Thelma & Louise (1991)
Its a quarter century since the release of Thelma & Louise (1991) and the two runaways are still vividly etched in my memory, immortalised in their Thunderbird, freeze-framed mid-air over the Grand Canyon. How did this film become one of the most remembered stories of feminist struggle in modern times?
To answer this, we need to deconstruct the classic Western. The oldest genre in modern film, its broad narrative purpose is to mythologise the early American experience of settling the new frontier. Driven by heroic endeavour, such as ‘man against nature’ or ‘good guys versus bad guys’, the classic plotline is a quest for freedom or justice, usually with violence, and the pursuit from or by the law, all framed by vast un-tamed Western landscapes. In a hyper-masculine world, manliness is the capacity to kill or shoot fast, stoic silence represents strength, and female characters are invisible or relegated to the roles of mother, wife, or prostitute. By the late 1970’s, the Western’s declining popularity forced producers to modernise, but the male-dominated narrative remained.
Then Thelma & Louise came along. When we meet, they are emotional captives of dominating males and yearn for the freedom to explore what lies beyond the limited space of their lives. Swapping horse for car and unmapped desert for highway, the new Western became the ‘road film’, and for Thelma and Louise, a weekend trip away became a journey of liberation from patriarchal oppression.
Where the classic Western pitted men against the odds, Thelma & Louise pitted two women against the entire male establishment. Our heroines enter the masculine domain of the open road but in place of craggy machismo, they are attractive, feminine and nothing like post-apocalyptic warrior women. The violence of killing a rapist or shooting up a petrol tanker become nihillistic expressions of repressed contempt for all males who violate females. As cowgirls dispensing summary justice they rise above the moral high watermark of the Western. In place of the cowboy’s happy ending, their fate enshrines them as saints of the sisterhood and icons of the feminist film genre.
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel