being my guest on All About Change. I’m sure you’re gonna continue to have a great career, both on screen and as an advocate in the industry. And I look forward to working with you and being in touch with you, and it’s been a real honor to talk with you and to, and to know you.
Geena Davis: Oh, Jay, same for me. I’m really, really happy that we, uh, met and we are able to have conversations like this. I really appreciate it. And I admire you boundlessly also.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you so much.
Jay VO: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital, Jackie Schwartz, Mijon Zulu and Rachel Donner.
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