“In the future, when a woman’s crying like that she innit having any fun,” Susan Sarandon’s Louise growls. She’s pointing a gun at a man who she just interrupted trying to rape her best friend, Thelma (Geena Davis), in the car park of a bar. With Thelma bloodied and crying behind her, Louise is the saviour in this particular instance knowing full well she can never be the saviour in others. Her ferocity when she says “like that” is imbued with not just her own personal trauma, not just Thelma’s most recent trauma in the moment, but with the trauma of millions of women just like them all around the world who have been victims of seemingly nice, jovial guys who are actually predators in disguise and just waiting for their moment to strike. At the time of its release, Thelma & Louise (1991) was a financial and critical success, but more importantly it was a cultural phenomenon. Sarandon and Davis graced the cover of Time magazine and the question was asked, was this beginning of a mainstream wave of feminist cinema?
In many ways its feminist accolades are surface level, elevated by the conviction and unrelenting performances of Sarandon and Davis and the screenwriting of Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award for her work. The reality is Thelma & Louise is still directed by a man – even one who has been pivotal in representing feminist film icons like Lt. Ellen Ripley in Sir Ridley Scott's Alien – and it is shot by a man in the late, great Adrian Biddle. Thelma and Louise’s short-lived freedom and their journey is largely defined by their relationships to a cast of male supporting characters in Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald and Brad Pitt. Their liberation from the patriarchy is fleeting. The fact that Thelma & Louise starred two female leads, was written by a woman, and co-produced by two women in Khouri and Mimi Polk is not insignificant. However, it’s not an example of how far we’ve come with female stories, but rather how far we have yet to go.
After the overwhelming success of Thelma & Louise, the trajectory of Khouri and Polk’s careers is markedly different from that of Scott in a way that seems unlikely in the current era like it was in the early nineties. Davis has gone on to do vital work with The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which pushes for better representation of women in front of the camera and behind the scenes, while Sarandon is now an Oscar-winning actress and producer with a keen eye for telling female stories. The lens through which we view Thelma and Louise in the film is still a masculine one, as captured in this graphic sexual assault scene. After all, it’s not just what is being shot, but how it’s being shot. When Sarandon’s voice wavers with emotion on the delivery of “like that” it feels like an indictment of not just the scenario, not just the character she’s threatening to murder and all he represents, but of an industry where the only ‘happy ending’ that could be imagined for two women who liberate themselves is their likely death as they plummet off the edge of a canyon.
– Maria Lewis