Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Celebrating the Bitch: Thelma & Louise

Twenty years ago Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis drove off a cliff into movie lore in Thelma & Louise. This “ground-breaking female buddy movie cum road-trip, crime spree and chase flick … deals with rape, a fatal shooting and sexual awakening, all to a country-rock soundtrack,” says Linda Diebel of the Toronto Star in her recent tribute to this Ridley Scott motion picture and its Academy Award-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri. Thelma & Louise hit many firsts for women. It was one of the first movies to portray women using violence as an alternative form of action; it was the first to effectively show the raw power of women locked in friendship; and the first to depict a passionate choice for liberty in death vs. a compromised life.

From introducing Brad Pitt as a sex symbol to portraying women as independent and powerful, Thelma & Louise still resonates with a visceral message two decades after their iconic leap into the Grand Canyon. The ending, in which the pair lock hands and sail over the canyon in Louise’s 1966 T-bird convertible, remains controversial even now.

“People complained about our suicide,” said Sarandon in an interview with Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star. “But I didn’t hear a peep when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did pretty much the same thing.”

Author/activist Judy Rebick, president of the feminist National Action Committee in 1991, liked the movie for its portrayal of a powerful female friendship. “They fought back…they were free. They liberated themselves,” she said in a telephone interview with Diebel. The movie showed Melanie Caplan, fragrance consultant in her 50s, that you can be powerful and not give in. “They controlled their destiny when women were [and still are generally] being portrayed as victims.” In a world where they are expected to be rescued by men, I might add. Near the end of the movie, the sympathetic Arkansas police detective played by Harvey Keitel—their shining knight—does try and fails to “rescue” them.

That’s what the controversial ending was about: not giving in. Not giving in to a false “god”. Not giving in to the imposed rules and strictures of an androcratic* world. Not giving in to feelings of unworthiness and victimization. Not giving in to the oppression of the sacred feminine wisdom, the goddess in all of us. Celebrating The Bitch.

Thelma & Louise stirred a controversy of duality and sexism that still boils today. Several critics condemned Thelma & Louise “as a man-hating film because [Louise] shot and killed a rapist,” said Sarandon. But, “how come they don’t call men ‘man-hating’ when they shoot and kill each other in hundreds of films?” she challenged. It’s like they’re saying they can do it because they’re MEN, but if women do it, then they’re unnatural, bitches, and man-hating. “A woman today is still seen as a bitch if she’s strong or in a powerful position.” Caplan confided.

Ariane deBonvoisin of the Huffington Post suggested that many women live with the "fear of not being relevant ... of not making a difference ... of working on things that don't really matter in the important times of transition we live in. We're hungry to be part of making things better. We want to create, we want to do what we love again and find our voice. We sense intuitively that we have a critical role to play in shaping the future of our world. And yet, so many of us give in to excuses of not being good enough, young enough, wealthy enough, creative enough ... we still play small, still give in to the "victim" archetype.  
The conclusion of Thelma & Louise provided a potent metaphor of women’s power to choose and the liberating nature of exercising that power. Some literalists saw the end as a simple act of desperation; it was, in fact, a powerful victory over the mundane roles women often feel forced to play and endure. “They were taking it for all women,” Caplan said. “They stood for all women who had been made to feel not worthy and not as good as men…It was a rite of passage.”

Media often promotes rivalries among women at the expense of solidarity. This is where Thelma & Louise triumph: a kiss, a look, two intertwined hands and two women riding off a cliff into history. It is one of the best examples of powerful friendship and solidarity. Solidarity against conformity. Solidarity against subservience. Solidarity against victimization.

The end was indeed mythic. “We all know what gravity is,” a York university literature professor shared with Diebel of the T-bird’s final seconds over the abyss. “But they’re frozen there at the end, soaring” into the light.

“The film and that image electrified people around the world,” says Ouzounian. But did it change anything? If it did, it wasn’t obvious. “We’re never able to build up any momentum,” laments Davis. “Research shows that the percentage of female characters on screen has been the same since 1948. The percentage of female directors and writers is abysmal, still stuck in the single digits.”

Momentum requires that three things co-exist: 1) vision; 2) drive, and 3) solidarity. If we are going to change the world for the better, we need to do it together. Here are the steps:

Step 1: Vision and self. Find your passion and follow Gandhi’s maxim: “Be the change you seek in the world.”

Step 2: Drive and staying power. Fuel the drive of your passion by sharing your vision with others of like-mind.

Step 3: Solidarity and community. Find and create a community of like-minded people and share it with the world. Think BIG.

* androcracy is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as a system characterized by the political and social supremacy of men. In a previous piece entitled “Spiritual Ecology and the Lesson of Crete” I write: "[Riane] Eisler provides examples of sociobiologists who draw on nineteenth-century Darwinism by citing insect societies to support their androcratic (social and political rule by men) theories. If we are to truly rise victorious over the scourge of climate change—a function of our current lifestyle and paradigms—we will need to adopt a cultural evolution that embraces a partnership society heralded by new and renewed symbology, language and “myth”.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Vanessa Rottner said...

Let the Diva's speak their true voice - suppression is a relic best served in the dinosaur era. How far has humankind evolved to where the male of the species controls by body posturing, manipulation. Do we women have to get mad, angry and show our she bear before we are taken seriously. Interestingly enough we women don't have to go to such lengths for innately we are already understood by each other. It is time for the women to take control of the universe where harmony, caring will prevail as it should be. Amen to that.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

It's a teriffic movie that I have the movie of. A great ending.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks, CatMum and Jean-Luc! I plan on seeing the movie again very soon!

It got really mixed reviews when it first came out... interesting...

bill said...

Nina, now's a good time to post about traveling through the US sampling key lime pie and jello, while all your books are thrown away.

Think maybe you could write a little bit about this?

Deirdra A. Eden said...

You have a fabulous blog! I want to award you the Best of Sci/Fi Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

Go to and pick up your award.