Often, when you ask actors about the cultural impact of their films, they tell stories about fan encounters on the sidewalk, in a restaurant, or at the grocery store. But in the months following the release of Thelma & Louise, in 1991, Geena Davis could not drive down the boulevard without being recognized behind the wheel.

At red lights, she would hear “wild honking” from the cars next to her, then turn to see “women popping out of every window and sunroof.” Once, a cop looked over, grinned, and wagged his finger at the actress, as if to say, “You’re the one who put a cop in her trunk in that movie,” she told me in an interview last week.

I wondered aloud if Davis was aware that there once existed a pair of fourth-floor conference rooms in SoHo named “Thelma” and “Louise.” Or that people in a handful of cities owned co-working-space merchandise emblazoned with the phrase In a League of Our Own, a reference to another of her roles.

“You’re kidding,” Davis said. “Oh, that’s funny. That is funny. It was called the Ring?”

The Wing,” I repeated.

Susan Sarandon and Davis in Thelma & Louise, 1991.

Today, name-checking Thelma & Louise evokes the kind of radical, no-holds-barred feminism most decisively articulated in the film’s final minute. But before Thelma & Louise was released, “nobody had any clue about whether people were even going to like it or not,” Davis said.

After all, the film had been stuck in development hell. When Ridley Scott read Callie Khouri’s screenplay, he was immediately interested in producing the movie and began looking for a director. But Hollywood had a hard time wrapping its head around the script, Davis recalled. (One director said, “It’s just two bitches in cars.”)

Scott decided to direct it himself, with Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer in the lead roles. (Khouri originally had Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand in mind.) When Foster dropped out, to do The Silence of the Lambs, Davis had her agent call Scott’s office every week for a year to let him know she was “available and interested.” Clearly, her tenacity paid off, and she signed a deal to play either Thelma or Louise.

Davis became Thelma after Scott cast Susan Sarandon as Louise. From the very first day of pre-production, Sarandon proposed revisions to the script—including a new scene—and advocated for herself. “How had I never been exposed to a woman like this?,” Davis writes in her memoir, Dying of Politeness, which will be published next week.

Davis in A League of Their Own, 1992.

During the early 1990s, Davis starred in Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own back-to-back. The reaction to those films was so “surprising and significant,” she said, that it highlighted just how few movies were made by women, for women.

After those experiences, she “wanted to play characters who are in charge of their own fate, who make important decisions for themselves and don’t turn their life over to somebody else.” But behind the scenes, she struggled to advocate for herself, a dissonance she chronicles in Dying of Politeness.

In spare, accessible prose, Davis describes a repressed childhood in New England, life on set during the beginning of her career, and her decision to become a “data geek” in middle age. Her self-described “journey to badassery” gets dishy too: Dustin Hoffman mentors (“He took my future very seriously, for a brand-new, young female actor. And was constantly teaching me things that might be helpful to know later on,” she says), Bill Murray hazes in a hotel room and then verbally accosts on set (“I think a lot of people will say we kind of knew this about him”), and Jack Nicholson propositions.

“When Thelma & Louise came out,” Davis said, “the media were sort of unanimous in saying that it was going to ‘change everything,’” in terms of the producibility of women’s stories. “It profoundly didn’t.” Neither did A League of Their Own, or The First Wives Club, or The Hunger Games, or any of the other feminist films earmarked as likely harbingers of change. (The emptiness of the phrase “This changes everything!” became such that it was used to title a documentary produced by Davis about gender disparity in Hollywood.)

Sarandon and Davis in Thelma & Louise. “How had I never been exposed to a woman like this?,” Davis writes of her co-star in her memoir.

Davis soon realized gender bias was unconscious. When her daughter, now 20, was in pre-school, Davis noticed that the male characters on children’s shows consistently had more screen time or more interesting story lines than the female characters, she said. In meetings, at lunches, and during events, she mentioned this to her Hollywood colleagues. “Every single person said that it wasn’t true,” she recalled. “I’m talking about dozens and dozens of people that I asked.”

Because numbers had historically made more of an impact than anecdotal evidence in Hollywood, where executives “think that there’s more progress than there has been,” she commissioned a series of studies and presented the findings privately—“in a very friendly way”—to the studio executives and creators responsible for churning out kids’ television.

Fast forward 15 years, when Davis received an honorary Oscar—the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, for her work. Three years ago, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that there were equal numbers of male and female leads in children’s television. In 2020, they found that the same had happened with the characters in family films.

Though hyper-sexualization is still an issue, Davis said, “no agent is ever going to let their female client take an audition in a hotel room again.” And female actors now feel empowered to speak up if a male co-star is making five times as much. Back when she made Thelma & Louise, she said, “we felt like your reputation had to be spotless as far as causing no problems,” at the risk of being replaced. “But it’s not like that anymore. It really isn’t.”

The unforgettable final scene of Thelma & Louise.

One of the reasons we still remember Thelma & Louise is because the title characters apologize almost every time they take out their guns. Most of the film is conversation between Davis and Sarandon as they outrun the F.B.I. after avenging an attempted rape and robbing a convenience store at gunpoint. “It was one of the first times that women felt that there was a film that told the truth about their lives, and their experiences of mundane sexual harassment, rape, and violence,” Jane Caputi, a professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Florida Atlantic University, said. “It was clearly part of a genre of rape-revenge films, where a woman is raped and then takes some kind of action against that.”

Few commercially successful films have gone there as explicitly, but recently Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You emerged as younger cousins. Per Caputi, these are “deeply ontological” because “they’re spiritual forms that show somebody’s journey of becoming, despite that kind of trauma.” And at the end of Thelma & Louise, the pair become a “mythic presence.”

“It’s astounding to be in a movie that has lasted this long,” Davis says. “I have people constantly saying it’s just as impactful now as it was then.”

Dying of Politeness, by Geena Davis, will be published on October 11 by HarperOne

Kate Dwyer is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Cut, and elsewhere