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Dissecting the feminist legacy of Thelma & Louise

The iconic road movie was supposed to signal a brave new world for female characters in film. But has anything changed 25 years on? Screenwriter Callie Khouri thinks not

When Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis went roaring into the abyss from the edge of the Grand Canyon at the end of Thelma & Louise, their fates could hardly have been more certain. But, 25 years after the cliffhanger ending to end all endings first played in cinemas, Ridley Scott’s feminist road movie shows no signs of succumbing to the natural laws of gravity.

When Callie Khouri, a 30-something Texas native and jobbing production assistant, sat down to write her screenplay for the film, she had no idea she would end up spawning a pop-cultural phenomenon. Having studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in LA, Khouri was grindingly familiar with the two-dimensional roles typically offered to women in Hollywood, and, feeling that “I wasn’t seeing women represented in a way that made me want to be one”, set about writing the film she wanted to see.

Slyly nodding to the outlaw movies – Easy Rider, Badlands, Bonnie & Clyde – of popular Hollywood iconography, Khouri’s story was simple: two women, stifled by their romantic relationships and bored by the humdrum possibilities afforded them by life in small-town Arkansas, hit the road for a weekend on the lam. But when Thelma (Geena Davis) is raped outside a roadhouse bar and Louise (Susan Sarandon) guns down her attacker, the pair decide to go on the run to Mexico with the law in pursuit.

It sounds like a depressing ride on paper, but Thelma & Louise comes alive on screen as an exhilarating story of female friends discovering their potential – sexual, physical, human ­– in the most desperate of circumstances. Hailed at the time for its bold embrace of third-wave feminism – and criticised, depending on which side of the fence you were on, for its “male-bashing” tone or “betrayal” of the feminist cause – Khouri’s script wound up winning the best screenplay award at the 1991 Oscars, an occasion she used to declare that, “for everyone who wanted to see a happy ending for Thelma and Louise, to me this is it”.

And yet, Khouri’s hopes that the film would prove a milestone moment for female characters in cinema was to prove short-lived. In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Geena Davis remembers a friend of Khouri’s pitching a movie with two female leads shortly after the film’s release, only to be told by the studio, “Oh, no, there’s been Thelma & Louise.” The intervening years have scarcely been kinder: in 2011, The Atlantic critic Raina Lipsitz felt able to declare Thelma & Louise the “last great film about women”, while the current crop of ass-kicking female leads in multiplex fare often feels like a poor substitute for living, breathing, three-dimensional characters.

Then there are the reams of statistics about female talent either side of the cameras, which never fail to depress despite increasing clamour for change in the industry. In 2014, just seven per cent of the top-grossing films in the US were directed by women, while 12 per cent of the protagonists in those films were female – four percentage points lower than in 2002.

So what happened? And where do we look for reasons to be cheerful? We spoke to Khouri, currently working as the series creator of Nashville, to get her thoughts on the film’s legacy, why women are plain bored by contemporary cinema, and what the future looks like for females in film.

On writing Thelma & Louise

Callie Khouri:Thelma & Louise was a movie I was making because, one, I had never seen a movie that made me feel good about the way the women were represented, and two, it was speaking to issues that were important to me. Not that I was really thinking of it in terms of issues, it was more about (asking myself), ‘Well, let’s just see what the reality would be if these things were to happen. If two women were to do what they did, how would it be perceived?’ I don’t think I realised (how the film would resonate with people), I just knew it was the film I knew I really wanted to see.”

On the ‘male-bashing’ hysteria surrounding the film

“The thing that blew in my mind from being at college was, like, ‘Gee, the opportunities (as a female actor) to play prostitutes are never gonna run out!’ And I thought, ‘Why is it that?’ and I think it’s because seeing women as sexual creatures that aren’t in a submissive position does seem threatening (for a lot of people). I think that was borne out by the fact that people saw Thelma & Louise as male-bashing. At the time there was a lot of negative, uh, flap about the film being all of these things. And I was completely stunned and caught off guard by that, I’ll never forget the first time I read it. I was just like, ‘What?! What are you talking about?’ I mean, you see men blowing the bejesus out of each other in every single movie that you go to. And women are practically non-existent, except to be the girlfriend or the evil insider of violence or something like that, you know. I wasn’t seeing women represented in a way that made me want to be one. I didn’t feel compelled in any way to be writing a movie about role models. Nobody is talking to Tarantino or Sorcese about that! Nobody was asking Oliver Stone about whether he was writing role models. And actually I noticed then that John Singleton’s movie, Boyz n the Hood, received a similar kind of criticism, and so did other movies that were predominantly black. And it was like, ‘Oh, I see – women and black people have to portray role models, but everyone else can just do whatever the fuck they want.’”

“Seeing women as sexual creatures that aren’t in a submissive position does seem threatening (for a lot of people). I think that was borne out by the fact that people saw Thelma & Louise as male-bashing” Callie Khouri

On Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon and the cast

“Obviously, I was thrilled when Geena and Susan were cast. From the first conversation that Geena and I had, I knew she was just gonna nail it. She just saw a really clear picture, she really knew the movie we were making. I had been wanting Michael Madsen, who I thought he would be so great for the boyfriend, and I was very happy that that happened. Brad (Pitt, in an early breakout role) was the very last person to be cast. We’d had a really hard time finding anybody, and then he just walked in out of the rain and, you know, stole the show. He’s gone on to do OK for himself.”

On the film’s continued resonance

“I’m surprised at how the film has stayed in the conversation – I mean, the moniker ‘Thelma and Louise’ has become a shortcut for describing any number of events from ‘two-headed snake’ to people who are seemingly committing some kind of political suicide or otherwise. Audiences still seem to respond very positively, and I don’t how I can be anything other than grateful for the fact that it’s still in the consciousness. When they see it people say, ‘Wow, it’s amazing how relevant it still is,’ which is kind of a sad statement on the one hand, but I’m glad that they feel that way. I just wish I could say I felt things had changed in a more positive direction as far as women making strides in film and television, and in the political arena. The numbers are absolutely so unbalanced, it’s hard to imagine that this could be considered progress.”

On what Donald Trump means to feminism

“Right now we have this one Republican candidate who is openly hostile towards women, and sadly that seems to be his appeal for some people. There must be plenty of women out there that can’t stand themselves, I guess. I don’t know what else to chalk it up to, because they support these guys who would absolutely have them lose the vote, if it came down to it. But at the same time I think he’s going to have some real challenges, because I can’t imagine a thinking, sentient woman thinking that this guy is going to do anything for them. I think (Trump’s popularity) is exposing this racism and sexism that everybody on the right insists is a thing of the past, and yet there it is, in all its glory.”

On whether Thelma & Louise would get made now

“The film was made by MGM, and I just cannot imagine any studio making that movie now. If it had Ridley Scott as the director, which it did, maybe it would have a shot, but I don’t think any studio would be chomping at the bit to make it. Not that that many were at the time anyway.”

On the new generation of female industry talent

“There’s something really wrong with a system where there are so many talented women, directors and writers, and yet it’s so hard for them to make any real in-roads. But, you know, that conversation is just not going away. There’s this whole crop of young women who are not going to rest until they get their say, and they are figuring out how to get their films made. It just wasn’t as easy 20 years ago because the technology to do it wasn’t quite as available, but now it’s a little easier. People are having to pay attention to the fact that women want to see films about women, women want to see films directed by women, women want to be fairly represented in the culture. And they’re bored. That’s why you see people like Amy Schumer do so well, you know? She’s exciting.” (I actually think) there is a much better shot at finding something more interesting on television these days. When you look at the people who go to Amazon, it’s something like 70 per cent female, and I think that gives their programmes a better shot of reflecting that fact, so at some point they will be making more female-driven content.”

“I didn’t feel compelled in any way to be writing a movie about role models. Nobody is talking to Tarantino or Sorcese about that! Nobody was asking Oliver Stone about whether he was writing role models” Callie Khouri

On ‘badass’ female characters in modern blockbuster cinema

“I guess it’s a small step, but it’s not solving the problem, necessarily. And I still think in a lot of the female superhero kinda movies, they still have these super-sexualised renditions. There’s a documentary made four or five years ago called Miss Representation. It’s all about how women are represented in film and television, and how that shakes out into the general conscious. One of the women interviewed was talking about (the trend for badass female characters), and she referred to those women as ‘fighting fucktoys’, which I thought was hilarious.”

On starting out in the industry

“I was extremely lucky in getting Thelma & Louise made. But part of that luck came from having been at least near enough to the playing field, that when I was trying to get it made, I knew people who knew people who knew people. Had I been just sitting in Ohio, it would never have happened. So my advice (for women starting in the industry) is to take whatever job you can to get on a movie or television set. You can’t be discouraged by the numbers, you just have to keep slogging away at it. On our show (Nashville) we hire a lot of women directors, as many as we can possibly schedule. If anything we find that, because the numbers are so few, availability becomes an issue. Because it’s that thing of them wanting the people with the most experience, but if you’re not hiring women then they’re not going to have the most experience. It ends up being that kind of conundrum.”

On her plans for a sequel

“I’ve been asked that (question) a lot, and my answer is that I’ll write a sequel as soon as they make a sequel for Easy Rider.”