What Nearly Everyone Got Wrong About ‘Thelma and Louise’
Susan Sarandon described Thelma & Louise as a cowboy movie, in the tradition of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Screenwriter Callie Khouri, who would win an Oscar for it, said it's an outlaw movie. Geena Davis called it the film that changed her life because its reaction prompted her to start the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and fight for better representation for women across the media landscape. But for many critics Thelma & Louise was a man-hating revenge story of feminism gone way too far.
In 1991, there was a conversation happening around feminism in America. Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women was published. As a research project started in reaction to an infamous 1986 Newsweek cover story that women of a certain age were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married, Faludi pushed back on the media narrative that women's liberation in the '70s caused them to become undesirable to men. At the same time, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh termed and began popularizing the word "feminazi."
It was the year Anita Hill testified during his confirmation hearing that Judge Clarence Thomas, who was nominated to the Supreme Court, sexually harassed her in the workplace. The "vulgar and crude" testimony, as The New York Times characterized it, would prompt an unprecedented number of women to run for office and win. It was also the year that the summer action blockbuster Thelma & Louise came out. The 1991 film tapped into a central nerve of conversation about women's rights and their place in society. But the reaction in both culture and media was not quite what anyone involved in the movie expected.
The film, directed by Ridley Scott (whose past achievements included Alien and Blade Runner), told the story of two perfectly ordinary women taking a road trip and coming to the realization that their lives and the constant harassment and abuse they experienced at the hands of men in their orbit were not what they wanted. At the Austin Film Festival in 2015, Khouri described wishing to write about "two average women who were not criminals, who were only outlaws in that the society that we were asked to live in was so insane that you could not help but break the law."
It is, at every turn, insane, leaving Thelma (Davis) and Louise (Sarandon) with a series of increasingly bad decisions as their only options — other than turning themselves in and facing an unjust justice system that is. Thelma's story starts with her thwarting the control of her self-centered and emotionally and financially abusive husband, Darryl (Christopher McDonald), only to immediately find her facing a near-rape at the hands of a philandering man, Harlan (Timothy Carhart), who's actively looking for trouble. After Louise stops Harlan, at gunpoint, from committing this most heinous crime, he curses the pair and threatens them again. What we will find out later in the movie is that Louise is a survivor of rape. Harlan's words push her over the edge, and she kills him on the spot. Just like that, Thelma and Louise are on the lam with a potential murder charge coming their way. They don't stop to call the police and report the attempted rape because they think no one will believe them.
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Instead of focusing on the horrible and often disappointing behavior of men that breaks the two women characters in the film, the discourse focused on how feminism was begetting man-hating. In a Time cover story on the movie that examines the "white-hot" discourse around it, we get a glimpse of how angry some people were. A New York Daily News columnist called it degrading to men and suggested it be banned, while the Los Angeles Times film critic said it's a betrayal of feminism due to the revenge plot inherent in the lead characters' crime spree.
More than showing women acting like men as they kill, rob and drive their way toward some idea of freedom, there was a sense that it was Thelma and Louise's independence from men that was their great offense. Addressing the use of "man-hating" terminology around the movie to W magazine in 2020, Davis said: "I think that might be part of the problem that some people had with it … that we're in charge of our own destiny, and we refuse to relinquish it. And for some people, that's infuriating."
Thelma's moment of freedom comes when she hooks up with a handsome hitchhiker named J.D., in a role that turned out to be Brad Pitt's breakout career moment. In this movie, the women are armed, free of their roles as housewife and waitress, and sexually liberated. The movie's ending was also controversial - portraying the two women driving off the side of a cliff rather than surrendering to the army of armed-to-the-teeth law-enforcement officials who corner them at the Grand Canyon. Khouri explained to NPR in a 2011 interview that she didn't see the film's ending as literal, noting, "It was a way of saying that this was a world in which they didn't believe there was the possibility of justice for them. … And that this was just a way of letting them go and letting them stay who they were, who they had become. …To me, they got away."
The New York Times' film critic, Janet Maslin, pointed out what's being left out of the discourse: representation for women as unlikely narrators in this story. "In viewing the desperado's life through the eyes of two suddenly adventurous women," she wrote, "it sees something other movies have not seen." She goes on to point out that it is markedly less violent than similar movies starring men. (Entertainment Weekly put together a chart of the violence in Thelma & Louise vs. Lethal Weapon that effectively killed all overblown arguments). Instead, she argued in favor of seeing these two heroines as innocent, at least compared to contemporary action films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger or Eddie Murphy.
The major change that many predicted the success of Thelma & Louise would bring was more representation for women on the screen. Its box-office numbers and watercooler discourse should have been the impetus for green-lighting more women-led movies, from action to buddy comedies. But that didn't happen. Following the film's 25th anniversary in 2016, research from Davis' institute showed that the ratio of male-to-female characters in movies hadn't changed since 1946 for top-grossing films.
What has remained, and for some women has become a rite of passage, is the idea of taking a road trip to search for some sense of freedom. Renting a convertible and visiting the film's iconic shooting locations, from Arkansas to Arizona, took on a new meaning for women. It was no longer just an escape from the daily drudgery but a chance for a life-changing experience.