'Thelma & Louise': The Last Great Film About Women

The movie came out two decades ago, but its message has been lost

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When it was released in the summer of 1991, Thelma & Louise was declared "the first movie I've ever seen which told the downright truth" by a lesbian activist in Los Angeles and a "paean to transformative violence" by commentator John Leo. New York Daily News columnist Richard Johnson complained that it was "degrading to men" and "justifies armed robbery, manslaughter and 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 and become outlaws after Sarandon's character shoots a would-be rapist. May marked its 20th anniversary. In 1992, screenwriter Callie Khouri became one of a handful of women to win an Academy Award for best original screenplay, and Thelma & Louise earned more than $45 million at the U.S. box office. Sarandon and Davis were each nominated in the Best Actress category, and director Ridley Scott was nominated for Best Director.

At a screening of "Thelma & Louise" earlier this month, I was struck by how many lines of dialogue I remembered word for word. I was only 9 when it came out in theaters and I didn't see it until many years after it was released. When I finally did, at age 25, I was electrified. At 28, I was again entranced, silently mouthing my favorite lines along with Sarandon and Davis, laughing semi-hysterically at every sad-funny scene featuring Thelma's twitchy-eyed sexist jerk of a husband, and choking 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 members murmured their assent. It's shocking enough that it was distributed in 1991, but at least back then American women were experiencing something like momentum: Anita Hill stood up for herself at Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings, Callie Khouri won an Oscar, and, when four women were simultaneously 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 in Fortune 500 companies. A new study shows that the number of women working as writers and directors on prime-time television programs dropped significantly in the 2010-11 season. Women now 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 of directors in this year's television season were women, compared with 16 percent last season, and only 25 percent of series creators, producers, executive producers, directors, writers, editors and directors of photography were women, representing a decline of two percentage points from last season. By every significant measure of social, political, and cultural power, today's women are losing ground. The cultural climate of 2011 appears even less likely to produce a movie of comparable significance than it was 20 years ago.

Thelma & Louise was originally advertised as a lighthearted female buddy pic (see the original trailer, which I initially mistook for a parody). It smuggled its politics in under the guise of two happy-go-lucky gals taking a road trip together; the trailer did not even hint at its darker core. But this was no romp—it was revolutionary, the first film in a long time to tell the truth about women's lives. Not only did it star two women, but their friendship was the film's central subject, the story was written by a woman, and those stars were, at the time, 35 and 45—well past their prime by Hollywood's ever-narrowing standards of physical perfection. Though portrayed as sexually attractive, 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 means of assessing a movie's treatment of its female characters. In order to pass the test, a movie must have: (1) at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something other than a man 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 widely distributed 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 featured actresses of the same caliber as Davis and Sarandon.

Bridesmaids is an enjoyably ribald comedy that dips a tentative toe in the darker waters of changing friendships, loneliness, and disillusionment. It's frivolous and fun, but hardly earth-shattering, despite the tremendous amount of credit its makers were awarded for assembling a movie with a predominantly female cast. The overwrought and forgettable Something Borrowed only passes the Bechdel test on a technicality: Kate Hudson and Ginnifer Goodwin spend about ten minutes of screen time discussing something other than a man or men. (That "something" is their longstanding friendship, which Goodwin's character ultimately trades in for a man). Though inspiringly female-centric, The Help is about women's lives rather than individual women; it's not focused enough to create main characters as vivid and enduring as Thelma & Louise.

Thelma & Louise is powerful in part because it's about more than friendship. Movies that examine the bonds between women are few and far between, but they exist, from Beaches to Terms of Endearment, The Color Purple, Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, and A League of Their Own. Thelma & Louise transcends the genre; it's about transformation and liberation that at once intensely personal and deeply political. It's about escaping, however fantastically, the agonizing constraints of gender, class, time, and place.

"Something's crossed over in me and I can't go back," explains Thelma, "I mean, I just couldn't live." She has lost the desire and even the capacity to return to her old life of downtrodden domesticity and her brutish, domineering husband. Earlier in the film Louise tells her, "You get what you settle for," and, by the movie's end, both women are through with settling. "I don't remember ever feelin' this awake," says Thelma as they drive through the desert in the middle of the night, leaving their old lives behind. "Everything looks different. You know what I mean ... Everything looks new. Do you feel like that? Like you've got something to look forward to?" In today's movies, getting a ring from a man has replaced authentic moments of personal transformation and spiritual awakening as the high point of women's lives.

Callie Khouri's triumphant final image of the two heroines locking hands as Louise drives them over a cliff is impossible to forget. Some feminists fretted that this ending represented the ultimate punishment for the women's defiant journey of self-discovery. Although it's implied that they commit suicide—we do not actually see them die—this was still a choice that they made, and one that struck them, and many viewers, as preferable to life in prison or death by lethal injection. If they were only able to live on their own terms for a single lost weekend, at least they would grant themselves the dignity of dying on those terms as well. In the world of the film, what other choice did they have? As Louise says to Thelma when Thelma suggests that they turn themselves in, "Who's gonna believe [us]? We just don't live in that kind of world." We still don't.

When asked in an interview why her heroines commit suicide at the film's end, Callie Khouri famously responded: "To me, the ending was symbolic, not literal ... We did everything possible to make sure you didn't see a literal death. That you didn't see the car land, you didn't see a big puff of 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 the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough to support them ... I loved that ending and I loved the imagery. After all they went through, I didn't want anybody to be able to touch them." I share Khouri's sentiments about the ending, which I have always loved. To me, it represented not death or punishment but hope, and even a kind of radical, ultimate fulfillment. Today, movies about women end with a wedding. Even its proponents can hardly argue that the aim of marriage is to set women free.

In 1991, even gossip columnist Liz Smith found Thelma & Louise's liberation troubling, particularly its sexual aspect. "Nobody in 'Thelma & Louise' worries about AIDS, using condoms or encountering a serial killer," Smith primly noted. Surely the number of Hollywood sex scenes that depict a character of any gender reaching for a condom mid-action is low. What really bothered people is that "Thelma & Louise" understood and realistically portrayed the way women experience sex. Much has been made of Brad Pitt's performance, which was widely hailed as his breakout role. He played a sweet-talking hitchhiker/felon who shows Thelma "what all the fuss is about" in bed. Their scenes together are funny, touching, and genuinely erotic.

Khouri knew that women like context—Thelma and her new friend didn't have time to go to dinner and get to know each other, but their chemistry is believably established in the scenes they share together outside of bed. The actual sex scene stayed with me for years not because Brad Pitt had such a nice body—though he did—but because he and Davis seemed to get along so well. You feel as if they like each other, not just each other's bodies. They flirt and tease and laugh and play together. It was her first taste of real intimacy with a man that made the sex so good for Thelma, not the way her lover's body looked in jeans (although she liked that too). That scene possessed a humanity that is absent from every major movie sex scene I've watched since.

Between Brad Pitt's enormously appealing performance as Davis's lover and Michael Madsen's touching turn as Sarandon's flawed but loving boyfriend, it's astonishing that anyone considered this movie anti-male. Even Harvey Keitel's Detective Slocumb was honest, compassionate, and kind. "Thelma & Louise" has unpleasant male characters, including a rapist, a compulsive harasser of women, and a nasty, child-like husband, but real life has rapists, harassers, and mean husbands too. I suspect critics were actually troubled by the fact that we don't get to know any male characters apart from their relationship with Thelma and/or Louise. As Janet Maslin explained in the New York Times in 1991, the real objection to Thelma & Louise was neither its violence nor its protagonists' purported misandry; rather, it was "something as simple as it is powerful: the fact that the men in this story don't really matter." For 129 glorious minutes, two women were the stars of their own lives, and their lives did not revolve around men.

Melissa Silverstein, who writes and edits a blog called "Women & Hollywood," was among the panelists at the screening I attended. "Thelma & Louise is still a touchstone for so many people because it has never been recreated," she observed. "When a movie is successful, it's usually recreated over and over and over again."

Why didn't Thelma & Louise usher in a new era for women in Hollywood? As the reactions of certain critics in 1991 revealed, even smart, educated people are disturbed by female characters who assert control over their lives and bodies and aren't punished for it. And as Callie Khouri told The Observer in 2001, "Bad guys get killed in every goddamn movie that gets made ... that guy was the bad guy and he got killed. It was only because a woman did it that there was any controversy at all."

At least back then we got to have the controversy. Today, we don't make movies about women that are even worth fighting about. Whenever I'm dispirited by the crassly sexist ethos that governs Hollywood (as well as television, politics, and the corporate world) today, I think of "Thelma and Louise" and remember a time, not so long ago, when women were allowed to be human, if only in the movies.