Thelma & Louise: The Last Great Film About WomenBy Raina LipsitzAug 31 2011The movie came out two decades ago, but its message has been lostMGMWhen it was released in the summer of 1991, Thelma & Louise was declared "the first movie Iveever seen which told the downright truth" by a lesbian activist in Los Angeles and a "paean totransformative violence" by commentator John Leo. New York Daily News columnist RichardJohnson complained that it was "degrading to men" and "justifies armed robbery, manslaughterand chronic drunken driving as exercises in consciousness raising." With a handful of exceptions,women loved it.The movie starred Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as friends who set off on a road trip andbecome outlaws after Sarandons character shoots a would-be rapist. May marked its 20thanniversary. In 1992, screenwriter Callie Khouri became one of a handful of women to win anAcademy Award for best original screenplay, and Thelma & Louise earned more than $45 million atthe U.S. box office. Sarandon and Davis were each nominated in the Best Actress category, anddirector Ridley Scott was nominated for Best Director.The film smuggled its politics in under the guise of two happy-go-lucky gals taking a road triptogether.At a screening of "Thelma & Louise" earlier this month, I was struck by how many lines of dialogueI remembered word for word. I was only 9 when it came out in theatres and I didnt see it untilmany years after it was released. When I finally did, at age 25, I was electrified. At 28, I was again
entranced, silently mouthing my favourite lines along with Sarandon and Davis, laughing semi-hysterically at every sad-funny scene featuring Thelmas twitchy-eyed sexist jerk of a husband, andchoking back a sob when Louise bade her final farewell to Jimmy.After the screening, there was a panel discussion of how far women had come twenty years later."This movie would never get made today," sighed one of the panelists, and the audience membersmurmured their assent. Its shocking enough that it was distributed in 1991, but at least back thenAmerican women were experiencing something like momentum: Anita Hill stood up for herself atClarence Thomass confirmation hearings, Callie Khouri won an Oscar, and, when four women weresimultaneously elected to the United States Senate, 1992 was dubbed the "Year of the Woman."This year, the number of women in Congress dropped for the first time since 1978. Last year,women held only 15.7 percent of board seats and 14.4 percent of executive officer positions inFortune 500 companies. A new study shows that the number of women working as writers anddirectors on prime-time television programs dropped significantly in the 2010-11 season. Womennow account for only 15 percent of writers on the major television networks prime-time dramas,comedies, and reality shows, down from 29 percent in the 2009-10 season. Only 11 percent ofdirectors in this years television season were women, compared with 16 percent last season, andonly 25 percent of series creators, producers, executive producers, directors, writers, editors anddirectors of photography were women, representing a decline of two percentage points from lastseason. By every significant measure of social, political, and cultural power, todays women arelosing ground. The cultural climate of 2011 appears even less likely to produce a movie ofcomparable significance than it was 20 years ago.Thelma & Louise was originally advertised as a lighthearted female buddy pic (see the originaltrailer, which I initially mistook for a parody). It smuggled its politics in under the guise of twohappy-go-lucky gals taking a road trip together; the trailer did not even hint at its darker core. Butthis was no romp—it was revolutionary, the first film in a long time to tell the truth about womenslives. Not only did it star two women, but their friendship was the films central subject, the storywas written by a woman, and those stars were, at the time, 35 and 45—well past their prime byHollywoods ever-narrowing standards of physical perfection. Though portrayed as sexuallyattractive, Davis and Sarandon had more to do than sit around looking pretty.There are no such movies today. The Bechdel test (named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel) is a meansof assessing a movies treatment of its female characters. In order to pass the test, a movie musthave: (1) at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something other than aman or men. A popular variant of the test additionally requires that both women have names.Twenty years ago, Thelma & Louise passed the Bechdel test easily. I can think of only three widelydistributed movies that passed in the last year: Something Borrowed, Bridesmaids, and The Help.None approached the depth or level of nuance of Thelma & Louise, and only The Help featuredactresses of the same calibre as Davis and Sarandon.Bridesmaids is an enjoyably ribald comedy that dips a tentative toe in the darker waters ofchanging friendships, loneliness, and disillusionment. Its frivolous and fun, but hardly earth-shattering, despite the tremendous amount of credit its makers were awarded for assembling amovie with a predominantly female cast. The overwrought and forgettable Something Borrowedonly passes the Bechdel test on a technicality: Kate Hudson and Ginnifer Goodwin spend about tenminutes of screen time discussing something other than a man or men. (That "something" is their
longstanding friendship, which Goodwins character ultimately trades in for a man). Thoughinspiringly female-centric, The Help is about womens lives rather than individual women; its notfocused enough to create main characters as vivid and enduring as Thelma & Louise.Thelma & Louise is powerful in part because its about more than friendship. Movies that examinethe bonds between women are few and far between, but they exist, from Beaches to Terms ofEndearment, The Color Purple, Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, and A League of Their Own.Thelma & Louise transcends the genre; its about transformation and liberation that at onceintensely personal and deeply political. Its about escaping, however fantastically, the agonizingconstraints of gender, class, time, and place."Somethings crossed over in me and I cant go back," explains Thelma, "I mean, I just couldntlive." She has lost the desire and even the capacity to return to her old life of downtroddendomesticity and her brutish, domineering husband. Earlier in the film Louise tells her, "You getwhat you settle for," and, by the movies end, both women are through with settling. "I dontremember ever feelin this awake," says Thelma as they drive through the desert in the middle ofthe night, leaving their old lives behind. "Everything looks different. You know what I mean ...Everything looks new. Do you feel like that? Like youve got something to look forward to?" Intodays movies, getting a ring from a man has replaced authentic moments of personaltransformation and spiritual awakening as the high point of womens lives.Callie Khouris triumphant final image of the two heroines locking hands as Louise drives themover a cliff is impossible to forget. Some feminists fretted that this ending represented the ultimatepunishment for the womens defiant journey of self-discovery. Although its implied that theycommit suicide—we do not actually see them die—this was still a choice that they made, and onethat struck them, and many viewers, as preferable to life in prison or death by lethal injection. Ifthey were only able to live on their own terms for a single lost weekend, at least they would grantthemselves the dignity of dying on those terms as well. In the world of the film, what other choicedid they have? As Louise says to Thelma when Thelma suggests that they turn themselves in,"Whos gonna believe [us]? We just dont live in that kind of world." We still dont.When asked in an interview why her heroines commit suicide at the films end, Callie Khourifamously responded: "To me, the ending was symbolic, not literal ... We did everything possible tomake sure you didnt see a literal death. That you didnt see the car land, you didnt see a big puffof smoke come up out of the canyon. You were left with the image of them flying. They flew away,out of this world and into the mass unconscious. Women who are completely free from all theshackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough to supportthem ... I loved that ending and I loved the imagery. After all they went through, I didnt wantanybody to be able to touch them." I share Khouris sentiments about the ending, which I havealways loved. To me, it represented not death or punishment but hope, and even a kind of radical,ultimate fulfilment. Today, movies about women end with a wedding. Even its proponents canhardly argue that the aim of marriage is to set women free.In 1991, even gossip columnist Liz Smith found Thelma & Louises liberation troubling, particularlyits sexual aspect. "Nobody in Thelma & Louise worries about AIDS, using condoms orencountering a serial killer," Smith primly noted. Surely the number of Hollywood sex scenes thatdepict a character of any gender reaching for a condom mid-action is low. What really botheredpeople is that "Thelma & Louise" understood and realistically portrayed the way women
experience sex. Much has been made of Brad Pitts performance, which was widely hailed as hisbreakout role. He played a sweet-talking hitchhiker/felon who shows Thelma "what all the fuss isabout" in bed. Their scenes together are funny, touching, and genuinely erotic.Khouri knew that women like context—Thelma and her new friend didnt have time to go to dinnerand get to know each other, but their chemistry is believably established in the scenes they sharetogether outside of bed. The actual sex scene stayed with me for years not because Brad Pitt hadsuch a nice body—though he did—but because he and Davis seemed to get along so well. Youfeel as if they like each other, not just each others bodies. They flirt and tease and laugh and playtogether. It was her first taste of real intimacy with a man that made the sex so good for Thelma,not the way her lovers body looked in jeans (although she liked that too). That scene possessed ahumanity that is absent from every major movie sex scene Ive watched since.Between Brad Pitts enormously appealing performance as Daviss lover and Michael Madsenstouching turn as Sarandons flawed but loving boyfriend, its astonishing that anyone consideredthis movie anti-male. Even Harvey Keitels Detective Slocumb was honest, compassionate, andkind. "Thelma & Louise" has unpleasant male characters, including a rapist, a compulsive harasserof women, and a nasty, child-like husband, but real life has rapists, harassers, and mean husbandstoo. I suspect critics were actually troubled by the fact that we dont get to know any malecharacters apart from their relationship with Thelma and/or Louise. As Janet Maslin explained inthe New York Times in 1991, the real objection to Thelma & Louise was neither its violence nor itsprotagonists purported misandry; rather, it was "something as simple as it is powerful: the factthat the men in this story dont really matter." For 129 glorious minutes, two women were the starsof their own lives, and their lives did not revolve around men.Melissa Silverstein, who writes and edits a blog called "Women & Hollywood," was among thepanelists at the screening I attended. "Thelma & Louise is still a touchstone for so many peoplebecause it has never been recreated," she observed. "When a movie is successful, its usuallyrecreated over and over and over again."Why didnt Thelma & Louise usher in a new era for women in Hollywood? As the reactions ofcertain critics in 1991 revealed, even smart, educated people are disturbed by female characterswho assert control over their lives and bodies and arent punished for it. And as Callie Khouri toldThe Observer in 2001, "Bad guys get killed in every goddamn movie that gets made ... that guy wasthe bad guy and he got killed. It was only because a woman did it that there was any controversyat all."At least back then we got to have the controversy. Today, we dont make movies about womenthat are even worth fighting about. Whenever Im dispirited by the crassly sexist ethos that governsHollywood (as well as television, politics, and the corporate world) today, I think of "Thelma andLouise" and remember a time, not so long ago, when women were allowed to be human, if only inthe movies.