27 Years Ago, Geena Davis & Susan Sarandon Made the First #MeToo Movie
Typically in Hollywood, less-so in today’s marketplace, but certainly in abundance right up until Thelma & Louise was released in 1991, female characters in cinema, even in protagonist roles, were passive. Instead of taking an active role in their destinies, their fates depended on the male characters around them. But Ridley Scott’s film starring Susan Sarandon as Louise and Geena Davis as Thelma, flips that paradigm on its ear, thanks to a brilliant script by Callie Khouri, who received an Oscar for her original screenplay. Thelma and Louise as active protagonists make their choices and travel their journey completely in control of their own fate.
The first plot-point, in which Thelma is raped, and Louise murders the rapist, sets in motion one of film’s finest chase narratives, starring two female heroes in a rebellious but righteous run from the law. In comparison, take a look back at a film like Disney’s, Aladdin, which premiered a year after Thelma & Lousie, and whose audience contsited of young women who are now running America. Jasmine, in the “love-interest” role, doesn’t control her own destiny, and when she finally does get to make a choice, it’s to be married to a man she barely knows. This is what Patricia Mellencamp describes as “expectation and limitation” of fairy tales women are “taught to make of their lives.”
Khouri wrote Thelma & Louise to challenge patriarchal boundaries. According to Brenda Cooper, one of the ways the film accomplishes Khouri’s goal is the “female gaze,” particularly accentuated in scenes involving Brad Pitt. Scott subverts expectations by casting the ridiculously handsome actor and objectifying him through Davis’ gaze in a role that elevated real-life Pitt into superstardom. Throughout the film, the two female leads turn the male gaze on its ear. Louise barks to a male gazer, “What are you looking at?” When they see Pitt on the roadside, Thelma whimpers like a dog to pick him up. Thelma later objectifies J.D. aloud when she posits, “Yep. That’s him going. I love watching him go.”
Through costuming and make-up, the film does an amazing job tracking the leads’ journey, and showing how they change. At the outset of the journey, both ladies are wrapped in stereotypical female head wraps with flower décolletage. At the end of the film, Thelma wears the American flag trucker hat they stole off the Trucker/Cat Caller, and Louise wears J.D.’s white Cowboy hat. Both women have taken a piece of the men they met along the way.
Finally, both women subvert stereotype when it comes to the Trucker/Cat Caller interaction. They pull alongside the same truck three times in the film, and each time, they are met with obscenity and sexual innuendo from the trucker. The first time, they laugh it off and drive past. The second time, they are disgusted and drive past. The third time, they pull over, confront, destroy, and humiliate the male-gazing trucker. Perhaps this is why Charla Krupp called the film a “cathartic revenge fantasy” for women.
In all of these ways, Thelma and Louise embody the typically-male protagonist of the action genre, and arguably do it better, with far more depth. The two shoot and destroy a gas truck, creating a huge ball of flames, a cliché in action films, but in that era, it was always Bruce Willis looking cool behind a pair of shades. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis become action stars by the time they are done with the cat-calling trucker.
One could even argue the film accomplishes that far earlier. After J.D. rips them off, both Louise and Thelma dwell in introspection, but Davis’ character shoves them immediately back into action by robbing the liquor store. From there, they spend an entire hour of film being Bonnie-and-Clyde action stars, culminating in a scene in which they prey on a hunky cop that pulls them over by locking him in the trunk, and humiliating him by bringing him to tears in the process.
“The movie’s popularity with women can be explained by the film’s alternative cinematic gazes that challenge and resist patriarchal construction, opening the film’s text to a feminist reading…” Cooper writes. “Thelma & Louise turned the tables on traditional Hollywood chauvinism, appropriating for its female protagonists as well as for its female viewers the male gaze that Hollywood films have long used to subjugate, objectify, and trivialize women.”
Today, movie franchises like Marvel and Star Wars, thrive on film successes that hinge on the performances of female action film stars, like Gal Gadot, Daisy Ridley and Scarlett Johansson. I still remember where I was when I first saw Thelma & Louise as a kid – it had an impact on me then. It’s heartening to look back at this film and recognize that women have taken a much larger and far more important role in Hollywood since. There’s still a long way to go, but we are headed in the right direction.