Why Thelma and Louise Remains Iconic 30 Years Later
There are two films that defined my idea of rebel girl power growing up: Set It Off and Thelma & Louise. Today, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the latter, which remains of the most remarkable films ever made.
Written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott, the film tells the story of best friends Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) and Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) as they set out for a weekend vacation in the mountains to take a break from their dreary lives and crappy husbands/boyfriends in Arkansas. On their road trip, Thelma is almost raped, and Louise shoots her would-be rapist, starting them both on their journey as outlaws fleeing the police.
In 1991, the landscape of women in film was very limiting but slowly changing. Along with Thelma & Louise, one of the biggest movies that year was Jodie Foster’s Silence of the Lambs, another story of a compelling woman stuck in a man’s word that pushed her into an uncomfortable corner. But while Clarice Starling’s journey has her working from within the system, Thelma and Louise very much take a stand outside of it.
“I didn’t want to write about two stupid women, or two evil women who go on a crime spree,” screenwriter Callie Khouri said. “I wanted to write about two normal women. The definition of women as presented in films and plays is so narrow, so limiting.”
The film wears its feminism on its sleeve (or, well, cut-offs in some cases) and is unafraid to show both female leads as sexual, flawed, and dangerous women in their own way, while making sure that we understand why they make their choices.
One of the other things it does is very much use rape as a “plot device” in one of the best ways it can be done. Thelma’s near-rape is what spurs Louise to kill a man, but it also reveals pieces of Louise’s backstory. “When a woman is crying and screaming like that, she isn’t having any fun,” she says. And it is a line that drips with her own personal pain.
We never get it spelled out that Louise was raped; it is implied through lines of dialogue that she was also raped and went through a gruesome trial in Texas. This is why, throughout the film, she never wants to go back. In many ways, her murdering Thelma’s rapist is a chance to free her friend from having to face a similar trauma. Their entire fight is trying to move against the forces that would trap them.
Hence why that iconic final shot is them in their air. We never have to see them die because death wasn’t the point, it was freedom.
Khouri explained in an interview, “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.”
At the time of its release, the film was called “anti-man,” which, as Geena Davis said, “If you’re threatened by this movie, you’re identifying with the wrong person.”
But as The Atlantic illustrates, the lasting message that has remained unchanged over time is that people cannot trust the law when it comes to protecting and believing rape survivors:
“[…] 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.”
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