Thelma & Louise Holds Up Well—a Little Too Well

The film, released 25 years ago, is best known as an icon of early-’90s feminism. But it feels just as fresh today as it did in 1991.  


Thelma & Louise is a movie that, like The Sixth Sense and Casablanca and Citizen Kane and a handful of other classics, is best known for its ending. “Let’s not get caught,” Thelma tells her best-friend-turned-partner-in-crime, after their run from the law ends with their, well, being caught. “Let’s keep going.” And keep going they do—driving their dust-covered Thunderbird (worst-kept spoiler in history alert) right into the Grand Canyon.

Flight, ending in flight: It’s a satisfyingly symbolic conclusion to a film that is laden with symbolism—about feminism, about female friendship, about a world that can have such little use for either. As Callie Khouri, the film’s screenwriter, explained of that final scene: “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.”

Thelma & Louise was released 25 years ago today, and—though it was controversial at the time, accused of everything from promoting casual sex to promoting casual misandry—it is mostly remembered as a visionary feminist fable: a dark comic fairy tale that unapologetically placed two women at the center of its story, and refused to dismiss them as mere princesses. It is definitely, as all movies will be, a product of its time: The pair rely on pay phones to communicate, and use cash rather than credit cards, and take their iconic selfie—the photo that would double as the movie’s poster—with a clunky Polaroid. And Thelma, in particular, initially embraced the assorted cloyings of early-‘90s fashion (fringe, acid-washed denim, fluorescent eyeshadow) before joining Louise in the film’s iconic outlaw chic. But, wow, beyond those minor things: Thelma & Louise holds up extremely well. It feels relevant, and fresh, and urgent. It could have been made, with its script pretty much entirely unchanged, today.

This is not, to be clear, a good thing.

Thelma & Louise’s plot revolves around the consequences of an attempted rape: Harlan, a smarmy guy Thelma meets in a roadside bar—a guy she drinks with, and dances with, and flirts with—takes her out back, to the bar’s parking lot. In the guise of taking care of her—she drank a little too much, and dizzied as they danced—he kisses her. She resists him. Things escalate. He hits her. He unzips his jeans. He ignores her flailing protests. He tries to rape her. Louise finds them in the parking lot, and brandishes the gun Thelma has brought with them on their road trip. He stops, finally. “In the future,” Louise informs him, icily, “if a woman’s crying like that, she ain’t having any fun.”

But Harlan remains unrepentant, and Louise snaps. It happens instantly, as if by electric impulse: She shoots him. Dead.

It’s the action that sets all the other actions in Thelma & Louise in motion. But it’s not, it turns out, an isolated incident. We learn later that Louise’s fateful shot was the result not just of her loyalty to Thelma, and not just of her simmering frustration with disappointing men, and not just of her knowledge that Harlan had likely raped before and would likely go on to do it again; it was also the outcome of a more isolated event. Louise, it turns out, had been a victim of rape herself.

So Thelma & Louise, a road trip movie that operates on circular time, is propelled by the basic truth that violence begets violence. It’s a cartoonish revenge fantasy, to be sure—Thelma and Louise go on to rob a gas station and stuff a cop into a car trunk and explode the oil tanker of a man who has serially harassed them—but one that’s propelled not so much by the adrenaline rush of vigilante justice so much as a more logical truth: Thelma and Louise have no recourse but violence. They try to get money, legally; a man (Brad Pitt, in his break-out role) steals it; they’re forced, then, to become thieves themselves, Thelma brandishing her gun at that gas station. They try to flee—Harlan, the police, their unfulfilling lives; they are pursued. (“Oh my God, it looks like the Army!” Thelma remarks, at the phalanx of law-enforcement officers who finally surround them. “All this, for us?” Louise marvels.)

But the fundamental fact of Thelma & Louise—the one that ultimately drives its plot, and the one that makes it feel so disappointingly fresh today—is the women’s recognition that they can’t trust the law, because the law doesn’t trust them. “No one would believe us” runs like a refrain through the film’s taut dialogues, and it underscores pretty much every decision the two women make during their road-trip-turned-crime-spree. The women thought about going to the cops, at first, toying with the notion of confessing and explaining what had happened; they realized, though, that it would be their word against a dead man’s, and that the dead man’s would prevail. “Just about 100 people saw you dancing cheek to cheek with him,” Louise tells Thelma, explaining why no one would see their side of the story. “We don’t live in that kind of world, Thelma!”

And that’s the sad aspect of Thelma & Louise’s high-flying, early-’90s feminism: In many ways, we still don’t live in that kind of world. We live in a world in which “slut-shaming” and “she asked for it”—not to mention “police militarization”—are still part of the mainstream vernacular; in which the Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz carried her dorm-room mattress around campus, a silent protest against both the man she alleged had raped her and the university that retained him as a student; in which a woman wrote about beating her alleged rapist because she didn’t trust that law to bring him to justice; in which, according to RAINN, only 32 percent of rapes are reported to police. And we also, of course, live in a world of laws that sometimes seek, in ways overt and subtle, to control women’s bodies. As Rebecca Traister put it in her recent book, single women in particular are “taking up space in a world that was not built for them.”

It’s a 2016 tagline that could, still, easily be applied to the movie from 1991: What is Thelma & Louise, if not a parable of two women, navigating a world that was not built for them?

The writer Raina Lipsitz noted in The Atlantic that Thelma & Louise anticipated 1992’s “year of the woman”—a year so dubbed by headline writers of the time because, in it, “Anita Hill stood up for herself at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings,” and four women were simultaneously elected to the United States Senate. The Thelma & Louise of 2016 reveals those headlines for what they were: optimism, with only some cause. Today, Confirmation serves as a reminder of how Sisyphean Hill’s testimony proved to be. Today, there are 20 women serving in the U.S. Senate, which is very far from 50. Thelma & Louise is a movie, at its most basic level, about a road trip; 25 years later, it is a cinematic and searing reminder that roads can be winding and rocky and, above all, long.