It caught my eye as I was walking by: A black T-shirt with the title of the film and its very memorable ending scene. A film that was groundbreaking at the time it was released in 1991 because it was female-driven and the story was told from a female perspective. The actresses who portrayed the two title characters were Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. The film directed by Ridley Scott is Thelma & Louise.
I thought about the time I watched the film at a theatre when it first came out. And I realized millennials might not even know about it, and my recollections of the film now were limited. What I remembered was of these two women, Louise played by Susan Sarandon, and Thelma by Geena Davis, who were going on a vacation but along the way ended up becoming fugitives on a road trip, eventually flying with their cool convertible into the Grand Canyon in the end. What I thought now, looking at the T-shirt, was “Was that really necessary?” Did they have to kill themselves? Doesn’t this ending imply that women who are molested, raped, or those who face any type of injury or injustice, instead of becoming violent, turn introspective and become addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, or promiscuity, prostitution, or some type of self-destructive behavior, and of course the ultimate, suicide? In other words, did the movie really end in that specific way?
As I contemplated about all this I picked the T-shirt up, stayed in line to pay for it, went home and watched Thelma & Louise after all these years, again.
As it began, I initially I kept thinking how unwise both women were. I remembered back from ’91 that I had thought Thelma surely was so, but now watching I thought Louise wasn’t that smart either. With the maturity and cool headedness of my 40s I think that acting on impulse is never good so I thought “Why didn’t Louise control her feelings?”. “Why does she go ahead and let's herself get egged on to shoot the guy?”. And once she does, why then, run away? At that moment, they would have been believed it was all in self-defense, of attempted rape. Instead they run away from the scene, which I thought was stupid. Well, turns out, of course I was thinking ahead of myself.
What is commendable though, throughout the film, Thelma and Louise maintain their relationship in good order, which I thought must be very difficult to do, given that they make major mistakes. But they do and this is only one of the many reasons the film is celebrated as a champion of female solidarity.
Louise (Susan Sarandon), on left, and Thelma (Geena Davis), in the beginning of trip
But as the film continues we realize what Louise means when she says that she hasn’t been to bar like this since she left Texas: she goes back to that time in her life in Texas when she was raped, and no one believed her.
So, what we see is that Louise -the tough, straightforward, smart woman from the beginning of the film- was once probably like Thelma but life experiences, in this case her rape and that nobody believed her, had changed her, and together with Thelma continue along their runaway, going by instinct. Thelma too is transformed just as Louise once was to become the smart/tough one. It is evidenced even in the way she dresses: from feminine dresses to badass clothes and jeans. She robs a convenience store all by herself. She makes smart observations and remarks. In the end, she makes the suggestion of how to end everything.
By the time I had come to the ending, I too felt changed. Seeing it all, the film, or rather the actions of either woman didn’t seem stupid anymore, nor did the ending seem self-destructive anymore. In the end it is all about writing your own destiny, and in this case death is the biggest of all rebellious acts. These two were not going to be caught and caged by all these men.
I remember how this film was criticized over the years and two of these criticisms stand out in my memory: One, that the men portrayed were all bad, that it was "anti-men", and implied that men can't be trusted, like Louise’ husband Daryl and J.D. played by Brad Pitt and even Louise' boyfriend Jimmy. But this in fact isn't true as there is one man, police investigator Hal portrayed by Harvey Keitel, who does believe in their innocence, but can't help them.
The other was that the film kind of romanticizes suicide, and that it was not a showing good role models for girls. Well, I have never heard of this criticism for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Could it be because it is thought that women are very impressionable, so unreasonable to the point that they could just get a glorified idea of suicide as the way to end things, whereas men never would. If this isn't misogynistic I don't know what is.
Lastly I realized back then, an dog course now too, I was rooting for these women's escape, that they made it across the border. But not everybody did back in the 90s. It bothered a lot of people that a man was killed. But what bothered many was not that the bad guy got killed but that it was killed by a woman. As Callie Khouri who won an Oscar for the film's screenplay said in a 2001 interview at The Observer "'Bad guys get killed in every goddamn movie that gets made,' Khouri insists. 'And that guy was the bad guy and he got killed. It was only because a woman did it that there was any controversy at all. If a guy had come out and saved their asses and shot that guy and said, "Run, quick," do you think there would have been a fucking moment of controversy?'" Hey I would add that if Thelma's boyfriend appeared and killed the attempted rapist he would have been thought to have done the honorable thing!
Most of all I thought that not much had changed. I realized after 27 years how relevant the film still was in the #metoo era. And in fact how well ahead of time it was when it was first filmed after the country was under republican rule for the past 12 years. (The only criticism I have of the movie is that it is all-white and Thelma's choice of T-shirt is very disturbing). I guess what we now need is that there are more men like Hal, the Harvey Keitel character, and that men are more willing to listen, and understand and empathize, than the other way around. I guess after a change like that, women would not be facing assault of any type or injustice of any type merely because of their gender, and be forever changed because of that event, but rather become the architects of their very own destiny.
From having a date rape, to instead, having a date with destiny..