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'This Changes Everything': Geena Davis On Empowering Women In Hollywood


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Geena Davis starred in two movies about female empowerment - "Thelma & Louise" and "A League Of Their Own." But when she got older and roles started to dry up, she realized how unempowered women were in Hollywood. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to get the actual data comparing the number and types of male and female roles and to use that data to convince the industry of the need for change.

She is an executive producer of and is featured in the new documentary "This Changes Everything," about how women in Hollywood are pushing for more representation in front of and behind the camera. She's receiving an honorary Oscar this year, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, at a special ceremony in October. Also with us is director Maria Giese, who's featured in the film, too. After feeling that she was shut out of directing because she's a woman, she became an activist. Her work led to an ongoing EEOC, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, investigation into systemic discrimination against women directors, as well as an ACLU campaign against discrimination.

Geena Davis and Maria Giese, welcome to FRESH AIR. Geena, I want to start with you. You used to make a movie a year. When did things start to slow down in your acting career?

GEENA DAVIS: Well, it was pretty dramatic. It was once there was a four in front of my age, and...


DAVIS: You know, I had heard about that for a long time, that people said that things change when you turn 40 or when you're in your 40s, but I didn't expect it to be literal. And I also expected it to be not true anymore by the time I would get to that age. I very much expected that that would not be the case.

GROSS: Did you think of it as discrimination against older women? Did you think of it as there not being enough roles for women in their 40s? Which really isn't very old. Or did you think, oh, it's me - no one wants me anymore?

DAVIS: Oh, no. I was very upset and angry at that happening to me. No, I didn't think, oh, it's me, at all. I thought, this is incredibly unfair, and I don't want other people deciding that I have to work less, you know, and taking away opportunities. I felt very unhappy with having that sort of imposed on me by other people.

GROSS: How did you decide to create your institute?

DAVIS: It was very specific, actually. I - my daughter was a toddler, and I decided she was old enough to start watching preschool shows. So I sat down with her, and the very first show I turned on and watched with her, I pretty much immediately noticed something, and I thought, wait a minute - how many female characters are in this show? And I was counting on my hands as I held her in my lap, and it was horrifying, and I was absolutely stunned. And then I saw it everywhere.

I showed her, you know, G-rated videos and little kids movies and TV shows - and, you know, obviously, there's some exceptions to that. You know, the "Teletubbies" are gender-balanced; I don't know if you can tell. But for the most part, I saw appalling gender imbalance. And I think most people and certainly I did assume that kids entertainments are harmless, that they're - they might even be good for kids. You know, some shows are researched and all that and certainly harmless.

But this struck me very deeply that we're training kids from the beginning, from minute one of absorbing popular culture, that women and girls are not as important as men and boys, and they're not as valuable to our society as men and boys. And it seemed that, in the 21st century, this was a horrible message to be sending and very shocking.

GROSS: So the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has done a lot of research on the numbers. Give us some of the numbers that you find most disturbing.

DAVIS: Well, you know, we found that for every two speaking male characters, there's one female speaking character, and that there's an appalling amount of hypersexualization of female characters, even in G-rated movies, and the female characters are very often narrowly stereotyped, hypersexualized or not really integral to the plot. There's far fewer movies with a female lead character. I'm talking about family-rated films.

And when we looked at - when we first looked at TV shows, kids - the ratio of male to female characters on kids programs, specifically made for them, had the worst ratio of male to female characters.

GROSS: Maria Giese, let me move on to you. Things were looking good for you after film school. You were signed to a big agency. The first film you directed was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. You were attached to other projects. What happened after that?

MARIA GIESE: My first feature film directing job out of graduate film school was in England, not in the United States. So when I got back from Cannes, I was represented at William Morris Agency, and basically nothing happened. I never got another paying job.

GROSS: Ever?

GIESE: You know, I did a lot of script writing and doctoring and - but no, no primetime TV shows, even though I observed for hundreds of hours on major TV shows like Dick Wolf's "Law & Order."

GROSS: So what about other women you knew from film school? Were they getting work?

GIESE: Well, that was the thing. You know, what we tend to do when we don't succeed is to blame ourselves, and women were so siloed off in this industry we really didn't have any means of communication. But what I did, also as Geena, was start looking at the numbers, and I started to notice that only 4% of studio features were directed by women, and only 13% of episodic TV shows were directed by women. And I couldn't get the numbers on women in commercials, which is the most lucrative category of directing, but I spoke to some big executives in the commercial world who told me that the number was less than 1%.

So I began to think, you know, this is maybe not just about me, and even if my own career is just about me, that doesn't answer for all the incredible, talented women everywhere that are not able to contribute their voices to our entertainment media storytelling. And that, for me, became a battle worth fighting for.

GROSS: So what was your strategy to try to open the door to more women directors?

GIESE: Well, I understood very quickly that the numbers in and of themselves inferred violations of Title VII. So I knew that we could invoke that law to be able to change things in a very significant way.

GROSS: This is the equal opportunity law.

GIESE: Yes, Title VII, which was written into law in 1964 by President Johnson. And I started to do research. I went down to the downtown LA courthouse, and I found that six very courageous women in the Directors Guild in 1979 had got the DGA, our union, to file a class action lawsuit against several major studios. And that action alone sent the numbers skyrocketing from 0.5% to 16% in just 10 years from 1985 to 1995. So I knew the way to move the numbers and to make real significant change was through legal action. And that's what I set my mind to do.

GROSS: So you went to the ACLU, and then the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission became involved, too. What have they each done?

GIESE: I first went to the EEOC in 2013. And I could see that I was not going to make any headway with them. So I gathered all my articles and all the work that I had done, and I had even written the beginnings of a legal brief, and I brought it to the ACLU, where I met Melissa Goodman and Ariela Migdal. And I explained to them why I thought that this was so significant on a global level. And they got really excited. And a little by little, I introduced them to a group of my female colleagues. And we started to have meetings with them. And they started to reach out to interview many, many women, as many women directors as they could. And then after about a year and a half, they told me they were going to pursue it. And in May 2015, The New York Times published the ACLU's 15-page letter to the EEOC and to other government agencies, calling for an industry-wide federal investigation into systemic discrimination against women directors. And that was an extraordinary triumph.

GROSS: So the EEOC has been conducting an investigation into systemic discrimination against women directors. My understanding is they don't make their investigation public. So do you have any idea where things stand?

GIESE: So in - five months after they received that letter from the ACLU, they began their investigation. The EEOC functions in total confidentiality. So there's no way for us to really know where the investigation is, even though it's now, oh - what? - three years and seven months going.

GROSS: Geena Davis, let me bring you back into the conversation. On TV, you have women like Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, who's also in movies, and Reese Witherspoon not only doing shows that have women in them but also - certainly with Ava DuVernay, she makes a point of hiring women directors and often women directors of color for her series "Queen Sugar." So, like, it seems like a lot of the change is happening from women like that who are creating the change themselves.

DAVIS: Absolutely, which is fantastic. You know, they just determined to do it, and they're very creative and they make it happen. There's also people like Ryan Murphy, who has that initiative called Half, where he just decided and announced that half of his cast and crew were always going to be female. And he just does it. There's no question about it. He's just decided that that's what he's going to do. And, you know, that's obviously an option that everybody can take.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are both featured in the new documentary "This Changes Everything" about discrimination against women in Hollywood. Geena Davis is an actress who starred in such films as "A League Of Their Own" and "Thelma & Louise." And she founded an institute to study gender discrimination in Hollywood. She's featured in the movie and as an executive producer of the film. Maria Giese is a director who felt shut out of directing because she's a woman. And her actions led to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation into systemic discrimination against women directors in Hollywood. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actor Geena Davis and director Maria Giese. They're both featured in the new documentary "This Changes Everything" about discrimination against women in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. Geena Davis is also an executive producer of the film. And she's been dedicated to equality for women, more roles for women in Hollywood. She founded an institute, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Maria Giese is a director who felt shut out for being a woman. And her actions led to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation into systemic discrimination against women directors.

A parallel issue to what we've been talking about - we've been talking about inclusion of women - parallel issue is the predatory behavior of certain men in Hollywood - directors, actors, heads of companies. Harvey Weinstein, of course, comes to mind. I'm wondering what impact you think that might be having on the inclusion issue because we've seen how some men in Hollywood have misused their power to assault or harass women. And that might be a compelling argument for hiring more women to...

DAVIS: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...Prevent that kind of behavior. So I'm wondering if you think it's having that kind of effect.

DAVIS: Well, I definitely see a big shift happening in Hollywood in the past couple of years since #MeToo and Time's Up. The main thing that's very different is now it's completely OK to talk about this stuff. I think my peers and I were always operating under the assumption that you should never complain about anything. You know, God forbid you complain about your salary not being equal or being harassed or mistreated or discriminated against because they'll just get somebody else, you know? It'll ruin your career was the thinking. But it's profoundly not the case right now. You hear so many women speaking up when they encounter injustice and openly talking about it. So I think that's a big change that's happened.

GROSS: So Geena Davis, I have a few questions for you about your career. So you started your career as a model. Was that because you thought that was the way you could break in?

DAVIS: Absolutely, yes. I knew I wanted to be in movies, as opposed to theater. I decided that I would try becoming a model first because, at that time, Christie Brinkley and Lauren Hutton were being offered parts in movies. And I thought, OK, well, I'll just become a model, and then they'll just offer me parts because obviously it's so much easier to become a supermodel (laughter). But that was my plan. And it turned out I...

GROSS: Well, what was wrong with that plan? (Laughter).

DAVIS: Well, I mean, come on. You know, I mean, both are kind of unattainable. It ultimately all worked out for me, but the likelihood of becoming a famous model was actually pretty slim, and I didn't. I did get work, and it was through my model agency that I got my first acting job.

GROSS: So part of your work was modeling for Victoria's Secret. Your first movie role, "Tootsie," you're in your underwear in the film.


GROSS: There's Dustin Hoffman, who plays this man who can't get roles, finally auditions for a role posing as a woman in a soap opera. And when - after he gets the role, he walks dressed as a woman into the dressing room and sees you there in your underwear, and you're not...

DAVIS: Fazed (laughter).

GROSS: Yes, you're not fazed by seeing Dustin Hoffman walk in because you think he's really a woman.

DAVIS: Right.

GROSS: He, however, is very fazed...


GROSS: ...And doesn't know where to put his eyes.

DAVIS: Right.

GROSS: So did being a model for Victoria's Secret lead to having this part where you're in your underwear in the dressing room?

DAVIS: Well, it did in a way. It was my first audition, and they had called model agencies to say, send any models who can act for an audition. And I went, and they said, wear a bathing suit under your clothes because if you do well at the reading, they'll ask to see you in your bathing suit. And so I did. And it was just, you know, doing a video with a casting assistant. And they didn't ask - after I read the part, they didn't ask to see my bathing suit.

So I figured, well, I mean, what were the odds anyway I was going to be in a Sydney Pollack movie with Dustin Hoffman? So I never thought about it again. And I had gone to Paris to do the collections, and in the meantime, Sydney Pollack saw my audition tape and said, hey, I like her. She's interesting. Where's her bathing suit stuff? Oh, we forgot. Well, get her back. Oh, no, we can't. She's in Paris. Well, do they have any photos of her in a bathing suit? So they send over a Victoria's Secret catalogue (laughter). And I got the part.

GROSS: That's really great.


GROSS: And I just think it's so interesting that we're having this conversation about women's empowerment and inclusion of women, and the first part of your career revolves around being in your underwear (laughter).

DAVIS: Well, the bigger part was the (laughter) - that Sydney liked my audition. He...

GROSS: No, no. I know.

DAVIS: Yeah.

GROSS: But you're in your underwear. And, of course, it's all a joke.

DAVIS: It's true.

GROSS: It's all played for comedy.

DAVIS: It's all for comedy, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And I have a feeling being really tall - like, you're 6 feet tall...

DAVIS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...came into play here, too, because there's more of you for Dustin Hoffman to be fazed by when he walks in.


GROSS: It's like, he's short; you're really tall.

DAVIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, you're dressed in your underwear so it's even more, like, imposing and, for him, kind of embarrassing because he's a man who is finding it all very arousing, and he shouldn't be there because he's posing as a woman. Anyways...

DAVIS: Right.

GROSS: So what did you learn being on set? You had a small role.

DAVIS: Right.

GROSS: But you were with Sydney Pollack. You were working with Dustin Hoffman. You can pick up a lot on a set. What were you looking for and what did you come away with?

DAVIS: Well, I was astounded that it happened. But on the other hand, I sort of felt like, well, this is what was supposed to happen. This was my plan (laughter). And so it kind of made sense in that way. And I was - well, I was mostly thrilled that my first job was not playing, you know, a corpse in a morgue on a soap opera or something. You know, it was, like, an amazing introduction. And I was really worried about coming off as if I didn't know anything, that people would be saying, she doesn't even know where to stand or what to do.

And so I never asked any questions, and I didn't know that you didn't have to come every day. And so obviously you only come when you're shooting, but I came every day at the beginning of the day (laughter) and grabbed my chair and put it next to Sydney and sat next to him all day, every day, making the movie. And it was fantastic. And - but nobody, and least of all him, nobody ever said, you realize you don't have to come every day? Maybe they just thought I really wanted to, that I wanted to be such a student of film that that was my goal.

GROSS: But that kind of was your goal.

DAVIS: I guess it was.

GROSS: My guests are actor Geena Davis and director Maria Giese. They're both featured in the new documentary "This Changes Everything," about the campaign for more representation of women in front of and behind the camera in movies and TV. After a break, I'll talk more with Geena Davis about her movie career, and Bruce Talamon will talk about taking photos of soul, funk and R&B stars of the '70s. He was the photographer for "Soul Train" and took photos for Jet, Ebony and the black-owned LA newspaper Soul. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We've been talking with actor Geena Davis and director Maria Giese about the campaign for more representation of women behind and in front of the camera in movies and TV. They're both featured in the new documentary about that campaign called "This Changes Everything."

Geena Davis is also an executive producer of the film. She's best known for her starring roles in "Thelma & Louise," "A League Of Their Own," and "Beetlejuice." In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In this part of the interview, I'm going to talk more with Davis about her own movie career.

I want to ask you about "Thelma & Louise." I'm going to ask you to describe the premise.

DAVIS: Oh, so - gosh. I haven't really ever had to describe what it's about. It's about two women who grab ahold of their fate and refuse to relinquish control no matter how far it takes them, that they remain in charge of their destiny.

GROSS: More specifically, you play a woman in an unhappy marriage and you want to...

DAVIS: Right.

GROSS: ...Let down your hair, as you put it.

DAVIS: Yeah.

GROSS: So you and your friend, played by Susan Sarandon - they go on a trip together, have a lot of drinks in a bar, guy comes up to you, asked to dance with you. You go out to the parking lot with him, and he starts to rape you. And you try really hard to, like, throw him off of you. He's got you pinned against a car. And then Susan Sarandon comes out. She's got a handgun, pulls it on him, asks him to apologize. He refuses. She ends up shooting him, and then you both go on the lam because you feel like, who's going to believe you?

DAVIS: That's a good description.

GROSS: And so it's a kind of - I think at the time, people were comparing it to Butch Cassidy. And the ending's kind of similar, where, you know, they kind of ride off a cliff, and you drive off a cliff. And it's a buddy movie. And a buddy movies are always men's movies. And this is a buddy movie that's a women's movie.

So what impact do you think it had both on audiences but also on Hollywood? - because it was a big hit. I'm sure it made a lot of money.

DAVIS: It did well. And it also struck a nerve that none of us expected. Nobody was going into this thinking, oh, we're going to really make a statement with this, or this is going to be a powerful message for anybody. It was a small budget, and we hoped somebody would see it and not object to the ending. But we were stunned at the reaction that was instant - cover of Time magazine and all that stuff.

A lot of negative reaction in the press too like, oh, no, the world is ruined now. The women have guns. So it was all very shocking and great because what it really - well, first of all, I'll tell you how it affected me. This sudden change in how people reacted when they recognized me was very, very pronounced. It was night and day, where before, they might say, hey, "Beetlejuice" or something. Now they were saying, oh, I have to tell you what I thought about this movie, and this is how many times I saw it. And my friend and I acted out your trip. And I'd be like, which part exactly?

But the biggest reaction of all was the press saying, like the title of the movie, this is going to change everything. Now we will see so many more female buddy pictures, female road movies or whatever and movies about female friendship. And I was sure they must be right and waiting for this fabulous future that was coming.

GROSS: Geena, I want to ask you about one of the recurring roles that you have now, and that's on this series "GLOW" - the Netflix series "GLOW," which is about women wrestlers in the 1980s. And your role is as the entertainment director of a casino. And there's a scene where you come out in - why don't you describe the costume.

DAVIS: Oh, I don't know which one you mean. I had...

GROSS: ...The one with the feathers and...

DAVIS: The one with the feathers and rhinestones?

GROSS: Yes, that one.

DAVIS: Well, so my character - they told me from the beginning - was a former showgirl who, when she was getting too old to do that, went into management and was able to create a successful career for herself that way. And I was like, you know, I was a huge fan of "GLOW" and very much wanted to do it. But I said, at some point, you got to get me into a showgirl costume because it's kind of a fantasy of mine to wear one of those things, you know, with a giant headdress and all that. And I just want an excuse to be able to do that (laughter).

GROSS: And you also are an archer - like bow and arrow archery.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

GROSS: And you even competed to be on the Olympic archery team. How did you take up archery?

DAVIS: Well, it was completely random in some ways. So I had been very unathletic as a kid. I didn't want to try any sports because I was - I call it physically shy. Being so tall, I just didn't want anybody to look at me, especially if I was going to be failing at a sport.

So I never tried anything. And then I had to play the best baseball player anyone has ever seen hold a bat. And so....

GROSS: ...In "A League Of Their Own." Yeah.

DAVIS: In "A League Of Their Own," yeah. So I had a lot of training. And very quickly, the coaches were saying, you know, you have a lot of untapped athletic ability. And so I learned at 36 that I actually was coordinated.

And then for a couple of movies after that, I had to learn other physical skills like horseback riding and taekwondo and fencing and ice skating and a lot of stuff. And I was kind of good at all of it. So I decided I wanted to take up a sport in the real-life way and not the movie version.

And then I was watching the Olympics in Atlanta on TV and saw the archery competing, and I thought, wow, that is so beautiful and dramatic. And I'd like to see if I could do that. So at 41, I took it up and then became absolutely obsessed, as I do with things. And two and a half years later, I was a semifinalist for the Olympic trials.

GROSS: What did you like about archery? Was it a centering thing for you - focus?

DAVIS: Yeah, it's very centering and focusing. It's a lonely sport because you're out there for hours every day shooting by yourself. But I loved it. And I was so shocked when my coach said after just a few months, well, now you've got to start competing. And I'm like, oh, my God, no. He said no, that's the whole point is competing. It's really fun and incredibly challenging. And that's when you really are tested with your mental abilities because once you have a really good shot, your job is to recreate it exactly and - every time. And everything gets in the way of that, every possible thought you have, every different circumstance. Like competing - if you're nervous, your shot's going to be off. And so it's just a battle with yourself the whole time.

GROSS: A battle with yourself to not battle with yourself.

DAVIS: Exactly (laughter). Exactly.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DAVIS: Exactly. With - the other thing that I loved about it was that it's measured by points. And I had spent so much time in a field where you're measured by people's judgment, you know, where, you know, you're approved of by others' opinions rather than factual merit. And so that was really fun.

GROSS: Geena Davis, Maria Giese, thank you both so much for talking with us.

GIESE: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIS: Thanks so much, Terry.

GROSS: Geena Davis is featured in and is an executive producer of the new documentary "This Changes Everything," about the campaign for better representation of women in front of and behind the camera in movies and TV. In October, at a special ceremony, she'll receive an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. We also heard from director Maria Giese, who's also featured in the film "This Changes Everything." After we take a short break, we'll hear from photographer Bruce Talamon, whose photos of soul, funk and R&B stars of the '70s and early '80s are collected in a book. This is FRESH AIR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.