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Geena Davis at 66: What I Know Now

The film star on the beauty of archery, dreams of being shorter and why we need female presidents

Geena Davis photographed in fall 2022
Shayan Asgharnia

Academy Award-winning actress and once-nationally ranked archer Geena Davis is the founder and chairman of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Her memoir, Dying of Politeness, is available online and in bookstores now. She spoke to AARP’s Natasha Stoynoff.

The downside of manners

I grew up a cripplingly polite New Englander. But to be extremely polite, the things you feel and do and say must fit in a very narrow window … and the things you are not allowed to do and say are “bad.” Therefore, you’re a bad person for having those feelings. I nearly died of politeness.

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Dreams of a different body

I was a shy, quiet kid, except when I was feeling exuberant. But then I would be told to bring it down. My aunt told me boys weren’t going to like my loud laugh, so I’d better learn to laugh less loudly. I was also taller than everyone else and was told I was too big. I always dreamed of being shorter, of not standing out.

The joy of being bilingual

I went to Sweden as an exchange student, and I’m still fluent, more or less. A couple of times a year, I’ll run into somebody who’s Swedish and surprise them by speaking their language.

The importance of work-life balance

When I was doing Commander in Chief, I was in nearly every scene. My twin boys were 1½, and my daughter was 3½. I was lucky because, as the lead actor, I was allowed to bring my kids to work. Most people on a film or TV set can’t do that. But even so, I found that true balance is impossible. I don’t know how to balance anything. I just do what needs to be done.

Madam President

We don’t just need one female president, we need lots of female presidents. We need it to become completely normal. I met Vigdís Finnbogadóttir at a women’s conference; she was the president of Iceland for something like 16 years. She would get letters from little boys saying, “Madam President, do you think it would be possible for a boy to be president?” And it just shows you how amazingly powerful images are.

Gender in media

When my daughter was 2, we watched her first preschool show together, and I immediately noticed there were far more male characters than female ones. Then I saw it in G-rated videos and other shows, and I was horrified. I knew there was gender inequality in general, but I had no idea it would show up in entertainment for the littlest kids. That kind of imbalance trains kids to have an unconscious bias from minute one. Kids take stuff in and don’t question anything. My daughter’s experience spurred me to launch an institute on gender in media in 2004, to advocate for fairer representations of girls and women.

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Correcting the gender imbalance

What I found in talking to people who were making children’s shows is that they love kids, and they want to do right by them. These producers and directors had no idea there was this gender imbalance until we began to point it out. They were embarrassed they hadn’t noticed and wanted to make the change. The institute has already achieved two goals: According to our research, lead characters are now 50/50 male/female on kids’ television shows and in family-rated movies.

#MeToo: It's OK to speak out

Before the #MeToo movement, actresses were indoctrinated in the idea that you can never complain about your salary or about somebody molesting you, because they’ll just get somebody else and you’re completely replaceable. Or people will say they don’t want to work with you because you complained, so most of us didn’t. I think there has been a lot of change since #MeToo happened that’s going to stick. No agent now would send you to a hotel room to meet with somebody alone, and it’s OK for my peers and me to speak out if something happens.

Advice from Dustin Hoffman

While we were shooting my first film, Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman told me, “Never sleep with your costars. It’s just not a good thing. When they proposition you, say, ‘Oh, thank you. I’m very flattered. And I would love to, but I’m afraid it would ruin the sexual chemistry, the sexual tension, between us.’ ” I squirreled that away.

Natural beauty

I don’t have a particular beauty routine. Occasionally I’ll get a product that’s highly recommended, but I’ll try it on half of my face and then ask people if they can tell any difference. Usually it’s no, so I don’t do that kind of stuff. People sometimes ask me how I stay thin, but I don’t have a secret to share. I’m just genetically that way. And it’s not encouraging to talk about that.

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A return to archery

I fell in love with archery because you’re judged by points, not by what you’re wearing or how you look while doing it. I love that. It’s also a relentless competition with yourself. Once you learn how to make a really good shot, anything you think about will ruin it. It’s a battle with yourself and your thoughts. I haven’t kept up with it in the last few years, but it’s not an age-dependent sport, so I do intend to return to it at some point.

Team chat

We’re all in touch quite a bit, as far as the League of Their Own team goes. This year’s the 30th anniversary of the movie, so we’ve been doing stuff together as a group, which is really fun. And we’re on a chain text together. I’m especially good friends with Anne Ramsay, who played first base.

Roles over 50

We have the data on this, so I don’t need to speculate. Characters over 50 are only 20 percent of the characters in films, and only a quarter of those are women over 50. That’s pretty bad. Every five years or so, a movie comes out and the press says, “This changes everything!” The First Wives Club from 1996 was one of them. “Now actresses over 50 will be all the rage!” That hasn’t happened yet.

Impact on women

I was occasionally recognized in the supermarket for Beetlejuice or The Fly, and it was all very fun and very short. But all that changed after Thelma & Louise. Then it was mostly women who really wanted to share with me their reactions to the movie and what it meant to them and how it changed their thinking. It’s been like that ever since.

Spoiler alert

People came out of Thelma & Louise [which ends with the characters driving their car off a cliff] going, “Yay!” How did we pull that off? It’s because the women we portrayed were free. They took control of their lives, for good and for ill, and they decided they’d pay any price to not give that up. They got away in the end.