The Road to Female Empowerment: How Thelma & Louise paved the way for feminist cinema

Thelma and Louise are, in my opinion, the most iconic duo in the history of cinema. Speeding down the American highway in their Thunderbird 66 convertible, two best friends leave behind their domestic roles for the open road to self-discovery and independence. Heralded as a “feminist fable”, Ridley Scott’s 1991 adaptation of Callie Khouri’s Oscar-winning screenplay is a total must-see for everyone.

Since our favourite childhood Disney films, we have been conditioned to believe that a happy ending means marrying our Prince Charming and living happily ever after.  Revolutionary in its refusal to submit to the heteronormative and patriarchal institutions that dominate Hollywood, Thelma & Louise is a celebration of solidarity and companionship, where romantic relationships take a back seat and strong women drive the action. Not to be judged by its frankly insulting, happy-go-lucky trailer, the film is far from your average chick-flick or soppy rom-com. Taking a dramatic turn early on, the film exchanges the light-hearted humour for a darker, more serious tone, as the pair run from the law.

Subverting the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s concept of the ‘male gaze’, Thelma and Louise are given a voice by reclaiming control over their lives and bodies. In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Mulvey described the male gaze as cinema’s privileging of the male perspective. Contrary to misinformed criticism, however, the feminist film is not ‘male-bashing’. Besides the brief role that launched Brad Pitt’s career as a hunky, half-naked cowboy, men are simply not the main focal point.

It is a deeply moving and thought-provoking film, with inspiring and totally loveable female protagonists – exceptionally led by Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise. From its opening shot to its iconic and breath-taking final freeze-frame, Thelma & Louise is a timeless and unforgettable ride of female empowerment, freedom, and friendship.

The themes of Thelma & Louise are also poignantly timely, especially with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault. Since the movement became viral in October 2017 – following the allegations towards executive producer Harvey Weinstein – women in Hollywood are now starting to be listened to when they speak out. Oprah Winfrey conjured a sense of hope for women in her acceptance speech of the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award, declaring that “for too long, women have not been heard or believed, if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.” Winfrey ended her empowering speech by proclaiming, “a new day is on the horizon.”

In 2011, Thelma & Louise was described by the New York writer Raina Lipsitz as ”the last great film about women”, which worryingly suggests that in 20 years there had been no comparably empowering female film. Lipsitz expressed concern that “the movie came out two decades ago, but its message has been lost.” In some ways, Hollywood cinema has progressed in its representation of empowering women since the end of the twentieth century. The female-directed Wonder Woman (2017) won Best Film at the American Film Institute awards. It was unusual to have a female superhero written by a woman and an encouraging prospect that Hollywood has started to recognise women as potentially heroic characters. This focus on female strength was taken further in Incredibles 2, a film privileging the heroic ‘Mrs. Incredible’ over her husband, the focus of the prequel. Furthermore, last year Lady Bird received Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay, with Greta Gerwig becoming the fifth female director to receive a nomination in the 90 years of Oscar ceremonies – not comparable, of course, to the many Oscar nominations received for male directors.

However, Hollywood still has a long way to come in terms of its inclusion of progressive female roles. Last year’s Academy Awards ceremony included the fewest number of female Oscar winners in six years. Only six of the 39 winners were women across just 15% of the awards. This was not a significant improvement from the 2012 Oscars, in which only four awards were received by women. While other films have focussed on female protagonists, none have done so in the same way that Thelma & Louise did. The female Ghostbusters in 2016 and last year’s Ocean’s 8, a spin on the Brad Pitt and George Clooney heist movies, are arguably mere remakes of masculine films, devoid of originality. The writer Marta Sundac acknowledges the limited progressiveness of placing women in previously male roles, posing the question ”why make movies based around women if they are only going to be shaped by men?

With all this in mind, Thelma & Louise epitomises female liberation and remains the pinnacle of feminist films, which future successors must aspire to. Its protagonists personify female empowerment, rendering Thelma and Louise feminist icons.

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