American Cult Classic: Thelma & Louise
In the wake of Independence Day, we are going mad for Americana as celebrations across the pond invoke an infectious excitement and give us yet another excuse to party! Whilst the US commemorates the Declaration of Independence in 1776, at Rokit we are reminiscing over American cult classic Thelma & Louise, with its own spin on independence and female power dressing.
Words by Sophie Soar
In the summer of 1991, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri teamed up to produce American cult classic Thelma & Louise. The film stars Geena Davis as Thelma Dickinson, a fun, loving housewife escaping the clutches of her controlling husband, and Susan Sarandon as Louise Sawyer, a wilful waitress frustrated with her relationship to a predominantly absent musician. The two best friends leave for a fishing holiday, only to wind up in one trying situation after the next, becoming outlaws and leaving a trail of mayhem in their wake... Think 90s femininity meets American outlaw as Thelma and Louise prove you don't need to be a man in a man's world, all you need is a killer pair of Levi's and some cowboy boots.
The substance of the film, the women's friendship and defiance of patriarchy, exudes from every element of filmic choices. This includes Thelma and Louise's wardrobe, which gradually develops a greater masculine and defiant we-won't-take-this-bullshit aesthetic. During the opening scenes, the women dress respective to their roles as waitress and housewife; the roles in society to which they are constrained.
Upon leaving Arkansas for their fishing holiday, the look is an elegant, overtly feminine look with silk headscarves and cat eye sunglasses. In the scene prior to the film taking its dooming twist, in which Thelma is threatened with rape, she wears a white, off the shoulder dress. Whilst Thelma's outfit reflects her sexual naivety, Louise's shirt remains buttoned up tight. Her outfit reflects her caution, unfortunately proven later as necessary.
It is following this scene that the two go on the run, at first panicking but later developing a plan and assuming their act of defiance. Again, this is reflected in their wardrobes as the floating dresses and silk headscarves are replaced by high waisted jeans, cowboy boots and handkerchiefs. Cat eye sunnies are replaced with ray bans and the preferred accessory of choice comes in the form of a pistol.
Alongside our favourite female protagonists star a few household names in cinema, such as Michael Madsen as Louise's far from perfect but concerned boyfriend and Harvey Keitel as a sympathetic cop leading the operation to catch the pair. Hunky hearthrob Brad Pitt, whose career took off following his portrayal of the cheeky J.D., momentarily falls from grace following his theft of Thelma's life savings but never dislikable for long - how can we condemn that adorable smile?
Who Runs the World? GIRLS.
The American road film raked in $45 million for the US box office, presenting an innovative reworking of the genre which was previously exclusively male. Thelma & Louise received six Academy Award nominations and won the 1992 award for Best Original Screenplay; the film gained immense critical success, such as film critic B. Ruby Rich saying it was an uncompromising validation of women's experiences. For this reason, it contributed to the labelling of 1992 as the 'Year of the Woman'.
Scott's film still draws in a vast audience for its authentic, unforgiving representation of women breaking free from the chains of male dominance, as film critic Roger Ebert writes 'they are shouting into the maw of the universe that men are no longer going to make their decisions for them'. Ebert also wrote about his favourite scene, in which Thelma silently exchanges her jewellery for an elderly man's hat. He notes 'she gives away her jewels - traditional men's presents to women - in return for his hat, a traditional man's present to himself'.
As a result, the film instigated controversy as well as acclaim. Two women respond by arms to male violence, on which some critics chose to focus. New York Daily News columnist Richard Johnson said the film was 'degrading to men' and 'justifies armed robbery, manslaughter and chronic drunken driving as exercises in consciousness raising'. In reality, the male characters featured throughout the film vary immensely, from loveable through to repulsive.
The negative criticisms regarding the film's overtly feminist approach just emphasise the necessity for its creation; Thelma & Louise was released the same year it became illegal to rape your wife in the UK. Many responded to criticism that the film was dated and focused too much on the sixties and seventies road film style, such as Ebert who counter argued 'it's [not] dated... it's simply overdue'.
Following the film's success and the millions of hearts it touched, Geena Davis launched an institute (Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media) that aims to increase the presence of female characters in media and reduce stereotyping in the film industry. However despite Thelma & Louise's rip roaring success, critic Raina Lipsitz writes it's 'the last great film about women', whilst the film's stars and creators have agreed 'this movie would ever get made today'.
From start to finish, Thelma and Louise's friendship is the film's main theme, made iconic by the end scene in which the two drive off the side of the Grand Canyon in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird Convertible. At the film's denouement, Thelma's says 'something's crossed over in me and I can't go back', pointing the women towards only one conclusion: moving forward. This decision is critically made as they face away from the hoard of policemen and out towards the expanse of the Grand Canyon, synonymous with Khouri's belief that 'women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in the world. The world is not big enough to support them'.
The Women Who Flew
As a result, their deaths seem inevitable in order for them to effectively defy the masculine authorities. Whilst the scene implies suicide, Khouri ensured to never show the suggested. Rather, 'you were left with an image of them flying. They flew away, out of this world and into the mass unconsciousness', emphasising their choice, although made out of limited options, but a choice nonetheless for a resolution preferable to life in prison or the death penalty.
Khouri explains 'after everything they went through I didn't want anyone to be able to touch them' and the film concludes fulfilling this desire of the screenwriter. Neither the good-natured cop nor the despicable husband influence their decision; they conclude instead that they cannot remain in this world without adhering to male opinions and desires. Thelma explains 'everything looks different. Everything looks new', describing their visionary world for women to look towards.