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Long-time warrior for women’s rights, Geena Davis finally sees a ‘tipping point’

Geena Davis is seen in a 2017 file photo. Last Friday, Davis was in Vancouver to speak at the Whistler Film Festival’s Women on Top series – an initiative formed around the idea of bringing gender equality to film.

Taylor Jewell

This article contains spoilers for the 1991 film Thelma & Louise.

Who among us has not evoked Thelma and Louise while on a road trip, or out at a bar, or on some other wild adventure? If you are of a certain generation, surely you have Thelma and Louise’d with a best girlfriend at some point. Driving through a desert with a good friend recently, I started to wonder: With the rise of #MeToo and #TimesUp, would Thelma & Louise still have to come to that shocker of an ending? Could the women not have found some other way out – or perhaps been able to extricate themselves from the circumstances that sent them on that dusty crime spree to begin with?

Sometimes the universe (or your job) hands you an unexpected opportunity to explore your possibly hare-brained theory.

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On Friday, one of the film’s co-stars, Geena Davis, was in Vancouver to speak at the Whistler Film Festival’s Women on Top series – an initiative formed around the idea of bringing gender equality to film.

Davis, an Oscar-winning actor, has been advocating for women’s rights in the film and television industry for years. She established the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research and advocacy organization, in 2004 – long before the explosion of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. She calls what is happening now extraordinary.

“I really think we have reached a tipping point,” she told The Globe and Mail during an interview before the event. “I don’t think it’s peaked at all yet and that we will look back on this as a very significant moment in women’s history.”

When her daughter was a toddler, Davis, now 62, was struck by the dearth of female characters on TV shows for preschoolers. But when she asked around about it, she often heard the same thing: “oh no, that’s been fixed.” She knew it hadn’t, gathered the data to back that up, and presented it to influential creators of children’s content.

“I think it was because, in a convoluted way, of Thelma & Louise that I noticed [the disparity], because how could you explain that I noticed, but so many other people didn’t? And I think it was because I had developed a sort of Spidey sense of how women are portrayed on screen from being in roles that resonated with women.”

She says over the years, she has heard time and again that the tables were turning for women in Hollywood – that there would be more films starring women. At times, she was caught up in the optimism. But she found herself disappointed repeatedly. She believes what’s happening now, though, is different.

“As someone incredibly cynical and saying I’ll believe it when I see it, I think this is one of those moments. I don’t know how far we’ll get, but I think it’s very significant. Because it’s okay to talk about it now; it’s okay to say I’m not getting the same pay, I’m not being respected, I’m being sexually harassed, sexually assaulted. All those stories that came out of … producers or agents and [others] saying don’t say anything [about sexual assault or harassment] – it’s horrifying, the kinds of things that have gone on.

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“It’s not gradually going to go away,” she added. “Now you get away with nothing – a kiss, a touch, you get away with nothing.

She talked about being on a film and seeing a female cast member “relentlessly sexually harassed by a male co-star” and wondering why nobody was doing anything, understanding that this behaviour was something this woman was expected to tolerate.

“And if it had been me, I don’t think I would have complained to anybody,” she says. “I would have just tried to deal with it – and made sure that he still liked me, right?”

A little later, before Ms. Davis’s speech, British Columbia’s Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture announced a new Diversity, Gender Parity and Respectful Work Culture Fund. The $175,000 fund will be used to deliver training to creative industry associations and regional film commissions. “We need a workplace that is safe and respectful, that is free from harassment – and this is too often not the case, as the #MeToo movement has revealed,” said Lisa Beare.

So, about that ending. I asked Davis if she thought Thelma & Louise could end differently now (or in the future) – with a better environment for women.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Because we haven’t come that far. … Some things are still utterly stagnant. In my industry, if you look at the percentage of female directors, it hasn’t improved in decades. It’s always in the small, small single digits. If that’s how we would measure progress, we would achieve parity in hundreds of years or something.”

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And outside of Hollywood, looking at CEOs and corporate boards, she calls the progress “very, very glacial.” Women’s representation in government is a problem too.

“So no, definitely. They drive off the cliff. And I found sometimes men can’t understand what that’s about. But it’s really a metaphor for retaining control of their fate, being in charge of themselves, which they refuse to give up. So could they retain control of themselves and surrender today? No.”

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