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— July 16, 2017

Geena Davis

By Allan Richter
  • Through the film festival and watchdog group she created, the Oscar-winning actress is fighting to change the onscreen image of women.
Geena Davis

The quaint, parklike central square in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas, a throwback to another era, is a carefully manicured plot of land dotted with benches and bounded by mom-and-pop retail shops.

None scream the 1950s, however, like the Spark Café Soda Fountain, where chrome stools lining a counter sit on a checkerboard floor, and waiters wear paper soda jerk hats and bowties while female servers wave their ponytails.

The soda shop, in fact, looks as if it could have easily served as a location for the 1998 dramatic comedy “Pleasantville,” which cleverly captured the innocence of the Fifties in black and-white scenes that morphed into color as characters lost their naiveté. Among the more memorable onscreen transformations was that of actress Joan Allen’s dutiful housewife character, Betty Parker, as she becomes enlightened that sex is for pleasure as well as rearing children.

The bygone era the Spark Café represents, when Howdy Doody ruled the TV screen and women were viewed as one-dimensional and subservient, is a fitting if unintentional symbolic anti-hero for the goings-on in Bentonville for about a week each year when filmmakers, actors, social scientists and business executives descend on the town for the feminist-driven Bentonville Film Festival.

The festival—this year was its third—was founded by Academy Award winner Geena Davis and highlights films with themes built around diversity and the empowerment of women. This year, the Austrian film “Blood Road” took the top award among 70 films competing. It tells the story of ultra-endurance mountain biker Rebecca Rusch’s journey pedaling 1,200 miles of the Ho Chi Minh trail in search of the crash site where her father, a US Air Force pilot, was shot down during the Vietnam War.

The festival is a complement to the actor’s Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. It showcases films that by and large present resilient female characters, which in turn could influence audiences, particularly the girls and women in them. “If they can see it, they can be it,” Davis, 61, says of female audiences, reciting her trademarked motto.

That aphorism was proven credible after the popularity of “The Hunger Games” film series, which catapulted interest in archery among young girls after the movies’ heroine Katniss Everdeen showed a fierce talent with a bow and arrow beginning with her first onscreen appearance in 2012.

That heroine archetype made a big return this summer in the guise of Wonder Woman, whose film was a hit and appeared to be having similar effects on young viewers. Last month, “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins tweeted a list of reactions by kindergarteners influenced by the character. “On Monday, a boy who was obsessed with Iron Man told me he had asked his parents for a new Wonder Woman lunchbox,” the list began. “A little girl said, ‘When I grow up I want to speak hundreds of languages like Diana.’” In another instance, seven girls playing together during recess decided that since they couldn’t all be Wonder Woman, they would work together as Amazons to “defeat evil.”

Jenkins attended the Bentonville Film Festival, and her film’s character made her presence at the festival known in other ways: Boxes of Wonder Woman dolls, many armed with bows and arrows, were stacked and ready for sale at local Wal-Mart grocery stores. Bentonville-based retail behemoth Wal-Mart is a founding sponsor of the film festival.

Athletic Confidence

Long before Katniss Everdeen and the latest incarnation of Wonder Woman, however, Davis herself showed that she had the right stuff when it came to proficiency with a bow and arrow. “I was called on to do sports in movies, and I was watching the Olympics and couldn’t take my eyes off the archery competition,” Davis said in a brief interview on the sidelines of the festival, explaining her interest. She took up archery at age 41, trained vigorously and, less than three years later, was a semi-finalist in the US Olympic Trials just before the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Davis sat in on more than a few panel discussions at the Bentonville Film Festival, each time in a different outfit. Her most colorful: bell bottom jeans with bright orange, yellow and red floral patterns running down her long legs, a rust jacket tied at the waist, blonde shoulder-length hair, and her signature dimples and beauty mark on her left cheek.

Such a description would probably elicit frowns from supporters of the festival’s mission, who would rather draw attention to character not appearance. Nonetheless, Davis wore the look of confidence to match her activism.

Davis wasn’t always so poised and self-assured, however. Growing up, she was self-conscious about her height—“I thought I took up too much space,” the six-foot actress said on one panel—and believed she was not cut out for sports until she was cast in the 1992 women’s baseball movie “A League of Their Own,” in which she played star catcher Dottie Hinson. 

Girls who saw the film showed more interest in playing baseball, and Davis became involved with the Women’s Sports Foundation, lobbying for Title IX, federal legislation that mandates gender equality in sports. “Playing sports dramatically improved my self-image,” she once told an audience at the International Olympic Committee’s 5th World Congress.

The film most closely identified with her advocacy work, of course, was “Thelma and Louise,” starring Davis and Susan Sarandon as renegades fed up with sexism and a society that lets it fester. Davis said she’s been very conscious about how films affect female audiences since playing Thelma.

Davis later funded research studies about women in the media and formalized the effort with the launch of her institute. “We visit with every network and production company and show them our research,” she says.

Armed with this knowledge, Davis aims to enlighten and encourage media executives to show more female characters who take charge—particularly of their own destinies—and to put more women in decision-making seats behind the camera. “It’s more difficult to get females behind the cameras,” Davis says. “Those numbers have been stagnant forever. Research shows that if there’s a female writer or producer, [the number of] female characters go up 10%.”

In front of the camera, she adds, “something like only 11% of movies have a gender-balanced cast, so we have a long way to go in our industry.”

Even crowd scenes in movies, Davis said, show a bias against women because they’re stacked with men, Davis said. “When [a script] says, ‘a crowd chants,’ you have to add, ‘which is half female.’ Sometimes I think Hollywood doesn’t think females gather.”

In an annual panel session entitled “Geena and Friends,” an audience favorite at the film festival, Davis and some of her actor friends read from screenplays and adopted parts played by men. Davis, along with actor Meg Ryan and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” stars Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz, read from male-dominated films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Reservoir Dogs.”

The point was to show that women can access those roles as well—and as believably—as men. In the “Reservoir Dogs” reading, Ryan took actor Steve Buscemi’s part during a roundtable scene in which the character is admonished by his fellow criminals for refusing to leave a tip. Except for a brief hiccup in credibility for anyone who saw the film with its original cast, the women made the scene work.

Taking Charge

Davis says she tends to be attracted to roles in which the characters control their destinies: in “A League of Their Own,” in “Thelma & Louise,” and as a bank robber in the crime drama “Quick Change,” for instance. In the 1988 film “The Accidental Tourist,” she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Muriel Pritchett, who appears strong and resilient compared to the lead characters: a despondent couple whose son was killed in a random act of violence.

Perhaps no role broke the glass ceiling like her portrayal of the president in the television series “Commander in Chief.” The show lasted one season, but after it aired in 2005, one study showed that 58% of male viewers were found to have more likely voted for a female candidate. “That’s a huge bump. Imagine if I had two terms,” she said with a laugh.

She said she once met the female president of Iceland, who told the actress that her show was so influential she received letters from boys asking if she thought it would ever be possible for a man to become president.

“Media can cure the problems it created,” she said.

Asked if she regrets any roles she has taken because they might have negated the image of women her advocacy work is trying to promote, Davis said she has no misgivings. Even in “Earth Girls are Easy,” a film with a decidedly anti-feminist title, she found appealing elements, like the idea of dating an alien. Groundbreaking, to be sure.

Davis remains optimistic that Hollywood will reverse what she sees as its gender bias. She said her institute has a new media-monitoring tool: an accurate and efficient recorder that uses voice recognition to tell whether an onscreen character is male or female. Recent data, however, suggest she has her work cut out for her. Of the top 100 movies in 2015 and 2016, female lead characters were seen onscreen one-third of the time as males; the same disparity held true for speaking time as well.

In the meantime, Davis, the mother of a daughter and two sons, has fought a personal battle when it comes to gender identity. From the stage of the Bentonville Film Festival, Davis told of how her children have used the pronoun “he” to refer to animals they see.

“It was embarrassing for me. They kept pointing at different animals and saying ‘he,’ ‘he,’ ‘he,’ as people do.”

Her response: She saw a squirrel and called it “she.”

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