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Thelma and Louise and What Could Have Been

Thelma and Louise and What Could Have Been

When you spend so much time online one thing that suffers is off line reading. So, I am perpetually playing catch up to things that can’t be read online. One of the pieces I just caught up with is “The Ride of a Lifetime” in the Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair which was about the making of the groundbreaking film Thelma and Louise.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Thelma and Louise and I’ve had the film and the writer Callie Khouri on my brain lately, not because of this piece, but because I have been working with Callie Khouri on an interview I did with her for my women directors book (which will be out later this spring.)

We spoke a lot of Thelma and Louise and also about the reaction to the film and how little things have changed for women on film in 20 years.

The piece written by Sheila Weller (only an intro is online) really focused on how the movie got made which was a miracle in itself. Callie was working as a music producer and the story came to her and she initially wanted to direct it. But we all know that wasn’t what happened, Ridley Scott directed the film and Khouri won an Academy Award for her script forever changing her life.

It talks about all the actresses that were involved before Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon came on board including Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer and even Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. It also goes into the casting of the men and spends a lot of time talking about the discovery of Brad Pitt.

But what is missing is part two. What this movie meant to the culture and to women.

The year was 1991. This country was in a big a brutal political campaign for our futures. Eight years of Ronald Reagan led to four years of George Bush and progressives were desperate for change. The change was of course Bill and Hillary Clinton and the election of 1992 which also led to an influx of women in Congress.

Thelma and Louise came out in May of 1991 and change was in the air. The film touched a raw nerve in women that had been lying dormant during the Reagan backlash years. It became a cultural touchstone, was on covers of magazines, and got both Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon Academy Award nominations. Geena Davis tells stories of women seeing her on the road and honking at her and thanking her for the film. But here we are 20 years later and it feels like that film was never made.

Where are the Thelma and Louise type movies today? Why weren’t there movies made in its wake? Why didn’t studios get women writers to create more characters like Thelma and Louise? Is it about the power that they had? Is the culture really that afraid of women?

I don’t get it and neither does Khouri who said answered a question about why we have never seen these types of characters again:

It’s a strange thing. I kind of thought this would really help. The response to this movie was overwhelming both positive and negative. Looking back, you could say its impression was indelible. And yet, I can’t point to a lot of other movies that have really followed in its footsteps.

To me folks, that is the question. Why didn’t we build on Thelma and Louise? It feels like we have spent the 20 years since losing power for women onscreen. The opportunity was ripe in 1991 and now in 2011 it feels in some respects like we are back at the starting gate.

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Hollywood had been fixated on capturing the predominately young male audience since the early to mid 1980s and as a result regarded every female oriented picture that made serious money as a ‘fluke’.

With that simple mindset it’s really no surprise that THELMA AND LOUISE didn’t spawn years of similar films. Doreen’s point reminds me of something Meryl Streep once said in that the moment the ‘fantasies’ of strong women onscreen in the Golden Age of Hollywood (Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Davis, West etc) started becoming real the depictions of women by the past decade started regressing.

judotter / Sweden

There is a very strong female character that you have missed, “Lisbeth Salander” (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

John Patterson, Village Voice wrote: “Catch it before the inevitable U.S. remake.”


In all seriousness, if women voted with their pocketbook and supported films about women more than we wouldn’t be asking this question today.


*responding to Julie Kerr*
Diablo Cody can’t hold a candle to Callie Khouri. If Cody is supposed to be the some kind of heir apparent, I say she’s a pretender to the throne.

Julie Kerr

Diablo Cody was at the Castro in San Francisco back in June of 2010. She said she had so many stories she wish she could share. When she was interviewed, she said that she felt Hollywood has gotten worse in the past ten or twenty years.

I agree. Sometimes, I’ll watch movies, even from the 1940’s, that had better portrayals of women than you see now.

I think there’s quite a level of very open, socially acceptable misogyny in pop culture that I don’t quite comprehend why it exits.

I’m trying to make female friendly/female empowerment movies in my little neck of the woods of Indie San Francisco.

I’m grateful for the foundation that Thelma and Louise has provided. It’s definitely an inspiring film.


It seems that in th last 20 years or so Hollywood has decided to go after a very specific demographic. 18 to 34 year old white men. The majority of movies and tv shows seem to be made only with that demographic in mind.


Losing power onscreen was a direct response to the power women were gaining in the career world and in relationships. A lot of strip clubs also sprung up at the time, allowing men to purchase the illusion of the completely subservient female or you could just go to the movies to live that fantasy. We now have this bizarre mirror world in the popular culture, where women are portrayed as being less liberated than their grandmothers. It’s the western version of the full burka, a way to control women. To the extent we buy into it, it works. I’ve noticed women have far more character and depth in most foreign films. Is it corporate art that’s the problem, since they trade in stereotypes to make money or something deeper in our culture?

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