By Valerie Kalfrin
Geena Davis remembers being a gangly six-foot teenager who yearned to “take up less space in the world.”
Now forty years into her career as an actor turned activist, she advocates for more space on screen for women, girls, and underrepresented voices.
She credits this shift in perspective partly to her roles in 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” and 1992’s “A League of Their Own.” The former made her a feminist pop-culture icon, but the latter was a personal game-changer.
“To find out that I was coordinated at thirty-six was an amazing revelation,” Davis said recently, laughing. “But it really changed a lot about how I felt about my body. And after that film, I felt like, well, maybe I do deserve success. Maybe I can take up this space in the world that I do.”
As the original “A League of Their Own” turns thirty, an Amazon Prime series of the same name kicks off with a new roster of players and more diverse stories about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the real women athletes who took up the national pastime during World War II. (Fun fact: The original film also gave rise to the name of this website.)
Besides revealing her athletic ability, Davis said playing star catcher Dottie Hinson encouraged her to set new goals in life. It also expanded her advocacy for better representation on screen, especially in media, politics, and sports, so these roles can influence others.
“In the time it takes to make the next movie or the next TV show, we can show a new image of what the future looks like,” said Davis, who portrayed America’s first female president in the TV show “Commander in Chief.” “Women will see that, and they know that if you see it, you can be it: ‘Somebody like me is doing that. That means I could do it too.’ … In other words, we can create the future through what we see.”
Davis spoke earlier this summer about “A League of Their Own,” other career milestones, and her advocacy at the historic Tampa Theatre in Florida, joining a speaker series of trailblazers such as astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first woman of color in the world to travel into space.
In the years since her character caught a fastball one-handed, Davis established the nonprofit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which turns eighteen this year. The institute works with content producers and studios specializing in family entertainment to reduce negative stereotypes and foster gender balance and inclusion. The Television Academy at the Emmys in September will present the institute with its 2022 Governors Award for its industry-wide efforts.
Along with extensive research, the institute helped produce the 2018 documentary “This Changes Everything,” about gender disparities in Hollywood. Its eight-year-old partners, the Bentonville Film Foundation and the Bentonville Film Festival, spotlight stories about women, BIPOC, LGBTQ people, nonbinary people, and people with disabilities.
A Massachusetts native, Davis fell in love with acting as a child, watching TV shows like “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” She earned a drama degree from Boston University and debuted in 1982’s “Tootsie” after working as a sales clerk and model.
A charismatic speaker, Davis said she often sought parts that went beyond supportive wives and girlfriends. “I wanted to do stuff, and so that’s why I was a dead housewife and dating a fly,” she said, referring respectively to 1986’s “Beetlejuice” and “The Fly.”
Two years later, Davis won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as quirky dog trainer Muriel Pritchett in “The Accidental Tourist.” Another Oscar nomination followed for “Thelma & Louise,” as a homemaker whose weekend with a friend (Susan Sarandon) becomes a crime spree. The film led Davis to newfound confidence, thanks to her character and her co-star. “Everybody working on that knew it was an incredible script, but none of us knew the nerve that it would strike when it came out,” she said.
It also cemented Davis’s passion for portraying active, powerful, or inspirational women. “We’re so thirsty for that kind of entertainment,” she said. “Ever since then, I played my acting choices with the women in the audience in mind: What are they going to think about my character?”
Davis trained hard at baseball for her next role in “A League of Their Own,” even though few of her hits in the film were real. “For my character, when I hit a home run—I think I only hit home runs—they’d do a close-up of me and my swing … and the prop guys had a giant slingshot,” she said.
Afterward, “I decided that I wanted to learn a sport in the real way, not the movie version,” she said.
Watching the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, hooked her on archery: “It’s very beautiful and dramatic.” Davis took up the sport with enthusiasm after learning horseback riding, pistol shooting, Taekwondo, and ice skating for her role as an assassin who recovers from amnesia in 1996’s “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” By 1999, she’d landed among the top thirty-two archers in the nation, nearly making the U.S. Olympic archery team.
“It turns out I am not the only person inspired to do archery through images on TV or movies,” she said, noting how in 2012, the number of girls and women in the sport skyrocketed. “So what happened in 2012? ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Brave.’ Two movies with female protagonists, and girls left the theater and bought a bow.”
She remains passionate about using the media’s power to combat the unconscious biases it creates. A mom of twin sons and a daughter, Davis founded her nonprofit after watching children’s TV shows with her daughter, now nineteen, and noticing few female characters.
The institute’s recent studies of family entertainment show about 50% of lead characters in children’s programming are female compared to 11% in years past. Yet male characters still outnumber female characters across film, television, and advertising 2:1. Davis pointed out that while about 40% of the global workforce includes women, less than 25% of the on-screen workforce does. Male judges and lawyers on screen outnumber their female counterparts 13:1, and men in computer science and STEM fields on screen outnumber women 50:1, she said.
“No matter how abysmal the numbers are in real life, it’s far worse in fiction—where you make it up!” she said.
Davis urged creatives to keep putting women and girls on the page so they can motivate others on screen, much like Dottie Hinson and her other roles shaped her. Otherwise, she said, “We’re acculturating generation after generation to see women and girls as less in the world.”