I am about to make a very embarrassing confession. Well, two actually. The first is that before this week, I had never watched Thelma and Louise before. It’s reputation as a forerunner in feminist cinema had, of course, preceded it but I had never quite found the time to watch it. Which brings me on to my second confession, seeing Thelma and Louise in glorious 35mm at the Prince Charles Cinema in London was also my first time going to the cinema solo. This isn’t quite as embarrassing as calling yourself a feminist film critic whilst simultaneously never having seen the (alleged) greatest feminist road movie of all, but I do feel like the lone cinema trip is something that every cinephile must do once. Happily, I couldn’t have picked a better event.
As I walked out of the cinema after the 25th Anniversary screening of the film, I found myself quoting Thelma. Something inside of me had changed and I couldn’t go back. In other words, I had discovered my new favourite film*.
At the roadside bar, Thelma and Louise’s lives change forever. Thelma meets and dances with Harlen, stepping outside with him when she begins to feel sick. In the car park, Harlen attempts to rape Thelma, until Louise arrives and puts a gun to his head. Though Thelma gets away from him, Louise shoots Harlen after he tells them that he should have carried on with Thelma (paraphrased, obviously). With Harlen lying dead (and deservedly so, at the moment in the cinema, everyone whooped and clapped), Louise and Thelma have no choice but to get in that 1966 Ford Thunderbird and drive. For a film made 25 years ago, the discussion of rape culture has never been more relevant today. As Louise remarks, the two of them cannot simply go to the police and claim self defense because “the world doesn’t work that way”.
Sadly, the world still very much doesn’t work that way – victim blaming and rape culture still dominate the media and trials – a woman who is dressed ‘provocatively’, is drunk or even knows her rapist is very unlikely to ever see a conviction. As with Thelma, she’s more likely to hear that she has led her attacker on. Whilst Louise and Thelma’s situation exemplifies exactly why rape culture is so terrible (and does it better than any other film I’ve seen), it’s also a sad reminder that nothing has really changed.
The road can be seen as a feminized space, outside of that society. As Thelma and Louise drive, they achieve an amount of freedom they have never experienced before. As Thelma says, she feels alive for the first time in her life and she can’t go back. The journey that the two women embark on is one that all women can relate to – the feeling of camaraderie between two best friends.
Is Thelma and Louise a Feminist Triumph?
I mean, aside from all of the feminist film theory, Thelma and Louise is just a really fantastically funny and intelligent film. It’s symptomatic of a truly tumultuous period of feminism – second wave feminism was disappearing fast as we realised that it was the freedom to choose our own lives and our own paths that was intrinsic to feminism. It’s why the ending of Thelma and Louise is so tragic but so appropriate. Though limited, they have a choice. They choose to go forward, not to go back.
It holds up wonderfully 25 years later (in fact, it’s only the cute and questionable fashion choices that really age it – so much denim!). Thelma and Louise’s story is timeless, their friendship limitless. It was so fantastic to see one of the first truly feminist mainstream films in a cinema, on 35mm print – complete with cigarette burns. Phenomenal.
I’d also highly recommend checking out the rest of the season programmed by Check The Gate…. there’s some fantastic films coming up! I’m holding out for Scream personally….
*small disclaimer. I do say this about every single film I watch and immensely enjoy – being hyperbolic is one of my greatest traits. However (like 2001 A Space Odyssey and Upstream Colour) I think Thelma and Louise will, at the very least, be in my top ten films of all time for a long time to come.