A truly gifted actor, Geena has received several awards and nominations for her roles in movies, such as Thelma & Louise and The Accidental Tourist. She also won a Golden Globe Award for the Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Show for her role as the President of the United States, Mackenzie Allen, in the television show Commander in Chief, which received praise from critics for her amazing portrayal of the character.
But aside from her successes in the show business, what really makes Geena truly remarkable is her fight against the bias that women are faced with whenever they are given acting roles. Working as an actor for thirty years, Geena has witnessed how female actors have always been stereotyped into becoming the damsel-in-distress, dependent kind of character, which not only limits the actor’s ability to choose roles for herself, but also sends the wrong message to the young girls that are watching.
In an interview regarding women’s roles in the media, Geena has said:
“Of the female characters that existed, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies. And we found that the majority of female characters in animated movies have a body type that can't exist in real life. So, the question you can think of from all this is: What message are we sending to kids?”
Geena’s roles in her award winning movies and shows have always been known to be the kind of female character that breaks the traditional mold. This is because of Geena’s firm belief in changing this tradition of giving women very limited roles and presence in films and T.V. shows, knowing full well that they are capable of doing the same things that men can do. As shown in her role as Mackenzie Allen in Commander in Chief, Geena has proven how women are capable of leadership in ways that even men are not.
She says in her interview about the role:
“One of the great things about playing Mac is being able to look people in the eye and let them know that I know what we’re really talking about. I get the hidden code. In the first five episodes, she whipped out the military three times. I think this is part of what we would want a President to be like, and perhaps why male viewers are enjoying the character as much as women. We feel we can trust someone who is not afraid to back up what she says.”
Because of Geena’s passion in changing the female media persona, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which is focused on fighting against gender discrimination, increasing the presence of female characters in movies and films, and promoting the improvement of roles being given to female actors. By working with many organizations such as Dads and Daughters, as well as sectors of the entertainment industry, Geena has been able to reduce the stereotyping of women in a male-dominated industry, thus providing more opportunities and roles for starting female actors.
To Geena, removing the stereotype of female characters does not only benefit the actors themselves, but even those who are watching their shows. This goes especially for the little girls who watch generally rated shows; seeing women playing characters beyond what society stereotypes them to be enables these young women to grow up pursuing career choices where they can fully utilize their gifts. Geena often says:
“Negative images can powerfully affect boys and girls, but positive images have the same kind of impact. We know that if girls can see characters doing unstereotyped kinds of occupations and activities, they're much more likely as an adult to pursue unusual and outside-the-box occupations. I really believe that if you can see it, you can be it.”
Manifesting Talent as a Young Girl
Geena Davis was born in 1956 in Wareham, Massachusetts. She is the daughter of William Davis, a civil engineer and a deacon at the local church; and Lucille Cook, a teacher assistant at the local school. Geena’s parents, who were both from Vermont, also bore forth her brother Danforth. Born in a Christian family, Geena and her brother Dan are taught the values and principles that they would both hold dear to as they grew up. Both William and Lucille loved their children very dearly, and showered Geena and Dan with all the love and care that they can provide. Because of their status, Geena lived a fairly comfortable life.
As early as she can remember, Geena has always had an interest and passion for music. Her parents noticed this and helped Geena develop her musical gifts by having her study musical instruments; by the time that she was a teenager, Geena already played the flute, piano and organ well enough that she became an organist at their local church.
As a young student, Geena was exceptionally gifted with a bright mind and a friendly and outgoing attitude. Geena had a lot of friends, and her teachers often praised her for excelling in class. When she was in high school, Geena attended the Wareham High School, where she developed an interest in acting and performing. She became an exchange student for some time, studying at a school in Sweden, where she learned to become fluent in Swedish.
Geena was a tall girl (standing six feet), which was quite unusual for someone of her age. During her high school years, Geena often felt a bit insecure because of how her other classmates looked at her. Although a lot of her friends and classmates were impressed with her height, the fact that it made Geena stand out brought her some insecurity because it made her different. During an interview with her many years later, Geena recalled how her height was such an issue for her during her teenage years:
“I was always not just the tallest girl, but the tallest kid, in the class. Even in the kindergarten graduation picture, there’s me in the back – huge. And when other kids were having boyfriends, I was a lot of people’s funny friend, but nobody’s dream date. I was so happy when I stopped growing.”
It was in these times that she would receive comfort and encouragement from her parents, who often told her how her unusual and impressive height was a gift, and that it would help her achieve her goals one day.
From Modeling to Acting
Upon her return to the United States, Geena enrolled at New England College to study drama. She then went to Boston University, where she completed her studies and earned a bachelor’s degree in drama in 1979. It was during her time in Boston that Geena discovered her true passion in life—acting. While there, Geena became a member of Mensa International, an organization of intellectuals that are in the top two percent of the country’s most intelligent people as measured by an IQ test in the colleges’ entrance exams.
It was after leaving college that Geena finally discovered why she was gifted with such a tall stature—when she applied to become a window mannequin for the popular clothing line Ann Taylor, it was her height that gave her an advantage over the other contestants. Eventually, Geena was discovered by the Zoli modeling agency and hired her to become a fashion model for them in New York. This introduced Geena to the media industry, and from then on started to work her way up to accomplish her dream of being an actor.
In the early eighties, while she was still working as a fashion model, Geena was discovered by director Sydney Pollack and was cast in the comedy movie “Tootsie,” which made it her film debut. Although cast in a small role as a soap opera actress, Geena played her part so well that she was given other roles in the years that followed. In 1983, Geena was cast as Wendy Killain in the television show Buffalo Bill, and even wrote one of the episodes (titled “Miss WBFL”). She also appeared in an episode of the famous television series “Knight Rider” as Grace Fallon.
In 1984, Geena auditioned for the role of heroine Sarah Connor in the movie “The Terminator,” but lost the part to Linda Hamilton. In spite of this setback, Geena kept moving forward, auditioning for other roles that she saw was fit for her to play. She eventually had her own show in 1985, “Sara,” which was short-lived, but it gave Geena enough screen exposure for many directors and producers to witness her amazing acting abilities.
In 1986, Geena starred in the horror film “The Fly,” which was both a financial and critical success. Her co-actor, Jeff Goldblum, would later on become her husband. Two years later, in 1988, Geena starred in two equally famous and successful films—as a ghost in the horror-comedy movie “Beetlejuice,” and as a woman who befriends a troubled travel guide writer in the movie “The Accidental Tourist,” where she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
In 1991, Geena landed a title role when she was cast alongside Susan Sarandon in the critically acclaimed movie “Thelma & Louise.” The movie was about developing friendship while on a road trip, and was praised by critics for the outstanding performances by Geena and Susan. Regarding her casting on the film, Geena said in an interview:
“I read the script a year before I got cast. After reading it, I thought, 'God, I have to be in this movie.' So my agent called Ridley — the guy he'd called weekly for a year — and asked, 'Would you consider Geena for the part?' Ridley said, 'anyone with this much passion obviously deserves a meeting.' Just to have a part was unbelievable.”
Thelma & Louise became one of Geena’s most memorable and remarkable roles because she did not only portray a character that many fans still associate her with until today, she was also nominated in the Oscar’s for Best Actress because of playing the part not to mention the influence that her character had on female viewers. Geena said in an interview with Oprah:
“Women would come up to me and say, 'That movie changed my life. My friend and I call each other Thelma and Louise now.' It was eye-opening for me to realize the visceral impact a movie can have on people.”
Geena’s career further went upstream when she was cast alongside equally famous movie stars such as Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna and Tom Hanks in the movie “A League of Their Own,” which was a fictional portrayal of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The movie, which was critically acclaimed and was hailed as a movie that was ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ by the Library of Congress, gave Geena a nomination for Best Actress in the Golden Globe Awards.
As with any actor, Geena’s Hollywood career did experience highs and lows. Following her role in the movie “Hero” (where she starred alongside Dustin Hoffman and Andy Garcia), Geena starred in the action film “Cutthroat Island,” where she played a female pirate who was looking to avenge her father’s death. In spite of Geena’s amazing performance, Cutthroat Island became a financial and critical disaster, and became the biggest box office ‘bomb’ (a term used to refer to films that were highly unsuccessful and unprofitable) to date.
Finding a New Passion—Sports
Geena’s disappointment with Cutthroat Island did not keep her from appearing in other successful films such as “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” where she was nominated for a Saturn Award. It was also during these years that Geena sought to occupy herself with a new interest—sports.
In 1997, Geena was introduced to the sport of archery after looking for an activity that she would be interested in. Geena immediately fell in love with the sport, and practised so passionately that two years later, she was able to be one of the three hundred women to join the Olympic tryouts for archery. Geena said of her introduction to the sport in an interview:
“I had learnt so many sports for my roles in the ’90s, and I finally realized I had untapped athletic ability. My shooting coach said I had such a natural ability that I could compete, and I thought, How fun! But guns? You can’t exactly practice in your yard. Then I saw archery on TV at the Atlanta Olympics and was taken by how beautiful and dramatic it is. I found a coach. It turned out I was good at it, I worked really hard, and was at the Olympic trials two-and-a-half years later.”
In 1999, Geena participated in the qualification round for the United States Olympic archery team that would compete in the 2000 Summer Olympics (held in Sydney, Australia). In spite of not being able to successfully join the team, Geena did not let that disappointment keep her from enjoying the sport; eventually, she became a wild-card entry for the Sydney International Golden Arrow competition.
That same year, Geena starred in the family movie “Stuart Little,” where she portrayed Eleanor Little, the mother of the family that took care of the title character. The movie was successful, and spawned two sequels: “Stuart Little 2” (in 2002) and “Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild” (in 2006), where Geena reprised her role.
Moving Over To Television
In 2000, Geena appeared in her own sitcom “The Geena Davis Show.” Beginning with this television series, Geena started to divert her attention to taking on television roles, after realizing that there were not much women who played roles like she did in the industry. In 2004, Geena became part of the regular cast of the famous sitcom “Will & Grace,” where she portrayed Janet, the sister of the titular character.
It was in 2005, however, that Geena got her most significant role thus far, when she played the first female president of the United States, Mackenzie Allen, in the television series “Commander in Chief.” Geena’s portrayal of the character earned her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, as well as several nominations (an Emmy and SAG Award for Outstanding Female Actor in a Drama Series) for her iconic portrayal of the country’s first female leader. In an interview, Geena described her feelings in playing Mackenzie:
“My playing this role is perfect. I'm not saying I'm the only one who can do it; I just mean it makes sense that I would have the part. I couldn't believe something this significant would come along. How could I go from feeling rage at the system to being able to use my talent and creativity in this amazing part?”
All throughout her career as an actor, Geena had always been picky on the roles that she portrayed on screen because of her realization of the stereotypes that women were given in the film and television industry. Women were often stereotyped as the weak, damsel-in-distress types with skimpy outfits and were always being abused. Geena said in an interview:
“One reason I don't watch much television is that most dramas feature a plotline in which a woman is being abused, raped, murdered, chased, or violated. I don't like bringing that into my psyche or having that as the standard for what happens. During my time of frustration, I'd gotten deeply interested in the images girls see on TV because I had a little daughter. All the characters are male.”
In 2004, while Geena was watching television with her daughter, she came upon a realization that there were more men who played roles than women. And to the women that did have roles, they were often cast into the stereotype that Geena has observed all these years. And so, Geena started the largest research project regarding gender in children’s entertainment in partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication, and discovered that there were three males in every one female character in all the 400 films that the students studied.
This realization was what encouraged Geena to do her part in changing the way society looked at female roles. In 2005, Geena partnered with the non-profit organization Dads and Daughter and initiated a project focused on balancing the number of male and female characters in movies and television shows. Through her partnership with the organization, Geena was able to learn the ins and outs of working as a philanthropist, and in 2007 finally decided to start her own foundation, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In 2009, Geena was given an honorary doctorate by Bates College for her work in the field of gender equality in media.
In 2011, Geena volunteered to be a part of the USAID and Ad Council’s FWD campaign, along with other famous actors, such as Josh Harnett and Uma Thurman. The campaign was a move to increase the awareness of the devastation caused by the East African drought. Geena’s involvement was highly significant in the spread of the campaign because of her popularity and status as a media personality.
Settling Down with a Plastic Surgeon
Like her career, Geena did experience ups and downs in her personal life. Prior to meeting her current (and last) husband, Reza Jarrahy, who is a well-known plastic surgeon, Geena had been married to three other people, namely: Richard Emmolo (married from 1982 to 1983), Jeff Goldblum (married from 1987 to 1990), and Renny Harlin (married from 1993 to 1998). Geena has suffered many heartaches in her relationships, but what is so amazing about her is that she was able to stand up and move forward, using those heartaches as learnings to keep her from getting disappointed again.
When Geena met Reza way back in 2000, she finally decided that he would be who she wanted to be with all her life. And so, they married each other on September 1, 2001. Geena bore Reza three children, namely: Alizeh Keshvar (born 2002), and twins Kian William Jarrahy and Kaiis Steven (born 2004). When she was interviewed about her marriage with Reza, Geena said of him:
“I’ve always been more well-known than him; that was always part of the deal. And I think younger men are just more comfortable with a disparity like that—age or income or status. They are more likely to have been raised by a woman who thinks differently about women’s roles and such. Or maybe their fathers are cooler. And Reza has tremendous self-confidence. He’s not judging his worth compared to me.”
Geena’s life story is very encouraging because it teaches us the value of never letting our disappointments get in the way of achieving our goals and dreams in life. Her advocacy is also a strong empowerment to many women worldwide, because it frees them from the limits that society has placed on them, enabling them to fully express themselves and utilize their God-given talents and abilities.
“About the idea from the women’s movement that we need women because they will be different, I’ve come to feel differently about that over the years. If the argument is that we should put women in these important positions because of some special “woman-ness” they will bring, we are putting aside the more relevant notion that women should be in half of these positions because they make up half the human race! Equal rights shouldn’t be based on deservedness or specialness.”
Films and Television Shows Starred in:
- 1982: Tootsie
- 1983-1984: Buffalo Bill
- 1983: Knight Rider
- 1984: Family Ties
- 1984: Riptide
- 1985: Sara
- 1985: Remington Steele
- 1985: Fletch
- 1986: The Fly
- 1988: Beetlejuice
- 1988: Earth Girls Are Easy
- 1988: The Accidental Tourist
- 1990: Quick Change
- 1991: Thelma & Louise
- 1992: A League of Their Own
- 1992: Hero
- 1994: Angie
- 1994: Speechless
- 1995: Cutthroat Island
- 1996: The Long Kiss Goodnight
- 1999: Stuart Little
- 2000-2001: The Geena Davis Show
- 2002: Stuart Little 2
- 2003: Will & Grace
- 2005-2006: Commander in Chief
- 2006: Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild
- 2009: Accidents Happen
- 2009: Exit 19
- 2012: Coma
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Women’s Sports Foundation
- Dads and Daughters
- Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Awards and Achievements
- 1989: Received the Oscar Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (The Accidental Tourist)
- 1991: Received the BSFC Award for Best Actress (Thelma & Louise)
- 1991: Received the NBR Award for Best Actress (Thelma & Louise)
- 1992: Received the David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actress (Thelma & Louise)
- 2006: Received the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Show (Commander in Chief)
- 2009: Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Bates College
Wikipedia (Geena Davis)
Biography (Geena Davis)
Oprah.com (Oprah Talks to Geena Davis)
The Wall Street Journal (Life Imitates Art: Geena Davis on how gender inequality on TV and in movies has a powerful impact on kids)
Reader's Digest (Interview with Geena Davis)