During the 1990s, feminism was beginning to flourish, mainly becoming depicted through music and film. Film was an especially influential way to challenge the status quo and the societal stereotypes played upon women. It was significant that film brought to life feminist values because it held such strong influence during the feminist movement from the ’90s up until present-day. One film in specific that integrates the theory of feminism in a very influential way was Thelma and Louise (1991), a film revolving around liberated women who snap free from societal stereotypes.
While criticizing the patriarchy and gender issues, Thelma and Louise was able to stir up controversy as the film was able to make an impact on American society and establish feminist values upon its release. Through the examination of Thelma and Louise and the theory of feminism, I will make clear how the film stood for strong feminist values, and how doing so affected both past and present-day American feminism. Thelma and Louise serves as an iconic feminist film because of the way the film was able to reject the obedient feminine stereotype placed on women and the way it challenged the standard idea of male dominance over women.
Focusing on the two female characters of Thelma and Louise, the film was able to successfully challenge gender roles. Thelma and Louise were outlaws, with a rugged textured look; a look that was able to reject the idea that a woman must be wholly feminine in order to be female. Throughout a plethora of Hollywood blockbusters and television shows during the time, many of the leading feminine roles revolved around sexually submissive women with a skinny, preppy look to them; essentially forming the tereotype that female women must look this way in order to be deemed feminine or a female. Thelma and Louise completely rejects this stereotype though and was able to do so in a tasteful way. Thelma and Louise were able to radiate sexuality without being submissive, a rather taboo subject nature that remains taboo present-day. “This was revolutionary – because women weren’t reacting to a storyline in which they played girlfriends or mothers or wives, they were violently moving the storyline along themselves” (Reilly).
They weren’t portraying the typical submissive housewives or companions, but rather they played female characters that dominated the storyline, and did so in a liberating way. It was important that such a popular film was able to challenge an idea like such because the idea that a woman can’t look sexual and rebellious without being deemed submissive was a huge societal issue that remains an issue even to this day. This film was also able to further challenge gender roles by completely rejecting the idea that men are essential to the lives of women.
The typical blockbuster film revolves around a love story or an ending that promises the forgiveness and submissiveness to a man, but Thelma and Louise was able to do just the opposite; challenging the idea that men are not necessary for a woman to be happy, or for a film to be good. An interesting quote by Janet Maslin in her article “Thelma & Louise: The Last Great Film About Women” featured in the New York Times speaks just on that topic: “something simple as it is powerful: the fact that men in this story don’t really matter” (Maslin).
Maslin’s quote reiterates what I previously stated about Thelma and Louise being able to project the idea that men aren’t necessary in a woman’s life, or for a good film. The two girls have desires and wants of their very own that don’t require men to fulfill such desires. Though the men previously in their lives still shaped them into the kind of women they were, it was all due to the patriarchal society they had been forced to live in and grow up in.
What made them happier, more motivated women was breaking free of that patriarchal society. Though this film speaks to feminists’ hearts, it did receive criticism from the masses due to its taboo subject nature, which is not of surprise. Since Thelma and Louise challenged gender roles and societal stereotypes placed on women, it was no surprise that the film would receive mass criticism. Most criticisms stemmed from the idea that Thelma and Louise was a film that was meant to bash men and depicts the women as being ‘too free’.
The real reason this criticism had arisen though was more so because many could not handle the idea of women breaking free from society’s norms and standards; they viewed this rebellion as a threat to society rather than a helping factor. In an article titled “How Thelma and Louise Captured a Moment in the History of American Feminism” by Olivia Waxman, the author states that “… some of the negative reaction to the film may have reflected critics’ discomfort… amely the ways in which women were pushing back against traditional roles” (Waxman). The mass criticism the film had received is able to prove just how influential this film really was for the growing feminist movement in America. The challenging and changing of gender roles could afraid many, as during the 90s the idea that women had a role in the house and couldn’t sexually express themselves was still a belief and stereotype that many followed, and still a subject nature that remains argued about to this day.
In another article titled “The Last Great Film About Women” by Raina Lipsitz, the author challenges the criticism as well by stating that “even smart, educated people are disturbed by female characters who assert control over their lives and bodies and aren’t punished for it” (Lipsitz). What’s interesting about all the criticism though, is that if the film were two male main characters doing the same things as the women had done, the film would have been perceived completely differently.
The film would have been perceived as more accepting, less taboo, and would have been far less critiqued. Even though the film received such criticism, the film was still important for feminism and the feminist movement because it was able to teach women to not be afraid to stand up for themselves and for their feminist values. In order for a feminist movement to become successful, the idea of not being afraid to crack social norms and stereotypes is critical.
Though the film rejected stereotypes and assumed gender roles, the film also represented feminist values through the power of female friendship that is established between Thelma and Louise throughout the film. The loyalty and friendship established between Thelma and Louise is so iconic because they radiate the idea that they don’t need men in their lives in order to have fun and feel alive. They simply only need each other, establishing the idea that female friendship is a stronger and more powerful bond than the providing of a man.
When the pair of them are together, there are no limits to what they can do, which once again rejects a role that is typically assumed of men to do rather than women. In fact, Thelma and Louise only have attention paid to them by others once they decided to reject male dominance and the patriarchy, which is very symbolic of feminism both during the 90s and present-day Feminism was never taken seriously until women actually started taking a stance and started challenging society and gender roles that had existed for ages.
In an article by Natalie Reilly, titled “How Thelma & Louise Ushered in a New Exciting Version of Mainstream Feminism”, she talks just about this. “Thelma & Louise ushered a new, exciting version of mainstream feminism into our culture – Girl Power” (Reilly). Another interesting underlying feminist value in the film is one regarding male privilege over women. Thelma and Louise throughout the film are pursued for crimes they committed; crimes that are not nearly as bad as the crimes that had been committed against them, such as rape and domestic abuse.
Such a message is so powerful because it is symbolic of male dominance in society and the privilege males hold over women. Even in present-day society, this is still relevant as you find that many cases of rape and domestic abuse against women receive the bare minimum of punishment for the male perpetrator. It’s significant when a film brings this to light because it’s able to empower feminism and the feminist movement by making the female audience feel empowered.
Bhaskar Chawla brings to life this theme in his article titled “The Film That Got Feminism Right Quarter of a Century Ago”. “They’re unapologetic, because they’re sick of men getting away with anything, while they have to pay the price for self-defence and self-preservation” (Chawla). As seen in the film, during the rape scene Thelma and Louise murder a man who was trying to rape one of the girls, yet they are still pursued by authority and frowned upon even though it was an act of self-defense.