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*.
Thelma and Louise is so iconic in both its narrative and portrayal of women onscreen that it’s legacy is still living on today. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as Thelma and Louise (respectively) still frequently discuss the film’s impact on cinema today, and both Davis and Sarandon have taken huge steps to help promote gender diversity within the industry. It’s remarkable that on watching it 25 years after it’s initial release, the messages about women, society, patriarchy and masculinity are still so relevant. Perhaps they are even more relevant now than ever. Despite the achievements of female directors in recent years and the rise of female representation on-screen, watching Thelma and Louise made me realise that there is something still very much amiss with regards to the film industry’s attitude towards women. This shouldn’t really be news to anyone (sadly we haven’t even nearly reached a point where representation is what we want to it to be) but it is the depth and development of the film’s titular characters which truly astounded me. I’m not going to pretend that Thelma and Louise is a perfect film, or that it isn’t well and truly whitewashed. It certainly does have its faults – faults which are important to discuss as well. So let’s get into it.
Thelma and Louise
, whilst cleverly marketed as a fun-filled road movie
, explores issues of sexism, friendship and relationships whilst remaining firmly a very, very dark comedy. Waitress Louise embarks on the road trip of a lifetime with her best friend Thelma, a housewife with a horrific excuse for a husband. The tone is set when Thelma decides that can’t tell husband Darryl that she is going on a weekend trip with her best friend (for fear that he might stop her), and instead leaves a can in the microwave for him when he gets home. As they begin their journey (both physical and metaphorical), Louise is the sensible one, a mother to Thelma. When they stop at a roadside bar for a quick drink, Louise keeps a protective eye over Thelma as she lets everything hang loose – something she is usually unable to do because of her husband. Thelma represents the freedom that women are allowed without men around – she is excited for the trip because she can finally live and enjoy herself. Oh Thelma…
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.
On the road, desperate for money and a safe place to find refuge, Thelma and Louise change dramatically. Thelma, who married her high school sweetheart and would never hurt a fly, successfully holds up a corner shop and makes off with the money. She points a gun at a policeman’s head, forces him to get into his own boot and locks him in there – not before shooting him some air holes, of course. In short, Thelma discovers that she has a real talent – for being a criminal. She is finally holding her own and out from beneath Darryl’s thumb. She’s also holding her own against Louise – their previous relationship dynamic rested on Louise telling Thelma what to do and where to go, now it is Thelma who directs Louise to shoot the radio (“the police radio!”). Louise, whilst managing to hold it together to begin with, loses all sensibility when their money disappears with a very young Brad Pitt (character name J.D). It’s not a simple role reversal, rather both Thelma and Louise’s character adapt to their situation, finding strength in each other in ways they hadn’t before.
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?
Undeniably, Thelma and Louise is a really white film. What I mean by this is that there are very, very few POC within it and when they do appear it’s in an incredibly cliched capacity (black cyclist smoking pot on the highway, for example). I’m not entirely sure why this is, Thelma and Louise being made in 1991 and set in the United States South doesn’t scream ‘white people everywhere’. It’s true that Thelma and Louise speaks in a dialogue accessible to women everywhere, but the their life experiences are typically white. In light of recent events (I say recent but this has been going on years), could you imagine if two black women killed a guy and drove halfway across America on the run from the cops. I can’t imagine that Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) would have called them up and asked them politely to come home, nor would they necessarily be portrayed as women who had just got themselves in a bit of a trouble. There is a massive amount of white privilege afforded to both Thelma and Louise, on account of them both being ‘nice, white women’ with no record and no history of violence. They are given the benefit of the doubt, and even when it becomes clear to Keitel and the rest of the police force that these women are guilty of killing someone, robbing a store and setting a oil tanker on fire, they are never treated like criminals.
This brings us nicely onto the interrogation of J.D. by Keitel’s Detective Slocumb, where Keital’s officer asks Pitt whether he thinks they the girls would have robbed the store if he hadn’t stolen all of their money. His question is completely allegorical of every event that occurs within the time-frame of the film, and arguably before too. If Thelma’s husband hadn’t been such a grade A asshole, would she have even gone off with Louise in the first place without telling him? Had Harlan not attacked Thelma, Louise surely wouldn’t have shot him. If Brad Pitt hadn’t stolen their money, Thelma wouldn’t have robbed the store. The cyclical nature of these acts hols a mirror up to society’s expectations of men as active aggressors, and women as passive objects who are shaped and molded by the actions done to them. Thelma and Louise break out of this cycle by choosing to end their own lives rather than face going back into the patriarchal and oppressive society that they live in.
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.