Warning: Spoilers for GLOW season 3 ahead.
The climax of the penultimate episode of season 3 Netflix’s GLOW has Geena Davis sashaying onto a Las Vegas stage, scantily clad in a vintage showgirl costume that’s more carefully positioned rhinestone than fabric. Armed for battle in gigantic (8-feet-tall, at least) white feather wings, jeweled nipples, and a bedazzled headdress, she begins to croon how glad she is not to be young. It’s a moment that demands our attention, mesmerizing in its showmanship, but also in the utter confidence of a 63-year-old woman owning her sexuality, her body, and her age.
In GLOW, Davis plays Sandy Devereaux St. Clair, a former showgirl turned entertainment director at the Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino, the glitzy palace the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling call home for this third season. As a woman who’s had to work her way up the ladder in a hostile world, Sandy acts as a taskmaster and mentor to the group, dispelling hard-truth, wisdom, and pep talks with style and sequins.
In many ways, this role is a case of art imitating life. An early warrior in the war against Hollywood’s systemic gender inequality, Davis has dedicated her career to making sure women have a voice, from her landmark role in 1991’s Thelma and Louise, to her activism on behalf of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media.
Her motto, “If she can see it, she can be it,” has been a mantra in the fight to revolutionize how women are portrayed on-screen, change that has too often been slow-going and in many cases, reversed. Those struggles are the subject of a new documentary, This Changes Everything, executive-produced by Davis, also interviewed alongside Chloë Grace Moretz, Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Lena Dunham, Sandra Oh, Natalie Portman, Shonda Rhimes, Amandla Stenberg, and Tiffany Haddish — among many others. In a happy coincidence, both the show and the movie premiere August 9, making this the perfect opportunity for a Geena Davis double feature. (And when you’re done, make sure to re-watch 1992’s A League of Their Own, the last time she got to star alongside an all-female cast.)
Ahead of her big double-drop day, we talked to Davis about the change she wants to see in the industry, how Thelma & Louise altered her career trajectory, and yes, that outfit!
Refinery29: Coming up in the ‘80s, you’ve said you felt like it was a promising time for women in Hollywood. That’s a running theme of This Changes Everything — that these progressive waves come in cycles, but fade away before there’s any real change. Do you feel like something is different this time, and if so, what?
Geena Davis: “I do think things have changed in the past like this two-ish years, since MeToo and Time's Up. We really are at a tipping point, and I've been hesitant to say anything like that for the past 20 years. There's this constant refrain in the media that now things are different, and people seem to really want to latch onto that. If one movie comes out with a female lead in it, well, now everything's different. But there was never any momentum. This is a dawn of some new progress. The major thing I think that's changed is that you can talk about inequality and gender discrimination and assault.”
One of the most striking things in the film is how it highlights the pervasiveness of tropes against women — even in beloved classics. Noticing those discrepancies in representations is what got you to launch your foundation. Can you speak more about that?
“I had a daughter 17 years ago, and when she was a toddler, I started showing her stuff for little kids. Immediately I noticed that there were far more male characters than female characters. It's like we're teaching kids a gender bias from the beginning, and trying to get rid of it later, it's just common sense. Why are we teaching them that girls are less valuable than boys from minute one? So, that launched the whole thing. I couldn't find one other person who noticed what I noticed. And I'm talking about my feminist friends, moms of daughters, and then within the industry. I talked to a lot of creators of kids media [who] were absolutely convinced that I was wrong. That's why I decided I needed the data.”
What movies have you seen lately that you think are changing the discourse?
“Between Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and all the female characters in Black Panther, I think that will lead to change. Even as recently as Hunger Games, people thought, ‘Well now for sure everything is completely changed, and it didn't really engender change.’ But we'll have to see in the next few years.”
You can already kind of see the shift in between how Catherine Hardwicke was received after Twilight became the highest grossing film with a female lead, and how Hollywood treated Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman, just a decade later.
“It's uncanny, I only just learned the other day that Kimberly Pierce, who directed Boys Don't Cry, which was nominated for two Oscars and won one for Hillary Swank — she didn't make another movie for 14 years.”
You hear those stories all the time with women directors, whereas it’s rare that a man has a hit and then doesn't make another movie for another decade.
“Or even a flop.”
Speaking of male directors — a lot of people might be surprised that This Changes Everything was directed by Tom Donahue, and not a woman director. Is it true that the cast and crew was 75% female?
“Yes. This was all his idea, and I came on about two years into it, when he heard about what I was doing. This movie really is something that men should care about it This is a message to them, because obviously so many men are decision makers and have the authority and the ability to make the change.”
Let’s talk about your new role on GLOW. What was it like to revisit the ‘80s through that lens?
“I get to be in the ‘80s that's woke — it was fantastic! It was so fun to be in a cast with so many women was crazy. I guess I did that with A League of Their Own, but it was really fun. To see how bonded they are and what a team they are and feel welcomed like that was super fun.
Your character has a big scene in the ninth episode, in which you wear a very fabulous and see-through showgirl costume. Tell me everything!
“When I signed on, I said: I'll do it, but at some point, you gotta find some excuse to get me in a showgirl costume. It's so iconic [and] always been a fantasy of mine to try one on. They brought in all these authentic costumes from back in the day. I was trying them on, and they were nice and everything. They kept talking about, well, there's this white one, but we didn't bring it out. There's this white one, but it's too big. It's too heavy. But there is this white one… and I said, Get the white one! I had to kneel down on the floor to try it on because it was taller than the ceiling. But once I had that on we were all like come on. That's the one.”
The scenes you share with Betty Gilpin are especially powerful, especially the one in the staircase where your character gives her advice, as one businesswoman to another. What advice do you wish you'd gotten as a young woman in the 1980s?
“The most productive thing I could wish had happened would be that I got to meet and work with Susan Sarandon much earlier in my career, because that was really life-changing. She was profoundly different from anyone I had ever known, as far as a woman who's just incredibly comfortable moving through her life and expressing her opinions and feeling confidence in herself. And it was an incredible role model to exposed to for three months, every day, all day. “
Thelma and Louise was such a turning point for so many people who saw it. How you feel it changed your own career trajectory?
“It really changed my life. Seeing the reaction of people who saw the movie was quite different than anything I'd ever experienced and really made me realize in a profound way how few opportunities [there are] or women to come out of a movie feeling empowered, and like they lived vicariously through the female characters. Men get that experience every time they see a movie. After that, it was really about trying to find roles where the woman has control over her own fate and is in charge of her destiny. So that was very, very significant to me. I think it's what made me notice the lack of female characters when I started watching kids' shows with my daughter. I had developed this sort of spidey sense about the way women are depicted in entertainment media.”
Your character in GLOW sings about how she would never want to be young again. How has your career changed as you’ve gotten older in an industry that’s not at all receptive to that?
“I definitely saw a dramatic change when I turned 40, which was horrifyingly depressing, because I had assumed that the people right in front of me — Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange and Sally Field — were changing everything, and I wasn't going to have to worry about it happening to me because they were so successful that certainly it wouldn't continue to be a problem. But then it was, and it still is.”
“Well…. I mean, I understand that!” [Laughs]
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is recognizing your work with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2020. Their track record when it comes to gender parity, among other things, is pretty dismal. What do you hope changes in terms of inclusion?
“I'm heartened by all the efforts to diversity the membership that have been going on. You're not correcting for the past, but in any case, everything is not up to the Academy. Women need to be hired for these jobs in the first place. They need to be offered fabulous scripts to direct. It really needs to be tackled from all angles, so increasing the inclusion factor in the membership is very important, but also it just needs to happen in every sector of the industry.”