As filmmaking becomes more accessible to the average person with the advent of the Internet, one would imagine that the groups of people that make film would start to become more diverse offering a wider range of ideals to be presented on screen. Unfortunately, while this is occurring, the number of female writers working in Hollywood the past few years is not going up but down. According to Raina Lipsitz from The Atlantic, “Women now account for only 15 percent of writers on the major television networks' prime-time dramas, comedies, and reality shows, down from 29 percent in the 2009-10 season.” With numbers this low, it’s hard to imagine that nearly twenty-five years ago there was a mainstream feminist film that was a success to not only the general public, but to the filmmaking world. This film was Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise, and the reason why such a feminist film could come out in 1991 was because of how well it conveyed to its viewers, most importantly male viewers, the lack of representation women have in films and how it feels to watch a film as a woman while also providing discussion on why this has been occurring for so long.
When discussing prominent characters throughout the history of film, the common answers most people will give you are Indiana Jones, Rocky, or Luke Skywalker. While these are all classic definitions of heroes, you will notice that there isn’t a female hero that comes to mind first, second or third, and if you continue down the list you will find that you may get dozens of spots down until you do find a prominent female hero in film. The reason for this is because in order for an audience member to like a character in a film, the character has to do something that will affect the film’s plot. Largely in film, this is not a job that female characters are allowed to do. Throughout 99% of films, you will find that the only characters that are responsible for being agents of change are male. When it comes to Thelma and Louise we see the opposite happen. Throughout the course of the film, not only are both Thelma and Louise responsible for driving the plot forward, but also every male character we come across is a complete imbecile. By broadly juxtaposing the two sexes in terms of how they affect the plot, the audience is clearly able to understand how the sexes differ on film. More specifically, the segment of the audience that finally is able to realize that one sex is not acting as an agent of change is the male audience segment. For once, men are seeing a film where their own sex is not important to the film; they finally get a taste of what it is like to be a female watching films. In doing so, the male audience gets irritated while watching the film and upset that someone would be so malicious to men. Those that did not get this was done to make a point about women in film got angry and dismissed the film, while those that realized this is what women have been experiencing for decades were finally able to sympathize with the other sex.
Now that men were able to come to terms with how women feel from films, many were left questioning why this has been occurring so long, fortunately within the film’s plot, Thelma and Louise answer this question. To many of the men unsure about why women are not given agency in films, finding out that they were the reason why came as quite a large shock. In the film, the manifestation of the issues men cause women come in the form of the character J.D. (Pitt). During the film, J.D. provides Thelma with the validation that she feels she needs from men, however shortly after this occurs the man that gave her this validation steals the money she and Louise were relying on to get to Mexico which sets of a series of events that leads to Thelma and Louise never being able to turn back and go home. By having the only seemingly half way decent male character in the film bring the downfall of Thelma and Louise it is implied to the audience that men as a group are holding back women. This black and white reading of sexual relations can come across as an antagonistic to the male sex and may turn even the most progressive men away from the film as they may see it as preaching hate for men. Luckily in order to combat this Hal, (Keitel) was added as the misunderstood male figure that had the intentions to help the film’s lead girls. In addition, while J.D. represents the agony men cause women, the film does offer a glimpse into how the sexes can positively coexist. This is evident in a scene where Thelma uses the robbery story that J.D. told her earlier in the film. But instead of directly copying J.D.’s speech Thelma makes alterations to suit her personally when she asks for a couple bottles of Wild Turkey. This instance shows that the film still promotes the idea that women can learn something from men, while also promoting that women can take their life into their own hands by fine-tuning the information to fit their own needs.
While the film clearly promotes the female form and finally allows women to have a large role in the film’s plot, many argue that due to the film being made by Ridley Scott it could never truly capture the thought process of women. At face value this argument appears to hold water, but once you dig deeper you will find that the only reason this criticism comes up is because of the devaluation of women in film that Thelma and Louise tried to point out back in 1991. Whenever Thelma and Louise is brought up for discussion it is referred to as Ridley Scott’s film on feminism and he gets the praise for creating something that is so progressive. Yet, Scott was not the writer of the film and the ideas that are expressed throughout the film are not his even though he may agree with them. In fact, the original writer of the film was a woman, Callie Khouri, and she even won the Academy Award for best original screenplay for the film, yet history has forgotten about her when discussing the film. While this could be argued that this is more of an issue within how writers are respected in terms of directors, there are various examples where big named directors have made classic films but still recognized the writer such as Chinatown, which most people know was directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne. Because of the lack of credit Kouri has received for her contributions to Thelma and Louise, the themes and ideas that she presented back in 1991 still hold weight today as the women in film and the ones the make them are still being forgotten.
As it becomes more popular in mainstream media to promote feminism, Thelma and Louise will be looked back on as one of the pivotal films that got audiences discussing gender representation in film. By clearly showcasing to the male audience what it is like to be a woman watching films, Thelma and Louise impacted men in a way they previously could not comprehend. For those viewers willing to engage in further discussion on the topic the film also provides commentary on why these issues exist. Although twenty-five years later the real thing to take away from the film is that even though the film explicitly informs audiences how bad it is women are forgotten about in film, people still do not bat an eye when Thelma and Louise is referred to as Ridley Scott’s film and not Callie Khouri’s.
Thank you for visiting Celluloid Cinema, please leave your thoughts in the comments below.