It’s hard to say how tall she is but when she enters a room she radiates presence like a grand tower, determined and kind, ever ready with a smile. At a commanding 6’0” it’s looking up time to receive a smile imbued by a confidence at having seen it all and an elegance born of the limelight of timeless beauty and grace. On the occassion of her well deserved receiving of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Geena Davis is a GD BAD ASS!
A ‘GD’ badass doesn’t join you in your feelings a god damn bad ass says ‘I don’t know let’s look at the numbers,’ evaluates and holds space for other things than feelings assumptions and defensiveness, things based on reporting, informed with the wider viewpoint free of the bias.
Has it changed everything, or not?
It all happened in an evening of time and no time at all when the wonderful LA PRESS CLUB presented an end of summer screening of This Changes Everything with a conversation to support the release of the documentary or as I like to call it, an evening of irony and empowerment, elegance and grit, disbelief, determination and persistence, longevity and loyalty to purpose. Geena Davis was joined by directors Catherine Hardwicke, Kimberly Peirce and the film’s director Tom Donahue gathered post screening with an added pain pulse when it was noted several members of the USA Gymnastics Team drove in from Orange County and were seated just behind me, adding another layer to the night as these women not only stood together in survivorship representing a sport that starts when girls are so young as to only know how to follow the rules and in doing so 368 young athletes were sexually assaulted “by gym owners, coaches, and staff working for gymnastics programs across the country.” Whatever intent of the film, whatever representation, it is all UP for consideration how we allow system abuse to continue either through apathy or disbelief or following rules designed to protect abuses we now know transformative justice as balanced inter-action is life or death for our society.
The curated gathering seemed perched to showcase the persistent work required beyond speaking up, beyond organizating and laid out what has been done to daye, the effects of action and inactions and revealed how little has changed, and yet how much ground work has been laid out to facilitate a next level full on renaissance of femme structural transformation, as to at once allow for the disgust and the dance of possibility to be unleashed and with each action taking place across the planet more hope seeds are planted for those who will follow into the intersectionality of the media business. This was a night of two top female directors discussing the challenges they faced in their careers, an actress who decided to do something about what she saw, and a man grappling to get his arms around all of it and share a work he put time, energy and influence into bringing to life. Women are showing up, we are listening, we are addressing issues and making plans and deciding where we can take action within the system and equally taking stock on how we can disrupt, and begin again with new vistas and as more and more of us join together to say ‘Not today, not tomorrow and not ever again, MFers.’ We bend the arc toward justice and new economies and new pathways for storytelling.
Geena Davis endeared herself to me many years ago in her sparkling turn in Tootsie directed by Sydney Pollack. It was one of the first movies I remember looking forward to seeing, written by Larry Gelbart whose tv show M.A.S.H was part babysitter, part inspiration growing up. Her quirky and endearing turn in The Accidental Tourist brought her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and cemented her ability to deliver leading to a much beloved box office action star bending success in the action film Long Kiss Goodnight.
As with every actor and director and producer there are in between phases, times when you are living life outside of ‘the work’ environment. It is in these in between phases Geena Davis allowed for possibility to flourish, using her experiences and her insight and access as she made a way for a shift, creating a dialogue of impact and a way ahead based on stats, laying in a framework of tools for others to follow.
And this, my dear friends, is why I say without hesitation or further delay, with the utmost respect for a career of action and activivsm, of love and light, of talent and persistence and for all of it. Geena Davis is a GD Bad Ass.
Hear me good sisters and brothers and folks that care about inclusion and the whole GD picture, that demands equal pay, and wants their picture on the wall in the clubhouse and who want to not only break the glass ceiling, but to rebuild it with regenerative solar panels with power enough to run all that jazz and many bags of chips, awake and awarene of the fullness of freedom from the fragile bullshit known as our MF feelings.
Hear me good Sisters. Our feelings ain’t shit. They are merely feelings, and you know what? A GD badass doesn’t join you in your feelings. A GD bad ass says ‘I don’t know, let’s look at the numbers.’ A GD Badass practices an open heart, free of the past, reviewing what is, a true picture of the state of affairs, using the numbers, to evaluate and hold space for other things, markers, ideals, other than our feelings, assumptions and defensiveness, to be in our knowing of the question, has it changed everything or not. A GD Badass leaves things better than when they found it.
For parity, the numbers do not lie, they reveal.
In a recent article on her organization — “With the Geena Davis institute’s cutting-edge data collection technology that measures how female screen and speaking time is disproportionate to men in film and television, Davis has been quietly revolutionizing the way the entertainment industry approaches gender parity.”
Each gender misstep is revealed in the numbers but the numbers are not enough, they are the launching off point to challenge our thoughts, to push for new efforts to reach out beyond what is.
None of the obstacles presented, or the numbers calculated diminish the work of those who have broken through, that we miss in the break through paradigm is the daily care and work and practice of developing a mindset that allows the breakthrough to be a bridge that is the transformative creative evolution where it becomes easier for stories to be told by those who are other than the systems itself as lenses expand into other points of view.
Each and every time one person breaks through it is a keystone for others to follow, what has happened in the idea of ‘this changes everything’ one keystone, polished and offered as an example has not included the necessary linking arms to build bridges for others to cross over and this is the inherent system collapse discussed in ‘This Changes Everything.” and the work behind the movement Geena Davis is being awarded for. What about a female lenser in charge of hiring decisions free from an approved list with a willingness to hold a vision and not stop sharing it supported by real equality reflective of the whole. It is said in circles that while women represent half of the world’s population, they have given birth to the whole population. It is beyond time to recognize the stories and gestalt of women are not just to be celebrated but to be honored and expanded upon. We’re on the same page, and the care and work ahead requires our determination and our voices.
Mr. Donahue is a legend in this particular genre of thought shifting, historical documentary to me from the second he chose to honor Marion Doughtery, one of the most ground breaking human rights advocates and clay shaper that is the contemporary movie business giving life to the modern day casting of words on a page through an actor’s embodiment finding the throughline of talent that represents the soul of the stories in his documentary Casting By, I considered it a first crack in the bricks of respect and contribution of bringing talent to the director to shape the materials through insightful embodiment known as the casting process. Marion Dougherty was just ahead of my time but I did have the pleasure of working with one of her casting proteges Barbara Miller whose advice to me ‘we are casting the world with our choices and our actions, it is as important to trust your heart in connecting essential choices as it is about freeing yourself of what you know to be true so the soul can shine through.’ Mr. Donahue’s talents on that project, laid the groundwork for what is presented in This Changes Everything. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Geena Davis show up and speak at different events and you always learn something new because she is ever evolving, it is a part of her makeup and the uses of her particular enchantment, that appears to be an active heart seeking to challenge her beliefs and her world as a way of life.
Lord, give me the strength, and give me courage and let me stay the course of the purpose of my inspiration in writing in this piece. It is to lift up and honor Geena Davis and her ideas born of years of random studio questions, pitching this and the other, finding her roles and from her personal experiences and contemplation of her place in the world and how she could best serve. It seems like it was a lightbulb moment born of repitition when she would be probed and prodded by one exec or another, questioned about this or that for her weigh in as someone who has succeeded…. ’I don’t know. Let’s look at the numbers.’ This thought combined with some joy of numbers in boxes to sooth that become what we know as statistics has proven a powerful tool and an everyday practical approach to a new day where we are allowed the grace of, shifting a feeling about something into usable numbers to cut through feelings, pressures, assumptions and judgments, all the while allowing for possibility to flow because you are not guessing, you know.
The shining beacon of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media work is the pureness of intention, the clean grace of just the facts that when one person or another says, ‘isn’t it great that so and so broke through and changed everything.’ We all get to say — “I don’t know, let’s take a look at the stats.’
“My cause has not been educating the public but because I have access to everybody in Hollywood I wanted the data to go directly to the creators privately, to offer a way for a shift, because the way it’s operated for so many decades is so ingrained it requires that extra step.” She said.
This Changes Everything is a mantra to everyone who has ever left home with nothing but a dream hoping to find the Promised Land of a storied career.
My old boss, John Landgraf, is featured in the doc discussing the article and the switch it flipped as it revealed to his and others surprise as being ‘one of the worst places for hiring women directors’. Some would call this a tipping point, he took decisive action sending out a note to his creative show-runners, business partners. I worked at FX Networks when “the article” with the numbers on gender parity came out regarding women hires v. male hires in the entertainment business reverberated throughout every department up to the top.
Having worked under the stewardship of John Landgraf during the time of the ‘meeting’ and as ‘the article’ discussed in the doc was brought to the bosses attention, and the halls of FX, through many voices that resonated with its truth. ‘I don’t know. Let’s look at the numbers.’ Well, the numbers were not good. His inclusion in This Changes Everything is a credit to the deep respect for the leadership he showed, in recognizing, after being shown the numbers, he needed to take action. Being a man who respects others work process he chose to send a letter to the show runners throughout his FX kingdom offering them insight and his encouragement to bring parity to the hiring of directors on programs at the networks. One of the bright spots for me was when Ryan Murphy quickly siezed the day and the direction and used the opening to not only empower female directors in the form of hires and mentorship but to include trans, nonbinary folks, different voices and up-level his game, bringing us another breakthrough reckoning whose time was more than ready with POSE and its many ‘firsts.’
It’s amazing what you don’t see until you see it. John Landgraf is a quant believer, a man who uses statistics and reports as part of his problem solving and creative decision making repertoire to guide a deeply creative and powerful operation that supports the ideals of fearlessness. He stands side by side with two powerful, important, highly unique women, Stephanie Gibbons President, Creative, Strategy and Digital, Multi-Platform Marketing and one of an industry described most powerful legendary artistic creative leaders in the entertainment renowned for her curating of talents and expression of what is essential to delivering messaging for the brand, show, artist, executive and Julie Piepenkotter Executive Vice President, Research and wisdom through numbers guru of intelligence, thoughtfulness and the thorough knowing of a great general who has seen it all, who when she speaks, telling you, you are in the weeds, you rethink your entire thought flow.
Landgraf by all accounts is an ally to woman, and all, other than the numbers, indicators showcased a strong respect for and inclusion of women. It was a blow when he saw in black and white in the trade paper that he had failed on hiring women to direct and lead creative production, which reflected through all roles and departments. I had a unique seat to bare witness to a thoughtful industry leader, who was not only kind, considerate and always celebrating successes, a respectful boss, a caring person and husband, deep reader, lover of the ‘quants’ with a deep respect for colleagues, fierce defender and support of talent, expressing their voices, and a fierce and fearless competitor, who would wear his successes and failures on his sleeve as he discussed a decision that went badly in a chance elevator meeting and with deep reverence co-shared leadership of the brand with one of the most powerful creative women in Hollywood heading the marketing team.
The power of an article of quantitative information to open eyes and hearts and connects in a way that could not be dismissed away
What a few numbers here or there can do to cut through the noise.
From the documentary “92 percent of the top-grossing films of 2018 were directed by men.” Geena Davis went on to say “it’s an embarrassment. We should be deeply ashamed that women are half the population and half the students in film school and yet only 4 percent of movies are directed by women. It’s appalling.” It’s not a surprse sexism runs super deep as to not even be recognized and has stubbornly remained unchanged for decades.
As the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media states ‘what happens off screen is as important as what happens on screen.’ Every decision, every shift in pov, every action towards inclusion off screen reflects back to the projection, the world’s stories are being told, different lens, different vistas, different experiences, different perceptions and it is the way of evolution.
Geena Davis is a GD MO F**ing BAD ASS who has given so completely of her experience, offering influence and support for the work when nothing changes when you thought everything would. All she’s poured into her work, the thoughtfulness, the talks, the screenings, the gaze, the power, the green-lighting of female empowerment by asking the question and the listening required to build a bridge has been done for decades by an actress facing the test of time and power and reconciling the action she was called to make and doing it. Putting the forces at her disposal to play so others could experience breakthroughs and insights and in this act of doing what she was called to do another sledgehammer hit the walls of the power structures of the Hollywood system and dents, formed cracks, folks found each other and instead of tearing each other down began saying. ‘I don’t know. Let’s look at the numbers.’ Whenever a wisp of practicality is necessary, there will be the indominatble spirit of Ms. Davis with a smile, grace and all the power of her wizzisdom is on call in the ethers. It is here that Ms. Davis lives on, in the zeitgeist delivering on a promise to shift the POV as necessary work of the 21st Century.
How does one begin to understand the long process of femme representation in film and share it in the thought flow on the make and meaning of Geena Davis and her breakthrough work built off of her own experiences and the intuition from which if flows. Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media opened its inquiry in 2004 and its impact stands as a testament to its namesake.
The discussion brought to mind my female influences that continue without fail to inspire me to keep on going. They were my heroine’s because they were who I saw growing up and while I can’t list all the breakthrough femmes who graced the highest stratospheres of stories I loved a few who leap to mind- Lucille Ball, Barbara Streisand, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Pearl Bailey, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross. Icons all. Women who pioneered, who appealed to the masses drawing massive audiences and benefiting in financial freedom and power. Who seemed to Do it with kindness, do it with grace and to always show up and keep on going.
As an executive producer of This Changes Everything one might think that Geena Davis had a hand in attracting the woman who came on board to give their insights and share their wisdom and a weigh in on selecting the director, some things around executive producing are never as clear cut as things come together as they need to to give life to a particular project.
Champions for gender equality come in all shapes and sizes, all gender identities and all sectors. Mr. Donahue discussed his process with the film and how he was always repping his blindspots and his short falls as the man in the room. ‘Now you understand what it is to be a woman.’ brought a few laughs from the crowd but the presistent thought throughout was ‘Couldn’t this topic have found a female director?
But, let’s not dwell, if you have the opportunity to cast, hire, etc. a woman on a woman’s issue. Hire a f-ing woman.
Taking a stab at the distillation of what the champions for gender equality want you to know for your consideration:
1) Defy stereotypes allows for intersectional representation.
2) Talk the talk is part of it, but to teach is to demonstrate. Your actions bring results.
3) Disruption of existing cults in our cultural systems that represent as toxic abuses of power, including pervasive versions of masculinity, systemic, HR, Creative Technology, Business List Practices are necessary as a commitment to transfrom. 4) Don’t stand for intolerance on any level in any way. The ability to transform what was is to release it all into the present moment and allow for a new possibility to unfold.
With that –Donahue is a legend in my mind when he chose to honor Marion Dougherty one of the most ground breaking actor advocates and shaper of all that is the clay of the movie business by giving life to words on a page through her talent of recognizing an actor’s essential embodiment that represents the soul. I considered it a first crack in the bricks of respect and contribution of a large female ability to bring talent to the director, to shape the materials through insightful embodiment as the casting process. While Marion was just ahead of my time but I did have the pleasure of working with one of her proteges Barbara Miller. Her insight on building and developing instincts of insight with ‘we are casting the world with our choices and our actions. It is as important to trust your heart in connecting the concept of choice, it is about freeing yourself into what you know to be true.’
Sitting in the audience taking a mental portrait of each of the panelists, reflecting for a moment, what if I had the numbers when I started my career? How would it have impacted on my media career and would it have shifted the ways I was unknowingly complicit in the problem and would knowing cause me to actively work every day, as I do now, to create opportunities for thosewho would follow my footsteps. I grew up believing in the trope of the undiscovered super hero powers of the under-appreciated, the Cinderella story, from my home state of Pennsylvannia ROCKY living up to his potential. The potential that lay within us expressed outwardly changing the world. The idea that with care and work and a chance, everything was possible.
What one person has accomplished is a fraction of what is possible for each of us. The fallacy and the falsehood is that when this happens for one of us, it changes everything for all of us. But, nope. It is the process, the practice and the principle of application, of allowing bridges to be built based on the care and work transforming the power levers that choose to oppress through omission or direct exclusion. The potential that lay within us expressed outwardly changing the world.
Grateful to Geena Davis for all she has done, for all she has represented and for an unerring powerful demonstration of what it means to ask, to inquire, to show up, to represent from the heart of what matters and to keep going, in spite of glad handing and breakthroughs, to march on into a new day where we are represented for who we are, for what matters with stories in equal depth of field and possibility.
Brava, Geena Davis!
Melanie Lutz is a filmmaker and love activist working in Los Angeles, CA.
follow her at twitter @MobileMel or IG @MelsLoveLand