content warning: sexual violence
Last week, we hosted a dozen women at our house for a screening of Thelma and Louise. None of them had watched it before, though many recognized it as a frequently referenced cultural landmark in film, and when the credits wrapped, it ignited a discussion that trickled into the early hours of the morning. The film resonated intensely with each of us, just as it resonated with women of all ages when it was originally released in the summer of 1991. There was something profoundly cathartic about watching two women seek revenge for, and freedom from, the sexual violence that surrounds them. It gave us affirmation. Watching it together felt deeply necessary, and deeply comforting.
In the film, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon play Thelma and Louise, two middle-aged women, who, trapped by unfulfilling relationships and the confines of domestic life expected of them, leave their male partners behind in Arkansas and set out on a search for freedom. The narrative takes a dark turn on the first night of their road trip as Thelma is violently assaulted in the parking lot by a man she meets in a bar. Catching the assailant in the act, Louise shoots him dead, setting into motion an unstoppable chain of crimes. In the moments after the murder, a frantic Thelma suggests they go to the police rather than flee the scene. Louise looks at her in astonishment, and reminds her that no one will believe her accusation when she just spent the night dancing and drinking with her assailant. “Who’s gonna believe that? We don’t live in that kind of world, Thelma!” It’s this heartbreaking, despairing line that travels the length of their time on the run and into today. Their ensuing delinquency is spurred not so much by vigilante justice, but by the fact that their only alternative is surrendering to a degrading legal system which systematically dismisses the experiences of survivors of sexual assault. We later discover that Louise, too, is a survivor. The world is undoubtedly stacked against them.
This narrative is driven by the idea that violence begets violence, and when the criminal justice system is an enabler in this violence, seeking revenge is righteous. In a world where the law does not seek justice for survivors, living outside of it—even for a fleeting moment—is worth it for the taste of freedom. There is something incredibly satisfying in each of their crimes: Louise shooting her friend’s rapist, Thelma robbing a store in a confident fashion typically reserved for male characters, the two of them setting their grotesque harasser’s truck on fire. On an indulgent level, the film engages in the ultimate revenge fantasy for women. As two outlaws, Thelma and Louise’s actions are certainly political in their refusal to comply with authorities and imprisonment. But they are also intensely personal, as they seek a different kind of escape: one from sexual violence.
But the fact that the film—and these narratives, indulgences, and desires—continue to carry the same relatability today asks us to examine several unsettling questions: Why has so little changed since the 90’s surrounding the way sexual assault cases are handled? Why do survivors still feel that the law is against them, that there is no one they can trust? Why do so many vulnerable populations feel that their bodies are taking up space in a legal system that wasn’t built to protect them?
The characters use a clunky Polaroid to take their iconic selfie, eat alone in retro diners, drive a Ford Thunderbird, and are dressed in quintessentially 90’s cat-eyed sunglasses and acid wash high-waisted jeans. At times it feels like a hokey, oldies classic, but then quickly feels too unnervingly familiar and relevant to be relegated to a merely bygone feminist narrative. The reality is, we still don’t live in the kind of world where Thelma would be believed.
1992, the year Thelma and Louise entered theaters, was dubbed the “Year of the Woman” by US popular media in reference to the arduously fought political campaigns of women running for office and the unprecedented bravery of Anita Hill’s testimony. That November, an unprecedented 47 women were elected to the House and four more elected as Senators—tripling female representation in the Senate. As sensational headlines alluded to female domination, the elected women pushed back on the year’s label. Senator Mikulski, one of the women elected that year, said, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.” Twenty-six years later, the same lesson is falling on deaf ears. In recent months, CNN, Politico, and the New York Times have all run headlines referencing 2018 as the next “Year of the Woman,” citing the more than 300 women running for House seats, the 30,000 women who have registered for office or volunteer on campaigns (a 40 percent increase from the last election), and the triumphant primary victories of candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacy Abrams, and Ayanna Pressley. But slapping on the “Year of the Woman” label diminishes the very real struggles that women continue to face. In reality, every year continues to be the “Year of the Man,” as men still dominate the most powerful spheres of our nation and dictate the laws that govern our bodies.
The historical parallels between 1992 and 2018 have only become more pronounced recently. Last Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford stepped into the national spotlight to challenge the most recent Supreme Court nominee, echoing Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony during Judge Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination hearings. Both back then, five months after the release of Thelma and Louise, and today, as we await the Judiciary Committee’s decision on Kavanaugh, the dialogue between the two women in the film before they flee extends into a public, nationwide conversation in which we ask, do we believe survivors?
During Anita Hill’s testimony 26 years ago, the dominance of men in the Senate and their fumbling conception of consent was put on full display as an all-male, all-white Judiciary Committee interrogated Hill, a Black woman, for hours, demeaning her experience of sexual harassment and questioning her integrity, honesty, and professionalism. Thomas, a Black man, denounced her testimony as a “high-tech lynching,” intertwining race into an already complex moment of sexism, the nuances of which American society was not ready to understand. As many feminists ignored the racial undertones that Thomas exploited to justify the abuse of a woman, and many Black males ignored the gender dynamics of a sexual assault case, Hill’s vulnerable position as both Black and a woman exposed one of the greatest intersectional organization failures. “How do you think certain people would have reacted if I had come forward and been white, blond-haired and blue-eyed?” Hill asked in 2002. Today, Justice Thomas sits on the bench, waiting to hear the results of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Kavanaugh’s fate.
Like Anita Hill, Ford’s name was leaked to the press. Like Hill, she received death threats and had false and misleading claims spread about her. But Ford is white and blond-haired, eliminating the racial animus Hill faced and meaning she does not have to meet the same burden of proof that Hill had to. “In 2018, our senators must get it right,” wrote Hill recently for the New York Times, advising the Senate on how to handle Christine Ford’s hearings. “There is no way to redo 1991, but there are ways to do better.”
Even though Ford’s testimony was not politicized along the same racial lines, last Thursday revealed that her voice as a woman continues to place her as the subject of debate over her motives and credibility. There are now four Democrat women on the committee, and Republicans attempted to change their optics this time around by hiring a female prosecutor. But the all-white, all-male Republican members merely used her as a guise, hiding the same exact form of accusatory condescension and skepticism. Ford still had to relive her trauma in front of millions, as she was grilled on ridiculous minutia and asked to give psychological reasoning for the impact of violence. Comprising a majority of the Judiciary Committee seats, Republicans discredited Ford’s story as a partisan political ploy and voted Friday to advance Kavanaugh to the floor for a full Senate vote. As Kavanaugh aggressively denied all allegations, just like Justice Thomas did 26 years ago, it is certainly telling of who is allowed to rage in public spaces.
This dramatic national reckoning comes, just as it did in 1991, mere months before an election in which women have the opportunity to seize more political power than they have ever had access to.
When Thelma and Louise was released five months before the Anita Hill hearing, it was deeply beloved by some and struck a nerve in others—mostly men. The New York Times ran a piece that said, “…others have attacked it for what they say is gratuitous violence, for its poor female role models and for deliberately presenting men in the worst possible light. Feminism or Male-Bashing?” It was accused of promoting violence against men and glamorizing sexual immorality and promiscuity among young women. But many women found catharsis in its representation of a reality that so rarely is portrayed on screen. One lesbian activist in Los Angeles declared it in a now infamous quote, “the first movie I’ve ever seen which told the downright truth.”
Thelma and Louise was deeply groundbreaking for its portrayal of Thelma’s journey to sexual freedom and expression. Escaping both her emotionally abusive husband and a violent assault, she begins a playful fling with sexy, confident cowboy and hitchhiker, JD (played by Brad Pitt), whom the two pick up on their travels. JD and Thelma’s relationship is one of nonchalance, excitement, and consent—a combination that finally allows Thelma to have a sexual experience on her own terms. This scene of the film demonstrates Thelma reclaiming bodily autonomy after having it ripped away, and that initially feels healing and liberating, for both Thelma and those watching. But the duo soon discover that JD has stolen all of their money, propelling them into their second crime of robbing a store out of the necessity for money in their flight from the legal system. The value of Thelma’s sexual liberation in this scene is put in jeopardy as yet another man violates assumptions of respect and trust. However, as Louise breaks down in tears, Thelma assumes the stalwart role of Louise’s guardian in her weakest moment—throwing one last finger up to all the men who have fucked her over. She chooses Louise.
The queer subtext to the characters’ relationship throughout the film offers an alternative conception of bodily autonomy and mutual respect. The film ends with a final kiss, suggesting that the bond between the two women did perhaps transcend platonic friendship. Not only do they repeatedly refuse a life of male partnership and a life of imprisonment, but they choose to be together. “Let’s keep going!” Louise tells Thelma, clutching her hand tightly. Though their feelings toward each other remain open to interpretation from the viewer, it is clear that Thelma and Louise do choose each other, in whatever form their relationship may take. As such, they pose the ultimate threat to patriarchy: the elimination of dependence on the male.
Thelma and Louise’s feminism is still limited in its reach; not explicitly addressing the queer aspects of Thelma and Louise’s relationship weakens the film’s inclusivity. The suppression of queer narratives from this film’s legacy limits the universality of its message surrounding sexual violence. Many genders, races, and sexual orientations are impacted by a patriarchal system and play a role in the political movements to dismantle them. There is no doubt that this year’s surge in women seeking office is deeply connected to the influence of the #MeToo movement and of grassroots activism that has supported and amplified the voices of survivors challenging the most powerful offices—and the men who occupy them—in media and politics. But it is a Black woman, Tarana Burke, who originally founded #MeToo as a grass-roots movement to reach sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities. And it was Anita Hill who first ignited a national discourse around sexual harassment and demanding a justice system that works to protect survivors. In analyzing the powerful legacy of films such as Thelma and Louise, it is critical to remember that the message speaks most directly to certain types of women.
There is a moment in the car near the end of the film, as Thelma and Louise are realizing their chase of freedom is futile, when Thelma interrupts the silence: “I feel really awake. I don't recall ever feeling this awake. You know?” she says, looking out across the desert as Louise listens and smiles. “Everything looks different now. You feel like that? You feel like you got something to live for now?” For Thelma, simply coming to the realization that she is allowed to pursue freedom gives her last living moments meaning and value. She has woken up. We struggle to think of another contemporary film with a conversation like this between two femme characters. A moment with this type of introspection, this desire to find meaning and purpose after trauma, to feel alive and whole after violence. A moment rooted in futility, and in letting that futility go.
Near the film’s closing, the outlaws are given the choice to surrender themselves or be charged with murder. This is their painful ultimatum, indicating the law has utterly failed the two women and their experiences of violence. They choose to keep running, in full recognition that they likely won’t make it out alive. Thelma solemnly tells Louise, “Something’s crossed over in me and I can’t go back. I mean I just couldn’t live.” Louise nods and replies, “I know. I know what you mean.” The infamous scene that concludes the film shows them ultimately choosing death over capture, sharing a heart-wrenching kiss and gripping each other’s hands tightly as they fly over the edge of the Grand Canyon in the airborn Thunderbird. After a weekend of living on their own terms, Thelma and Louise refuse to live any other way. They are only able to experience this liberation when they realize there is no turning back, no return to feeling trapped, to fleeing, to hiding. As one of the few true choices they have in their lifetime, the women face death together, by their own accord. Their suicide is a final refusal to compromise their desires. Thelma and Louise choose to leave the world that sought to contain them, first through dominance, then through violence, and finally through a facade of justice. It is significant that the audience never actually sees them hit the ground—they are left in flight, frozen, eternal.
But while such an ending feels like they have chosen freedom of their own kind, this redemption and triumph through suicide doesn’t always translate into reality. Anita Hilla and Christine Blasey Ford are not ready to give up their lives in order to escape the law. Rather, they confront it, choosing to put themselves through an incredibly painful legal process in order to affect change.
Although we were born years after the film was released, it is bittersweet to watch it and realize that we needed this film in some way. It shows us what liberation looks like in a man’s world—our world—where we are still being silenced, dismissed, humiliated, still seen as incapable and insane and unworthy of being believed. Their series of adventures and crimes over the next couple of days offer us a rare look into a fantasy of choices and freedom, one that is exhilarating and hilarious and feisty and awfully realistic. Twenty-six years later, the film still serves its purpose.
MARA DOLAN B‘19.5 and MIA PATTILLO B‘20 are planning a road trip together.