what ‘thelma & louise’ taught me about being an american woman

As the iconic film celebrates its 25th anniversary, we look back at some of its most enduring lessons about fashion, feminism, and freedom.

by Emily Manning
24 May 2016, 9:35pm

Twenty five years ago today (roughly six months before I was born) Thelma & Louise was released in theaters. This means that I have grown up in the America that has come after the revolutionary feminist film — one which starred two women over the age of 30, which won first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri an Oscar, and which netted close to $46 million at the box office. Thelma & Louise radically dissected how we mythologize American landscape and identity. It dared to challenge not simply the ways in which women are imagined within America's masculine myths, but how these ideas continue to shape our real lives.

The film became a cultural phenomenon instantly, igniting as much praise as it did controversy for its violent assault on repressive masculinity. "This was no romp — it was revolutionary," Raina Lipsitz argued on the film's 20th anniversary in a brilliant Atlantic piece, "the first film in a long time to tell the truth about women's lives." A quarter-century later, the film remains an uproariously funny story of friendship and an epic saga of freedom. Here are some things it's taught me about being an American women then and now.

The importance of taking things into your own hands: This isn't an endorsement of the film's healthy helping of violence (which should partly be understood as a product of the genres it reclaims: crime thrillers, westerns, and buddy comedies) but of its characters and creators' perseverance. Khouri had never written screenplay in her life; at the time, she was a line producer for 80s hair metal music videos in "the era of excess, macho guys, big hair, and spandex pants," she told Vanity Fair. Khouri penned an incendiary female crime spree, partly based on the experiences she shared with country star Pam Tillis working at Nashville's Exit In as broke 20-somethings. Struggling to get it financed even as a low-budget indie, one producer called her characters: "basically detestable and unsympathetic, will never get the audience's support." They helped her become one of very few women to nab a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Geena Davis had her agent call director Ridley Scott every week for over a year to get her an audition, even when actresses had already been confirmed for its leads. "It had substance, it had a voice, and it had a great outcome, which you could never change," Scott said of the film's uniqueness. "Their decision was courageous, to carry on the journey and not give in." Theirs, and pretty much everyone else's who fought to share their story.

That we won't be believed: Watching the film's original trailer, there is basically no indication of the real journey its characters undertake. And the gals could have very well enjoyed that fishing trip, had Thelma not been the victim of a violent attempted rape. The film's entire plot hinges upon a fact that now shapes much of our current conversation about sexual assault: women are, tragically often, not believed. Thelma wanted to report the incident to the police, but Louise argues — based on what's later revealed to be her own personal experience — that because people saw Thelma laughing, drinking, and dancing with Harlan, her accusation will not be taken seriously. Sadly, the film still rings true for many women, as 68% of sexual assaults still go unreported.

The power of a pair of Levis: Style plays a crucial role in both characters' road-warrior transformation; as each woman gradually sheds the trappings of the environment she's abandoned. Thelma trades frills, pearls, and brightly colored makeup for boyish-cut denim, Louise loosens her neatly buttoned-up waitress uniform for dirt-stained muscle tanks. On a location scouting trip in Utah, Scott met a female cement-mixer driver with a pack of Marlboros rolled up in her t-shirt sleeve. He bought her hat for Davis, "because this is what Thelma will evolve into." But as we reflect on how the film fashions a sense of what liberation looks like, we're reminded of Hari Nef's fantastic TED talk, "Free the Femme." The actress explained why the tropes of femininity aren't always as shackling as we've been taught; for many trans women, presenting femme isn't just pleasurable, it's an "aesthetic of survival." In 2016, it's important to remember that Thelma and Louise could fight the patriarchy wearing whatever they damned well please.

Brad Pitt is a force of nature: Although Susan Sarandon has actually been my celebrity crush since I was, like, 14, there is really no denying that Brad Pitt — who earned his breakout role as loveable felon J.D. — transcends sex appeal. Just ask Davis, who thought she was ruining Pitt's hard-earned audition (two actors dropped out of the role before he read for it, and at the time, he was landing gigs like these) because he "was so cute I kept messing up my lines." Davis gunned for Pitt — telling Scott and casting agent Lou DiGiaimo, "The blond one. Duh!" (much to the chagrin of George Clooney, who also fought for the role and refused to watch the film for years). Davis, the absolute legend, even elected to film her own sex scene with Pitt. Noting how the characters played and laughed with each other, Lipsitz argues: "That scene possessed a humanity that is absent from every major movie sex scene I've watched since." That awesome, carefree, comfortable sex was a revelation for Thelma: far outside the bounds of her marriage's stifling power dynamic, she experiences some real intimacy, and along with it, a kind of equality. 

Your story will have an impact if you share it: Although Davis and Sarandon are both disappointed that the film failed to revolutionize Hollywood, Thelma & Louise was galvanizing for women everywhere. While watching the film, singer Tori Amos began writing the lyrics to "Me and a Gun," an account of her own harrowing rape, which she'd never told anyone about. The following year, 1992, a record four women joined the United States Senate. Anita Hill took the stand against Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. It was declared "The Year of Women."

Though American women still have so much to fight for — in politics, business, culture, sexual expression and just general safety — this film is enduringly powerful. "I saw, in a flash, where those women started and where they ended up," Khouri said of the story she'd written furiously, stuck in traffic. "Through a series of accidents, they would go from being invisible to being too big for their world to contain, because they'd stopped cooperating with things that were absolutely preposterous, and just became themselves."


Text Emily Manning
Still via Twitter; Thelma & Louise distributed by MGM

Thelma and Louise