Where to begin with the great Geena Davis: Champion of women in film; proponent of diversity onscreen and behind the camera; brilliant and timeless actress; all-around inspiration. Among her many admirable qualities, Davis has used her position in Hollywood to advocate for positive change and better representation for women and people of color in film and TV — and has had a decided impact.
From her research institute, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, to her iconic roles in Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own, to her annual film festival — the Bentonville Film Festival (BFF) — which kicks off its third season on May 2nd in Bentonville, Arkansas (home of Walmart, one of the fest’s main sponsors) and showcases work by women and other under-represented groups, she’s what a true feminist looks like.
HelloGiggles had the chance to speak to Davis recently about representation and diversity in film today, her clearest memory from the set of A League of Their Own (which marks its 25th anniversary this year!), and the story behind BFF. Read on and be inspired.
HelloGiggles: Why did you start the Bentonville Film Festival?
Geena Davis: For about 10 years, I’ve been working very hard on improving the portrayal of female characters in media made for kids; I have a research institute that works on that. That’s focusing on in-front-of-the-camera inequality. But the problem of inequality behind the camera is just as bad if not worse, really, [than onscreen]. We see such dismal things as female directors at 4% [of all directors, and that doesn’t] improve as time goes by. I’ve always been interested in finding ways to impact onscreen all kinds of diversity as well as just female characters, so this opportunity came along to start a film festival with my partner, Trevor Drinkwater, where we champion women and diverse voices in media — in all types of media — in front of and behind the camera.
We’re able to pursue this in a big way because of the sponsors that we have; pretty much every major company you can think of is a sponsor of the festival [including Walmart and Coca-Cola]. Because of that, we’re able to offer something no other film festival in the world has been, which is guaranteed distribution for our winners. So we’re looking to make a big impact as quickly as we can.
HG: What are some of the big projects you’ve been able to premiere at BFF and distribute?
GD: The winner from the first festival was Jack of the Red Hearts, and another one of our winners was Meet the Patels, which is a fantastic, really funny, and wonderful documentary.
HG: What has surprised you most about advocating for gender and racial diversity in media over the years?
GD: I didn’t intend to go this far with something that wasn’t my day job, but I noticed when my daughter was a toddler that there seemed like there were profoundly more male characters than female characters in what we were making for little kids. And the key thing I found that was so shocking was that nobody else seemed to notice. I started talking to the creators of kids’ content before I had the research, and every single person said, “Oh no, that’s not a problem anymore. That’s been fixed.” They were absolutely positive that there was no gender inequality in kids’ media, in family films and television that’s made specifically for kids. That’s what spurred me to get the data, so I could go back to them with the [numbers]. It’s fascinating — it made all the difference having the numbers, because suddenly, with the irrefutable evidence in front of them, they were horrified. People who make kids entertainment do it because they like kids, they care about kids, and they were absolutely stunned. So that was the biggest shock to me, really, was finding out how unseen the problem of gender inequality in children’s media was.
If you think about media in general, I think people are well aware that there are fewer female lead characters, fewer movies about women. I think even the average person knows there are profoundly fewer female directors, and the same goes for people of color and every kind of [underrepresented group] in our media. So that’s the problem that we address at the film festival; it’s almost like it’s conscious bias instead of unconscious [bias, as it is with children’s media]. We’re making the case that films with lots of diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera make more money at the box office, and we’re convinced that that is really going to help change the picture in Hollywood.
HG: Didn’t your institute find that films that are more diverse or have more women in them do actually make more money?
GD: That’s right! They make more money at the box office. We found in 2015 that films starring a female character made 16% more more at the box office than films starring male characters, so it kind of falls under the category of, what are we doing? Why, for multitudes of reasons — one being that 50% of movie-goers are female — why are we not reflecting the world as it is, which is 50% female and extremely diverse?
HG: Have you noticed changes in representation since you began doing this work?
GD: We have seen the impact that the work of the institute, for example, is having, because we check with everyone, we survey them, and we’ve gotten great results. We haven’t been able to measure it yet, unfortunately, and that’s what I care about. I want to measure the change, because it was so efficacious in opening people’s eyes to the problem…This is something that really, really needs to change. Hidden Figures can’t just be another in a line of very successful movies [like Davis’ own A League of Their Own and Thelma and Louise] that feature women or diversity or both, and momentum isn’t created because of it. That’s what we really need to get going is some momentum — because it’s in everyone’s best interests that this is the way we go.
HG: Do you think, just from your observations, that there is momentum now in the wake of films like Hidden Figures and Moonlight, or any of the other great films we saw last year?
GD: I hope so, but I don’t really trust…what the reaction in the media is. That’s partly because of films that I’ve been in where the media has predicted, “Oh, this changes everything! Thelma and Louise — now we’re going to see so many movies starring women, and road pictures!” And with A League of Their Own, “Oh, now we’re going to see so many female sports movies!” And none of that happened. Over the years [it’s been the same], “Now there’s been Hunger Games! Everything’s changed!” and, well, no. It still didn’t change. So I will believe it when I see it. This is what I really want not to happen, is for Hidden Figures to be another one of the movies where people say, “Now, now, now, [things will change],” and it doesn’t happen. We really need to get the momentum going because it’s the right thing to do…and it’s the financially smart thing to do.
HG: For this last question I’d love to know, since it’s the 25th anniversary of A League of Their Own, what your clearest memory is from making that movie.
GD: I think a lot of us would say that one overwhelming memory was the heat! We were shooting it in August in Indiana, and it was 90% humidity, and you’re trying to be a gung-ho athlete and you’re just melting! But also how much fun it was working with that many women; the cast bonded tremendously and we all still keep in touch. We had a certain sense of pride in it, I’m sure much as the original players had pride in being in the league.