Written by Katie Manzer
*Trigger warning: sexual assault murder, suicide
As we encroach upon the 30th anniversary of Thelma & Louise’s debut, we must examine the factors that lead to its unique place in our cultural lexicon. Ridley Scott’s 1991 hit, Thelma & Louise, tells a story of female friendship and empowerment through two best friends who become outlaws, rejecting the lives that have been chosen for them and forging a new path together. The story is jumpstarted when Thelma (Geena Davis), a free-spirited woman trapped in a stifling marriage, is almost raped. Her best friend, Louise (Susan Sarandon), then shoots and kills the would-be assailant. The women decide that because Thelma was seen dancing with the man all evening, no one would believe he assaulted her and thus the killing could not be legally claimed as self-defence. Instead, Thelma and Louise decide to run away and start a new life together in Mexico, further discarding society’s expectations of women as they advance into a new life of crime and deviance. As the story continues, the women are pursued by the FBI and other forces trying to shut them down and put them in their place. Upcoming three-decade spoiler alert: Thelma and Louise decide that instead of getting caught they will go out together in a blaze of glory, with the famous final shot of the film being of the women holding hands as their car flies off of a cliff into the Grand Canyon.
Despite hitting screens in 1991, Thelma & Louise’s radical message of liberation still feels fresh and risky to many who encounter it for the first time. Upon its release, the film was met with a divisive response from both critics and audiences. Many viewers embraced the film’s themes of freedom and rebellion, marking it as a turning point in cinema history for female representation. Many others panned the film for being a simple revenge story, believing that it incited violence and misandry among its female audience. The argument of misandry within the film’s script has been a lasting point of contention, however, despite featuring three unsavoury male characters, the rest of the men are sympathetic and well-rounded. The gender controversy seems to arise with characters like Harlan (the man who tries to assault Thelma), Darryl (Thelma’s husband), and the truck driver who makes crude comments to the women while driving. Detractors argue that the film depicts all its men as brutish pigs, yet seem to ignore characters like Hal (the leader of the FBI investigation), Jimmy (Louise’s doting boyfriend), and JD (a hitchhiker the women pick up) who each exist as multifaceted characters and teach the leads something worthwhile. Really what these examples from screenwriter Callie Khouri provide is a representation of what women often experience at the hands of men, juxtaposed against positive examples of masculinity.
As for the argument that Thelma & Louise is a violent revenge narrative, this reading misunderstands the reason for the inciting violence as well as undercuts the growth of the characters throughout the film. While the conflict is incited by an attempted rape, this is not the overall focus of the film. The rest of the film centers on the heroines finding joy in breaking gender norms and expectations of the time. Thelma begins her story married to a man who does not care about her feelings or wishes; she is constantly sidelined and overridden by his ego. She uses her trip with Louise as an opportunity to let loose and, due to her trusting nature, she is initially victimized and overwhelmed. But, throughout Thelma’s journey she learns about true independence and by the end of the film, she has learned just how capable she is without a security net. Thelma takes quickly to being a criminal — famously saying, “something’s crossed over in me and I can’t go back. I mean, I just couldn’t live.” Louise, on the other hand, starts the film as an already hardened woman. Older than Thelma and having previously experienced her own trauma, Louise is more world-weary, cynical, and fiercely independent. Throughout the film, however, she learns to trust in other people and open herself up to those who care for her, giving herself the strength to be vulnerable. The idea that these women are simply becoming outlaws for the sake of it is a gross misrepresentation of the film’s core. What Thelma says about crossing over and being unable to turn back comes to a head in the film’s ostensibly violent ending in which the women drive their car into the Grand Canyon. This final action being read as violent also seeks to undercut the film’s message of liberation, for director Ridley Scott purposely does not show any of the aftermath; the shot fades to white with the car still in the air, leaving the women suspended in their freedom.
Both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were nominated for Best Leading Actress at the 1992 Academy Awards, losing out to Jodie Foster for her performance as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. It is possible that Sarandon and Davis split Academy votes between them, being that their performances were so inextricably linked that some other awards nominated them as a duo. Yet, there is something to be said about the message both Thelma & Louise and Silence of the Lambs present, as both films tell stories of strong characters who take their lives and their female solidarity into their own hands. However, there is something intrinsically less rebellious about Clarice, as she can implement her feminist action from within the constraints of her societal role and position in the FBI. This is not to disparage one form of feminism over another, but Thelma and Louise operate in blatant insurrection and disregard of both the law and the societal limits placed upon them, whereas Clarice must maneuver through them.
Regardless, these women stand as testaments to well-written, aspirational, and tenacious female characters, with Thelma & Louise’s screenwriter becoming the first solo female writer to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Thelma & Louise has continued to be a frequently discussed, highly referenced, and deeply influential piece of fiction that has inspired women and girls to push beyond what is typically allowed. These characters encourage growth, personal liberation, and sisterhood among the oppressed through their box-office-breaking, critic-dividing cross-country adventure. To answer the simple question: yes, the film still holds up — a little too well.