Dear Thelma and Louise,
In the summer of 1991, something changed. Women who weren’t comfortable with the cookie-cutter roles society was offering them were introduced to a pair of badasses who were just as flawed and undefinable as themselves: Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer. And we embraced you whole-heartedly.
My BFF Donna and I were no exception. We drove a convertible, wore our mom jeans unironically, and drank strong, dark liquor right out of the bottle. We were opinionated, unapologetic, and sometimes accidentally naked. We once stopped a domestic dispute in the street and ferried the young woman to safety. We were roommates, constant companions, sisters. Men were an afterthought. We invited them over over to kill spiders, open pickle jars, and enjoy conjugal visits. In that order.
We were you guys (if the car had somehow made it to the other side of the canyon).
One of the reasons Thelma and Louise resonates with so many women is that it is terrifyingly easy to imagine ourselves in your situation. Two best friends on their way out of town for a girl’s weekend who stop at a bar for a quick drink or two, and, bam, the course of their lives is forever changed. Even all these years later it’s impossible for me to watch the film without wondering what Donna and I would have done in the same scenario. Sadder still is the realization that, all these years later, not so much has changed. A drunk woman being sexually assaulted in a parking lot in 2016 would find her options for recourse just as limited as they were in 1991. As we learned in the last few days, you can be found half-naked and unconscious behind a dumpster with a man thrusting against you, have the two eye-witnesses who stopped the assault corroborate your story, have ample physical evidence against the assailant, deliver a gutting 12-page impact statement, and be further victimized when the convicted rapist receives a slap on the wrist.
When Thelma and Louise was released twenty-five years ago, gratuitous film violence was at its apex. Lethal Weapon, Rambo, Die Hard, Terminator, Under Siege, Total Recall—these films and their ilk were in a constant competition to beat each other’s ridiculously high body counts. Off-kilter, unpredictable male protagonists like Die Hard’s John McClane and Lethal Weapon’s Riggs were the norm, and audiences couldn’t get enough of them. And then came you: the imperfect leads in a genre-busting film. Within weeks of its release, you’d made the cover of TIME Magazine under the heading, “Why Thelma & Louise Strikes a Nerve.”. Inside, a clearly shaken Robert Shickel accuses you of having, “tapped into a wild-rushing subterranean stream of inchoate rage and deranged violence.” Even though you killed exactly one person. A would-be rapist.
Thelma and Louise was a love letter to female friendship that became a cultural phenomenon. Your very names have become synonymous with the kind of wild, out-of-control women that society didn’t quite know what to do with. Your moral ambiguity confused people. Some saw you as victims, others as villains. Many saw you as heroes, when in fact you are none of the above. First-time screenwriter Callie Khouri wrote you as fully fleshed-out characters who were human and true, and who were simply reacting in the extreme to circumstances that far too many women regularly experience. You were never intended to be symbols of a revolution, or a promise to women everywhere that things – in front of the camera and in real life – were going to change.
Flash-forward twenty-five years: the Canadian cabinet has achieved gender parity and Hillary Clinton is the front-runner to be the next President of the United States. And that’s great. But women are still fighting for equal pay, conservatives are determined to control women’s health choices by limiting access to birth control and abortions, and the number of women working in behind-the-scenes roles on film sets (we’re talking producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, etc) has actually dropped in the past year to a still paltry 23%.
It’s really not all that surprising that your story became such a sensation. For decades, films glorifying brutality and violence against women had never been subject to more than just shallow scrutiny. Then you two come along and are quickly accused of male-bashing and bullying, of forwarding some twisted hyper-feminist manifesto.
But you were never written to be role models. Though it’s all too easy to revel in the wish-fulfillment of seeing a selfish partner told off, a chauvinist pig get his fiery comeuppance, and a smug would-be rapist get shot, it was even more satisfying to watch both of you evolve: one of you by embracing intimacy, and the other by letting it go.
But the double standard as it applied to you two (versus every other male protagonist in the entire history of pop culture) was comically harsh. All of your motives were questioned. Why didn’t Louise walk away from Harlan? Why did Thelma seek out a sexual dalliance so soon after her assault? Why didn’t they just go to the police? Why won’t Louise talk about what happened to her in Texas? Why didn’t they just turn themselves in? If you are to be held up as role models, it should for how adeptly you bust the myth of the perfect rape victims.
Under the weight of such cultural significance, It’s easy to forget that Thelma and Louise is an exceptional film. The Badlands-inspired art direction, Hans Zimmer’s slow-burn, slide-guitar score, the self-assured pacing. The sly sense of humour, the perfect storm of casting, Callie Khouri’s Oscar-winning screenplay with its so-real-it-chills dialogue. Ridley Scott’s understated confidence in the story and the team he assembled to tell it. And of course the much-debated final scene. It all still feels revelatory.
Had any of these moving parts been swapped out (Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep in the title roles, George Clooney in Brad Pitt’s star-making role, a happier ending, Khouri directing the film herself) the film certainly wouldn’t purr the way it does. It was a gender-bending Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, nihilistic ending et al. And it was a financial and critical success, which you’d think would have opened the door for more films by and for women.
But you’d be wrong.
Fair representation of women both in front of and behind the camera sailed over that cliff beside Louise’s ’66 Thunderbird. Stats and studies, some of which have been commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (yes, that Geena Davis) show very little progress over the last couple of decades in the advancement of proportionality between women and men in the film industry. It pains me to tell you that if Callie pitched her script today – unless it involved a lavish wedding, or an ass-kicking heroine with D-cups in latex – it probably wouldn’t get past an intern. Even though women make up half of the viewing audience, there’s a toxic myth in Hollywood that women will watch stories about men but men won’t watch stories about women, a bias that ultimately hurts both genders. This perception is slowly starting to change, albeit with the requisite amount of growing pains. Just ask the all-female cast of the Ghostbusters remake.
Geena Davis understands that perception matters. The motto of her organization is “if she can see it she can be it.” If kids see women portrayed on screen in leadership roles like in the STEM fields or in politics, it’s more likely that young girls will aspire to those same leadership roles, and young boys will be normalized to accept women in those positions. Only when female characters are given the same amount of screen-time as male characters, or are given roles that don’t require them to just be sexy, or to be accessories to the male characters, can we more accurately reflect what we see in real life. When we see women’s stories told with equal weight, we understand that their lives are just as important as the lives of boys and men. The real-life implications of this should be obvious – if you think of a woman as an equal, it makes it impossible to justify objectifying her. At that point, the notion of dragging her out to a parking lot becomes unthinkable.
My BFF Donna now has a daughter, and I have five nieces. Statistics tell us that at least one of them will likely be the victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. At least one. If those were the odds for getting attacked by sharks or contracting Ebola, Wolf Blitzer would be shitting himself by the pantload. Instead, we file these statistics away in the back of our minds, only to have them bubble to the surface when we wait for a bus after dark, or have too many drinks at a bar.
Last week I showed Thelma and Louise to Em, my 19 year old niece. Mere minutes after the credits rolled we were online and came across the victim impact statement from the now-infamous Stanford Rape case. I read it aloud to Em, who is a sorority sister and scholarship student, an ambitious, hard-working, wild and fun-loving young woman who has been to many a frat party. As I read the statement, I thought about Em’s odds, my own odds, and the odds of every woman.
Years from now, when Em and I and her niece or nephew or daughter or son sit down to watch Thelma and Louise together, I look forward to explaining the Bechdel Test in the past tense. I look forward to explaining that in the olden days, men could abuse women and get away with it. I hope that young men and women twenty-five years from now will be able to enjoy Thelma and Louise for the cinema classic that it is, all while marvelling at the antiquated plot and saying to themselves: “well that would never happen today.”
Forever crossing the chasm,