06/18/2012 08:01 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

From Actor To Activist, Geena Davis' Story Of Discovery

If you think Hollywood stereotypes women in film, you're right -- and Geena Davis has the numbers to prove it.

Six years ago the Oscar-winning actress and Mensa member founded The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Her non-profit commissioned the largest research project on gender in film and television ever undertaken, conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. In family films, there is only one female character for every three male characters; and in group scenes, only 17 percent of the characters are female, researchers found.

Davis noticed the disparity when watching movies and television with her young daughter. Today her foundation challenges film and television creators to reduce gender stereotyping and create a wide variety of female characters for entertainment targeting young children. Davis also currently serves on the Board of the White House Project, is the Chair of the California Commission on the Status of Women, and is an official partner of the United Nations, working toward its goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women worldwide.

Davis is known for playing strong, vibrant women: She won the Academy Award for best actress for her role as the offbeat dog trainer Muriel Pritchett in "The Accidental Tourist" in 1989, and was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for her performance in "Thelma & Louise." She picked up a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of baseball phenomenon Dottie Hinson in "A League of Their Own," and won the prize in 2006 for portraying the first female President of the United States in ABC's hit "Commander in Chief."

Huff/Post50 caught up with her in Los Angeles.

You've had a storied career in Hollywood. What are your priorities today?

With respect to acting, I want to only be able to say yes to things I really like. I've been lucky that some really good roles have been offered to me throughout the years. But this set the bar rather high. Now, I'm extremely picky. Fortunately, my money hasn't run out yet. If you see me playing a kidnapped wife in a mindless blockbuster, you'll say, "Oh I see, she ran out of money." And of course, as is the nature of Hollywood, there are fewer choice roles as one gets older. So fortunately, I'm very good at occupying my time between my film projects and the Institute.

How are you different today than the young actress who was cast in her first role in "Tootsie"?

I was lucky enough to have Polly Bergen play my mother on "Commander in Chief" and she is so fabulous and irreverent. She uses incredibly salty language and one day I said to her, "Wow, you're really out there." And she responded something like, "That's the one good thing about getting older -- you can say anything!"

So it's not specifically that I can say anything. It's just that I'm much more capable of speaking my mind, saying what I think, in a non-confrontational way, that is. Being bold enough to state my opinion and let the chips fall where they may. It's also something I observed in Susan Sarandon when I did "Thelma and Louise." My jaw was on the ground. I wondered -- people can really be like this? Say exactly what they think? Because I had always been so attached to the notion that women had to be sweet, likeable, that they shouldn't rock the boat. But it was really refreshing to learn that I don't have to live that way.

How did playing Thelma impact you?

"Thelma and Louise" changed my life really. Because of the reaction people had to the movie. When we were making it we had no idea it would be anything at all. It was a small budget film and hardly anyone had wanted to do it. We thought it was unusual because it had two great parts for women but other than that, we didn't realize there was anything so special about it.

But when it came out, the reaction was explosive. I mean it was on the cover of Time magazine within two weeks. And I experienced a big difference, night and day, in people's responses to me. Before this movie, they might say casually, "Hey I really liked you in 'The Fly,'" and we'd have a sweet exchange. But after, people wanted to tell me their feelings about the film, about the characters, what it meant to them, how they related to it, and some even said they acted out our trip or dreamed of doing so. And there were these passionate editorials, both pro and con, the cons of course that the world had gone to hell -- where women were empowered to carry guns and all. And what all of that made me realize was how few opportunities we give women to feel like this about movie characters, to leave a theater feeling jazzed, empowered, inspired by female characters -- characters who killed themselves, by the way, but still remain inspiring.

So this was a whole different perspective for me. I had previously chosen movie roles on a selfish basis -- roles that seemed interesting or challenging to me to play. But after this movie, in choosing a role, I gave serious consideration to what women in the audience would think about my character. So it changed my life.

Were you ever limited by your gender?

Not that I can specifically point to, no. My parents said that when I was three, I told them I wanted to be an actress. I honestly don't know where I would've gotten that idea from. I mean, I'm from a small town that is not even in Cape Cod. It's just before the canal to Cape Cod. My father was an engineer on the canal and my mother was a teacher's aide. In fact, we had so little exposure to anything having to do with show business that they were never discouraging about it. When I told them that I was going to major in acting at Boston University, they said OK, as if I had said dentistry, or something where you could actually get a job after school. And then, when I eventually got cast in "Tootsie," as my first role, I overheard my mom speaking to one of her friends who was overwhelmed by my luck and exuberant over my opportunity, as was I. My mom's response: "Well... she studied acting." So maybe gender didn't hinder me. But I'll never know.

If you could say one thing to the next generation, what would it be?

I just gave a commencement address at a local girls' high school and one point I made was to realize that that the job of creating gender equality was not yet done. There's a tendency for the younger generation to think that the women's movement made enormous progress and that we're pretty much set, you know, we're good. And certainly college girls don't want to hear anything about feminism. But the facts are not so good. While the girls may enter various fields at 50 percent as compared to the boys, even higher in some cases, that percentage drops off severely as early as the very first level of promotion. And then it's like a pyramid that gets very skinny at the top, at the CEO level and the board level. So I asked them to be conscious of this, to notice the numbers and to proceed with that consciousness.

Do you give the same advice to the boys?

Yes, this goes for girls and boys. I have spoken to this at co-ed schools too. It is equally important for boys to see girls and women taking up half the space in this world. And to become very accustomed to the idea that we are sharing things equally. If we're not showing boys and girls that they share the sandbox equally when they are young, that girls have the same value as boys, then it's never going to change. It's way better to aim at our children's first impressions of our culture than to undo the damage that's already done by the time they are teenagers or older.

How can we help?

Watch what your kids are watching. Whatever my kids are watching, I watch with them. There's research that shows that mitigating language can take away all the impact of fictional violence. I apply that to everything. I'm like the voice of reason, the translator. So when I see sexism, I can explain to them that it's not a fair representation of what really is and in that way, they're not just passively taking it in but learning to analyze media, to be media savvy.

I'm even hoping that sites which review media, such as Common Sense Media, will add a criteria for gender to its current ratings for violence, language, sex and drugs. Because whether something is good for kids in general depends on how and whether it portrays both genders in a balanced and good light. It seems so obvious but most people don't even think about it until it's brought to their attention. Then, almost everyone says, "Wow, I never saw it before but now I see it and yes, it's really important." And they're right, it is.

Geena Davis