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Flip the script

Geena Davis is intent on highlighting sexism in Hollywood, as are these allies.

Geena Davis

The year Geena Davis picked up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Accidental Tourist in 1989 she was introduced by then-couple Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson.

“We don’t want to look stupid or look like we’ve never seen each other before or anything like that,” Griffith had fretted to Johnson, in the breathless, ditzy manner for which she was popularly cast. Griffith, Goldie Hawn and their ilk were always getting in the way of your Harrison Fords, your Mel Gibsons, and indeed, your Don Johnsons. They flapped on the sidelines of exciting scenes, or stuffed up the plans of the male leads.

“I think they know we’ve seen each other before, dear,” Johnson pacified his wife. “Why don’t you just take a couple of deep breaths, try and relax and pretend you’re in Lamaze [childbirth] class or something.” He continued the scripted jocularity with a punch-line about having supported one or two actresses in the past.

After a few decades of watching women in film be similarly patronised and sidelined, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the woman they were honouring, Geena Davis, set up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Davis is coming to the Sydney Opera House this week to talk about the institute at the All About Women festival, as well as her latest campaign – #ShesGotDrive – and her annual Bentonville Film Festival, which screens movies in which women and minorities are strongly represented both in cast and crew.

Of course, the film for which Davis is herself best known is 1991’s Thelma & Louise. It was written by Callie Khouri, who had previously worked in music videos in which women were basically props. Khouri, whose latest big venture has been Nashville, is as passionate as Davis about advocating for women in film. She recently told Makers, “There’s a lot left to be accomplished in this business by women. We must continue because it’s going to continue to be out of balance, the stories are going to be out of balance. We’re going to be participating in our own artistic and creative starvation, unless we’re pushing for it.”

Khouri isn’t the only ally fighting for women in film. In January this year, Transparent creator Jill Soloway spoke at the Sundance Film Festival, on a panel put together by Davis about the fight for gender equity in Hollywood: “I would like to make a blanket statement to ask cis men to please stop making movies about rape. Stop portraying rape.” Soloway also gave an inspiring talk at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), in which she dissected the ‘male gaze’ (more prevalent, in more ways, than you may think) and proposed that female filmmakers consider using the ‘female gaze’. Her website wifey.tv urges women: “Be the subject, not the object.”

Directory The Director List provides the details of close to 1000 female directors, in an effort to put paid to the idea that there just aren’t enough women out there to use – an argument that’s similarly wheeled out when panels and music festivals are programmed. (As Callie Khouri told Makers, “It’s not statistically possible that there are so few qualified women. It’s sexist. They just don’t think women are as good.”) The founder of The Director List, filmmaker Destri Martino, had started the project as a Pinterest board, to see for herself how many female directors she could find that were being criminally overlooked.

Reaching a more mainstream, mixed-gender audience, Amy Schumer has frequently tackled the poor treatment of actresses in her sketch series, Inside Amy Schumer. Take ‘The Clumsy Coal Miner’ as an example. In an award ceremony not dissimilar to the Oscars, host Steve Buscemi opens the segment with “Women… am I right?” Each of the nominees – Schumer, Julianne Moore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Hudson and Laura Linney – is depicted in her most gripping scene: waiting at home on the phone to the male lead.

As the manifesto of the Geena Davis Institute decrees, “if she can see it, she can be it”. In other words, give females – particularly young girls – inspiring characters to watch and learn from, and the limitations upon their lives will fall away.

Screen Australia is proud to co-present Geena Davis at the Sydney Opera House’s All About Women on Sunday 5 March.