“Thelma & Louise” and the long road still ahead

By Valerie Kalfrin

A Polaroid tends to fade over time. The one that Thelma and Louise took before their fateful road trip certainly didn’t survive, blown away in the wind. Yet that Polaroid selfie — indeed, their whole adventure — only grows richer and sharper after 30 years.

It’s a snapshot in time that captures not just the way things are but how we’d like them to be.

When their eponymous film appeared in the summer of 1991, columnists and critics were all over the map, calling Thelma & Louise “a butt-kicking feminist manifesto,” a betrayal of feminism, “degrading to men, with pathetic stereotypes of testosterone-crazed behavior,” and a “paeon to transformative violence.”

That’s a lot to put on one film, noted Richard Schickel, writing in TIME, who found that the movie’s “curiously unselfconscious manner” made it “open to interpretation, appropriate and otherwise.”

Credit stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, director Ridley Scott, and screenwriter Callie Khouri, then a music video producer who wanted to put women in the driver’s seat, with that balance of humor and pathos. Khouri, whose script won an Oscar, crafted these characters through dialogue and small gestures, like Louise’s fastidiousness and Thelma’s fondness for airline-size bottles of Wild Turkey. She also struck a chord in the cultural zeitgeist that still reverberates today.

Closeup of two women taking a photo together, one with blue eyeshadow and other bright makeup and the other wearing sunglasses and a scarf around her head
Friends Louise (Susan Sarandon, left) and Thelma (Geena Davis) pose for a selfie before their fateful road trip in 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” / © 1991 MGM / Courtesy of IMDB.com

“Nobody thought it would get the reaction that it did,” Davis, who plays the naive and flighty housewife Thelma, told Entertainment Weekly when the film turned twenty-five. She remembered “very negative editorials: ‘Oh my god, the world is ruined; the women have guns.’”

“It just seemed like it’d be fun to be outlaws,” added Sarandon, whose waitress Louise seems more guarded and controlled until she confronts — and fatally shoots — a man who tries to rape Thelma in a roadhouse parking lot. “We kind of thought we were doing a Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid] … not making some kind of statement.”

The pay phones the women use are antiquated these days, and Louise’s green 1996 Thunderbird convertible seems even more striking for a life on the run. (In the original script, the women talk about stealing a less-conspicuous car, but they don’t know how.)

But the rest of the film is as timely as ever, heartbreakingly so.

Remember the scene where Thelma, her nose bloody from where her attacker hit her, suggests they go to the police? “Tell them what happened,” she says. “How he was rapin’ me—”

Louise suddenly becomes angry, incredulous. She brings up all the people who saw Thelma dancing with that creep all night. “Who’s gonna believe that? … We don’t live in that kind of a world, Thelma!”

Two women, one wearing sunglasses and the other in a cowboy hat, sit atop a convertible with the top down.
Susan Sarandon (left) and Geena Davis on the road in 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” / © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. / Courtesy of IMDB.com

We still don’t. It’s why you carry your keys like claws when you walk to your car, or ask a friend to walk with you. Or why, after some guy flashes you on the subway, another woman you know says that happened to her in the library. It’s why you feel a prickle of adrenaline when a guy suddenly walks behind you or comes up alongside you, all chatty and calling you “honey” or “sweetheart.” You want to tell him, “I’m not your sweetheart,” but you don’t want to tick him off to the point that he really becomes threatening, either.

I’d like to say it’s somewhat better, with the downfall of predatory producer Harvey Weinstein and the efforts of the #MeToo movement. But sexual violence still affects one American every 68 seconds, according to RAINN. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 25 offenders will be incarcerated.

In the UK this year alone, more than 70% of women told United Nations researchers that they have been sexually harassed in public, from catcalls and so-called jokes to being followed, groped, flashed, or worse. Just this month, London Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Couzens pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder in the death of marketing executive Sarah Everhard, 33, who disappeared in March while walking home.

Director Emerald Fennell earlier this year won a screenwriting Oscar for her feature debut, Promising Young Woman, whose whole premise spins on the world as we know it. Her protagonist, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), fakes being a sloppy drunk every night so that she can lecture — and scare the wits out of — any guy who tries to take advantage of her.

Someone always does.

It’s infuriating and exhausting. The awareness and the conversations are there, but so is the chorus that “it’s not all men,” which a lot of think pieces said thirty years ago, too.

Two women in a convertible with the top down being chased by several police cars
Thelma (Geena Davis, left) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) contemplate the road ahead in “Thelma & Louise” / © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Louise, we learn, had been raped in Texas years earlier, but no one believed her or prosecuted her attacker. That trauma spurs her to kill Harlan (Timothy Carhart, Yellowstone) when he keeps shooting his mouth off after Louise stops him from assaulting Thelma.

The women planned a weekend getaway at a mountain cabin when Thelma, eager to let her hair down away from her domineering yet dismissive husband (Christopher McDonald, Hacks), insisted they stop somewhere.

“This is some vacation. I sure am having a good time,” a shaken Thelma says after the shooting as Louise tries to collect her thoughts.

“If you weren’t so concerned with having a good time, we wouldn’t be here right now,” Louise snaps.

“So this is all my fault, is it,” Thelma says.

Louise doesn’t mean it; she tells Thelma as much later, as a phalanx of lights and sirens pursues them to the lip of the Grand Canyon. By then, the women are caught in what Louise describes as a “snowball effect.” Harvey Keitel, as a compassionate Arkansas State Police investigator, first wants to find the women as potential witnesses, then considers them suspects the longer they’re gone.

Brad Pitt turned heads as the hunky hitchhiker that Thelma likes, but he steals the money that would have helped them to reach Mexico. So Thelma robs a convenience store, growing more in charge as Louise crumples.

Scott shows the wide-open spaces of the American Southwest as the women become freer, bolder, more comfortable with themselves. They stop checking their makeup and fixing their hair. Louise gives away her jewelry to a stranger, and they both open fire on a sexist pig of a truck driver in a way that many a woman has wanted to do but wouldn’t dare.

Trucker-style hats with embroidered labels, one saying "Thelma" and the other "Louise"
Even after 30 years, Thelma and Louise need no last names / Photo at the Rare Hues modern vintage market in Tampa, FL / By Valerie Kalfrin

Made for about $17 million, Thelma & Louise has earned about $46 million worldwide since its release. It’s inspired books and analysis in film studies, a 2019 documentary, and shorthand for female best friends who have each other’s backs.

“I think that’s been one of the biggest breakthroughs,” Sarandon said before a drive-in screening of the film in Los Angeles this month. “Today there are so many brilliant female actors making films where women aren’t adversarial to each other and have the power to determine their own destiny.”

The film also galvanized Davis to choose roles more carefully and advocate for better representation onscreen. She founded The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media in 2004, which uses research from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism to lobby against negative stereotypes and gender imbalances in front of and behind the camera.

“Every few years, there’s a movie that comes out that does well, and people say, ‘Well, now, everything’s changed. Now it’s all changed.’ Just like Thelma & Louise. And it really hasn’t,” Davis said in 2016.

Still, as Louise notes, I’m not giving up.

I remember what else she says, soon after taking that Polaroid: “You get what you settle for.” Over about three days on the run, she and Thelma decide not to settle, not to get caught, leading to the climax where they drive into the Grand Canyon, and the screen fades to white.

“To me, the ending was symbolic, not literal,” Khouri said in an interview. “They flew away, out of this world and into the mass unconscious. Women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough to support them … After all they went through, I didn’t want anybody to be able to touch them.”

It’s an ending that still makes me cry, yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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