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kick ass feminists on film: thelma & louise

Everyone knows that complex and empowering female characters are difficult to find in mainstream films. But there are some who have stood out and become the changing faces of feminism in cinema. In this monthly column, Jade Bate looks at her favourite film heroines who are strong, empowering and kick ass.

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Female friendship is one of the most important subjects that cinema can explore. Over the years, mainstream films about female friendship have changed perceptions about the roles of women in society. From emotional dramas like The Colour Purple, to coming of age films like Now and Then and comedies like Steel Magnolias, there is nothing more empowering than the strength of female friendship. But the trend has faded over the years and many mainstream films now have just the one token female character.

Female buddy movies are literally the greatest thing in the world, but why are they so rare? So in this edition of Kick Ass Feminists on Film, I’m looking back at the mother of all female buddy flicks: Thelma & Louise. The movie revolutionised both the “buddy” film genre and the “road trip” trope, with its  realistic story of two female friends who rebel against society’s prejudice against them. When it was released in 1991, women from all backgrounds flocked to see it. Clever marketing with a marquee director (Ridley Scott) and big-name actors meant that it was popular with both independent and mainstream audiences, resulting in the latter being caught unsuspectedly by its feminist themes.

Two of the coolest actresses of all time, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, play best friends Thelma and Louise. Thelma (Davis) is a bored housewife with an abusive, piggish husband, while Louise (Sarandon) is a world-weary waitress who feels tied down by her bad life choices. The free-spirited Louise convinces mild-mannered Thelma to embark on a weekend getaway. What starts as a fun-filled act of rebellion soon turns dramatic as Thelma is almost raped and Louise shoots the culprit dead in defence of her friend. The pair end up fleeing from the law in a whirlwind haze, robbing liquor stores, tormenting sexist pigs and cruising along the vast desert landscape that represents the stuff of a real American dream in the making.

The film skilfully blends fun elements of the road movie and buddy flick genres with serious issues like domestic abuse, female empowerment and sexual assault. It also acts as a brutal self-commentary on Capitalist America, with the women’s final declaration of freedom by suicidally driving off the edge of a canyon perhaps symbolising a counter-attack on the patriarchal society of the hedonistic 80s.

But it’s the feminist issues the film focuses on that makes it an undeniable female empowerment classic. It presented the audience with not one, but two awesome and revolutionary female characters. Thelma and Louise are inarguably strong, but they are also deeply complex and flawed. Simply calling them “strong” dismisses their humanity and their realism. Strength is an important facet in being an feminist icon, but complexity and depth is even more crucial. By just using the word “strong” it brings up connotations that a character’s worth is only estimated by their physicality or mental capability. But by rather describing them as complex or well written, their flaws and realistic traits bring them to life and make them far more empowering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film was considered extremely controversial at the time of its release. In a recent interview, Sarandon told the Hollywood Reporter, “It was pretty shocking that people were so threatened by it. Like somehow we had backed into territory long held only by white heterosexual men of a certain age.” Thelma & Louise is an embodiment of all that was great about late 80s and early 90s American cinema, an era which saw independent film explode into the mainstream and revolutionise the modern cinema experience. Controversial subjects were now being discussed in front of mainstream audiences. Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) explored the sexual desires of women; Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) broke down both racial and gender stereotypes; Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) deconstructed masculinity and examined homosexuality.

When the overtly feminist Thelma & Louise came out in 1991, critics adverse to the new controversial wave of independent cinema claimed that the film promoted violence and misandry. In fact, New York Daily News film critic, Richard Johnson, went as far to call it ‘degrading to men.’ The film is anything but. It is simply a realistic portrayal of the bullshit women are put through every day at the hands of men. And for all the hateful, deceitful, piggish men in the film, there are a few male characters that repel criticisms of the film being anti-men. Detective Hal Slocumbe (Harvey Keitel) is a tough-talking but compassionate man who sympathises with the women’s struggle and does everything in his power to convince them to give themselves up to police. The casting of Harvey Keitel – usually known for his macho roles – is brilliant in the role and his performance is sympathetic and nuanced, suggesting that Slocumbe is the moral high ground of the film. Even Thelma’s vague but sweet boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen), shows that even stereotypically masculine men weren’t all negatively portrayed in the film.

The casting of Sarandon and Davis as the two leads was ingenious. At the time, both actors were household names, so their star power was ultimately the draw card for many filmgoers. Rumour has it that screenwriter Callie Khouri’s original choices for the leads were Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand, and although that does sound like an awesome pairing, it’s impossible to see anyone but Sarandon and Davis playing those roles. Both actresses have since become revolutionary voices in fighting gender inequality. Davis is the founder of the Geena Davis Gender in Media Institute and fronts the Women’s Sports Foundation. Sarandon, although choosing to call herself a “humanist” rather than a feminist (which she claims is an “old fashioned term” with “negative connotations”), frequently speaks out about racial, gender and class inequalities, especially in Third World countries.

Whatever criticisms it faced during its initial release, the film was greatly praised come awards season, with Khouri becoming one of the few women to win the best original screenplay Oscar. Davis and Sarandon were also nominated for the Best Actress category, but both lost out to Jodie Foster, an actress in another crucially important feminist film, The Silence of the Lambs. Almost 25 years have passed since these two revolutionary films were released, yet Hollywood still struggles to fund and market films led by female leads.

Thelma & Louise was beyond a revelation. Its accurate portrayal of female friendship and feminist issues like misogyny, inequality and freedom is just as relevant today as it was when it was released. Written by a woman and staring two middle aged actresses in career-defining roles, it challenged the notion that people didn’t want to see films by women, starring women, for women.

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