Thelma & Louise (1991) was a historically significant film for feminists in multiple ways. As a response to what Susan Faludi discusses as the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s, Thelma & Louise features feminist content and production context. Specifically, Thelma & Louise exemplifies American feminist film theory’s attention to critique of patriarchy, positive images of women, the role of women in production, and issues of gender and genre.
When the film was released, there was controversy in the press, particularly related to its connection to feminism. Star Geena Davis, for example, disliked the pressures she felt of having to represent all women, and she decried the idea that a film starring women was necessarily feminist. The film’s female screenwriter, Callie Khouri, similarly divorced the film from feminism, arguing that it was not about “feminists” but about “outlaws.” Of course, a feminist film is not the same thing as a film about feminists or feminism.
For feminist critics, the film features several connections to American feminist film theory from the 1970s through its release:
Female Authorship. As just noted the film was written by a woman. Central to feminist approaches to film is the importance of women in production and not just on screen. Strong female stars, such as Susan Sarandon, who plays opposite Davis, are also part of “authoring” a feminist text.
Female Friendship. The strongest connection to feminism may be its representation of female friendship. Thelma and Louise are not only the central characters but their bond is the very title of the film. As a duo, they exemplify women’s lives beyond heteronormative romance imperatives suggested by the opening of the film in which Geena Davis’s Thelma illustrates the stifling life of the traditional housewife, which she escapes with Louise. Retroactively applied, the film certainly passes the Bechdel Test.
Gender and Genre. Thelma & Louise challenges gendered genre norms, offering a rare (to date) female version of the male buddy film. The picture might be compared to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), for example, for its focus on outlaw life, living on the road, and the inclusion of violence. That one of the key scenes of violence in the film involves one “buddy” defending the other against attempted rape highlights the gendered struggles of women vs. men and potentially strengthens the feminist implications. The film has also been discussed by some critics as a take on the “rape-revenge movie,” offering additional feminist focus on gender and genre.
Resistance to Romantic Closure. While the origins of a female buddy film may be in the traditional woman’s film (precursor to the “chick flick”), Thelma & Louise resists emphasis on heteronormative romance, particularly the closure of the happy coupled ending. That the only option for our heroines is to end their lives rather than be caught and condemned by the (patriarchal) authorities literally illustrates the hesitance of representing female “buddies” as capable of the kind of antiheroic violence of men (such as Butch and Sundance who go down in a suggested blaze of bullets). A familiar refrain for feminists over the film’s ending was “Why didn’t they turn around and head straight for the cops?”
Lesbian Interpretation. Although the film directly references the women’s heterosexuality, their bond and final embrace does suggest to some viewers the possibility of a partnership more intimate than non-sexual friendship. While lesbianism is not inherently feminist, its rejection of heteronormativity has formed part of feminist theory, experience, and film criticism. Nonetheless, if the characters are read as lesbian, this limits the potential feminist resistance to romance of the female buddy film.
Limits. The fact that Thelma & Louise lends itself to feminist interpretation but can equally be discussed in non-feminist or even, in its violence, for example as anti-feminist, suggests that the most significant attribute of the film is its polysemy: its availability for multiple (even contradictory) interpretations. To maintain box office success, the more open to diverse readings a film is, the better, if this limits its potential feminist impact. In addition, the film partakes in typical Hollywood sexism and racism in its emphasis on the tale of two thin, young, white, “beautiful” women.
For more on feminist implications and reading strategies for Thelma & Louise, see Karen Hollinger’s In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films, which is the primary source for this article.