geena davis
CNN  — 

As a slugger, a president, the Thelma to Louise or an advocate for gender parity in Hollywood, Geena Davis is the ultimate female protagonist.

Through her performances in the hit films “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own,” along with her television portrayal of America’s first female president in the series “Commander in Chief,” Davis has been challenging gender stereotypes decades before “pussyhats” and “the future is female” shirts.

Improving the status of women in our culture, Davis believes, requires improving how women are represented in the entertainment industry, both off-screen and on.

Through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Davis is working to advance gender balance in film and television. She also champions diverse entertainment projects through the Bentonville Film Festival, which Davis helped launch in 2015.

The Academy-Award winner spoke to CNN in a recent interview about feminism’s bad rap and why she still calls Susan Sarandon her hero.

What was the impetus for starting your film festival?

I’ve been working for over 10 years now, diligently, on trying to get more and better female characters in what kids see, in kids movies and TV. This opportunity came up to really expand what I was doing to include diversity and also include women behind-the-camera.

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis taking Polaroid of themselves in a scene from the film 'Thelma & Louise', 1991. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

You’ve opened doors for other women in Hollywood, are you satisfied with the progress women have made [in the industry] or is there more work to be done?

I’m not at all satisfied. I’m sort of allergic to the idea now because I’ve gotten so into research and numbers and facts. I’m allergic to judging progress in any other way than data because anecdotal evidence is pretty useless. When “Thelma & Louise” came out, it struck a real nerve. The media all announced, ‘This changes everything.’ We were certainly going to see many more movies starring female characters. “League Of Their Own” came out next for me, and it was said, again, ‘Oh, now we’re going to see this change everything, too.’ It was a huge hit and neither prediction proved to be true. Over the years, I noticed that it never was true. In fact, we know now that the ratio of male to female characters in film is exactly the way it was in 1946. It’s never gotten better. As far as behind the camera, those numbers are absolutely glacial as well.

Have you purposefully chosen to play strong female leads?

I was always making unusual choices like “Beetlejuice” or “Earth Girls Are Easy,” interesting things because I just wanted to play challenging and interesting characters that got to do stuff. I really avoided being the girlfriend of the person that was doing something. I didn’t realize at the time but in hindsight, I think I wanted to play characters who were strong, who were in charge of their own fate and made their own decisions. But then “Thelma & Louise” really changed everything. I just wanted to be in it desperately because it was two of the best female characters I’d ever read. I thought it was extraordinarily well written, but then the reaction to it was so informative in a way that it really brought home to me how few opportunities we give women to feel inspired by the female characters in a movie. It was really happenstance that I got offered “A League Of Their Own” next, but it was perfect. I was, like, ‘Wow, I’m all set. These are the characters I want to play. I’m going to break the mold. I’m going to do only these kinds of movies.’ But those are difficult parts to come by.

Geena Davis in the 1992 film "A League of Their Own" alongside Tom Hanks.

Would you say those two movies impacted your life more than any other movies you’ve been part of?

Absolutely, there’s no question. “Thelma & Louise” the most, just because it was first. It absolutely changed my life and has driven my commitment to help empower women and girls ever since. It dramatically took me off in a direction that I couldn’t have anticipated.

Out of all the characters you’ve ever played, who is the most like you?

I’m not presidential in my real life. I’m not an athletic phenomenon in my real life. I’m not an amnesic assassin or a road warrior. Maybe I’m a little bit like Muriel in “Accidental Tourist,” not as extreme as she was, but I’m a little weird and quirky.

Geena Davis, 'Commander in Chief'

What do you think it means to be a feminist?

I always say the definition of a feminist in the dictionary is the belief in equal rights for women socially and economically. The media conspired to make it so much bigger and less attractive than what it really is. With that definition, there shouldn’t be any American who would say I’m not a feminist. If you asked anybody if they believe women should have equal rights, who is going to say no? Unfortunately, it’s the word that’s gotten such a bad rap, and I always try to bring it back to its humble definition. I would say it’s important to try to be awake and recognize situations where you are giving up some of your power or authority because you think it’s expected of you or more attractive. It’s taken me a long, long time. I still find myself in situations where I say, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I apologizing for what I’m saying?’ So, you have to be vigilant about it, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can almost always say what I think.

You have been in several movies alongside women who are feminists in their own right, do you keep in touch?

It’s fabulous! I keep in touch with Rosie [O’Donnell] and a lot of the actresses on “A League of Their Own.” Susan [Sarandon] and I have stayed really close friends over the last 26 years and she is my hero. It’s so embarrassing to her that I say this, but she’s been such an incredible role model to me as far as somebody who really lives comfortably within their own body and is comfortable expressing herself and saying what she thinks and just modeling that for me every minute of every day.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.