Rich Heldenfels

When actress Geena Davis speaks at E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall at 7:30 p.m. Monday, she will be talking not only about her career but about her concerns regarding entertainment generally.


Im going to talk about, primarily, how women are reflected in society about media images, media that we show to kids and how it impacts every sector of society where we see a stagnation in women reaching the upper levels of all kinds of fields, the star of Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own said in a recent telephone interview. Im going to talk about how my career ties in with my pro-social goals how different things that I acted in have influenced me.


Among her efforts has been the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, founded in 2004; according to its website, the purpose is to spotlight gender inequalities at every media and entertainment company through cutting-edge research, education, training, strategic guidance and advocacy programs.


The foundation was partly inspired by her watching childrens entertainment with her daughter, now 9. (She also has twin 7-year-old sons). But Davis mentioned another watershed event in her activism: the making of the 1991 women-on-the-run movie Thelma & Louise, in which she co-starred with Susan Sarandon.


It struck such a nerve with women in particular that it really made me realize how few opportunities we give women to feel [strongly] about female characters, and how empowering that can be, said Davis, 55. It not only colored my choices of acting jobs after that but also drove me to become involved more philanthropically with issues involving women.


In addition to the institute, she has been a trustee of the Womens Sports Foundation, serves on the California Commission on the Status of Women and works with the United Nations on its efforts regarding media portrayals of women and girls.


As for how she fits acting in with all those off-camera roles, she said, Its totally whimsical. I am, and have become, incredibly fussy about what I want to do [in acting]. Ive managed to get some really classic kinds of parts, and great roles, and theres just a lot of stuff thats not interesting to me. If there were great parts coming my way that I couldnt resist, I would be working a lot.


As an example of things she would not do, she said, In the 90s there was a sort of run of movies which I called kill the bitch movies. There would be a female character where by the middle of the movie the audience would be shouting, Kill her! Kill her! I just dont want to be in a movie that would incite the audience to yell something like that. Not that I want to play role models. Because Ive certainly played some not-role models. Thelma and Louise are horrible role models. But I feel like there was a sort of misogynistic streak in the 90s and I tried to steer clear of it.


Asked whether things have changed, she said, That particular type of movie I havent seen much of lately. But the numbers tell us that nothing really has changed in movies as far as percentages of female characters. In fact, the percentage has been the same since 1946. Weve done research spanning the last 20 years at my institute, and theres virtually no improvement in that period, either.


She recalled her own experience with A League of Their Own, the 1992 movie about women in baseball, which was one of the rare female sports movies.


I noticed the impact it had on teenage girls. I suddenly had a whole new fan base of 13-year-old girls whod say, I play sports because of that movie, Davis said. We all thought, because the movie was so successful, that it would spawn a whole new spate of female sports movies. But there were actually none for the next 10 years. Bend It Like Beckham was the next one.


The seeming prominence of womens movie roles can be deceptive, she said.


People often think well, Meryl Streep is getting a lot of parts, Davis said with a laugh. And that proves what? That proves that Meryl Streep is getting a lot of parts. It doesnt prove that anything is getting better.


Davis institute is especially interested in offering positive images for people from childhood on. And, as a parent, she takes pains not only to be selective about her childrens viewing but also to discuss what they see.


I always say, if you want to try to limit their childrens viewing to gender-balanced TV, then you might as well not watch TV which is also a really good idea, she said. So when they watch movies or TV shows, she said, I comment on it. Indeed, her institute often advises parents to do likewise.


Its really impactful to use mitigating language when youre watching something, she said. Meaning, if there are few female characters, point that out. How come there arent any girls in that group? Or Ill say, Do you think a girl could play that part? Or, Why do you think the girl is so skinny? I do it with my sons and my daughter, and they notice it themselves now.


Students attending her talks at colleges are demonstrating a greater awareness of gender issues, too.


Male or female students show up equally, she said. Young men are just as interested and just as involved, ask as many questions. I think what Im seeing is students taking this seriously.


Tickets for Davis speech cost $8 for the general public, $6 for UA faculty and staff and seniors, and $4 for UA students. For tickets, call the E.J. Thomas ticket office at 330-972-7570.


Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal, in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com and on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.