The Effect and Affect of Feminism on Thelma and Louise

Academic paper by Abby Osman. Viewed on DVD.

The controversial film Thelma and Louise is a product of the second wave of feminism in the 1990’s. Through the exploration of women in film and women on film, Thelma and Louise shows how feminism impacted the film industry by challenging Hollywood and the social patriarchy, providing women a voice, and changing how spectators view how women are looked at through women’s eyes and their experiences. Before being able to analyze the role the feminist movement plays in the image of women in the film Thelma and Louise, it is necessary to understand the history of the feminist second wave and the role of women in the film industry from the 1920’s forward.

In the 1920’s the image of the flapper and vamp dominated the Hollywood screen presenting films which stress women’s sexuality. In the 1930’s the wise guy, brash, blond typified by Jean Harlow hit the scene. Women were depicted as wanting to gain independence from their families and wanting to experience true romantic love. The women were cast as central characters in melodramas where the incompatibility between work and love forced them to choose one over the other. The strong women stars of the 30’s and 40’s that commanded the silver screen as sex goddesses who were sensual and manipulated men, such as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, were replaced with the rise of the television. The production code of the 40’s kept the sexuality of women out of many films. When the war came, the image of the “strong woman” factory worker appeared in film with actresses like Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis. The 1950’s saw a setback for the role of women due to cultural domesticity and move to the suburbs. It was during this time that women were barred from the medical and legal profession in career options. The idealized, sexuality reemerges in the 50’s showing blatant sexuality and seduction with Brigitte Bardot, Lana Turner, and Eva Gardner, or as innocent and whole with Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. Marilyn Monroe was portrayed as the bridge between the two and was cast as both seductive and innocent. The first wave of feminism in the 1970’s saw the emergence of the quasi-liberated female typified by Jane Fonda and Glenda Jackson and such films as Girlfriend(1978), Klute(1971), An Unmarried Women(1977) and Julia(1977). The horror-science fiction genre of the late 70’s marked a time of what Carol J. Clover calls the more heroic “final girls” in the androgynous, non-sexual role Jamie Lee Curtis assumes in Halloween(Williams,2006:135) and Sigourney Weaver in Alien(Williams,2006:232)as female victims. The 80’s saw women professionals in top grossing films, a major change from Hollywood’s past money producers with the likes of Helen Hunt in Twister, Susan Sarandon in The Client, and Demi Moore in A Few Good Men. With the second wave of feminism in the 1990’s came the liberation of the woman in and on film and some backlash from it. “The male-male heterosexual road movie partly gave way in the 1990’s to films which utilized the format to explicitly addressed themes of sexuality and gender.” (Williams,2006:16-17.) The more prominent roles of women as professionals and competent adversaries made their debut in the 90’s with Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, Julianne Moore in Jurassic Park, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, and Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. The backlash of feminist influence is seen in the film Disclosure with Demi Moore’s sexual harassment of a subordinate male employee.

Michael Bronski points out of feminism and feminist film theory:

No one these days thinks there is one brand of feminism –pure as Ivory Snow-and nowhere

else is this brought to the fore than in how Hollywood manufactures and produces feminisms

And how the media (and critics) interpret and repackage them. The days of the “simple” feminist

Hollywood film are over. Movies like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Women under the Influence,

Norma Rae, and Julia feel nostalgic now because they came out of what (at the time) seemed

to be a far less complicated set of circumstances: sexism existed, women had fewer social and

economic options than men, women were discriminated against.

The 60’s was a time of civil rights, youth and anti-war movements that led to the second wave of the American women’s movement. It is from this movement that feminist film theory developed as a theoretical film criticism from feminist politics and feminist theory. Cinema is viewed by feminists to be a cultural practice representing myths about women and femininity, and men and masculinity.

Based on the works of Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream and Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies the focus of sociological views of how women were stereotyped to the extent of passivity or activity and the amount of screen time given to women in a male dominated industry. Rosen contends that “a clear polarization has taken place in female character types in American cinema of the early 1970’s between the world-wise political attitude and sexual assertiveness represented by Jane Fonda in Klute (1971) and the naïve and passive femininity of Ali McGraw in Love Story(1970)… images of women as victims of gratuitous physical and sexual violence appeared to many to be proliferating in films…”(Williams,149). Haskell identifies three types of women characters: the Extraordinary women (strong, powerful figures of characters played by Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis), the Ordinary woman (common, passive, and often a victim – precursors to soap opera characters), and the Ordinary who becomes Extraordinary woman (the victims who rise or endure.) She identifies women’s film themes as sacrificial whereby she must sacrifice herself for her children, her children for their own welfare, marriage for her lover, her lover for marriage or for his own welfare, her career for love, or love for her career. “The domestic and the romantic are entwined, one redeeming the other, in the theme of self-sacrifice, which is the mainstay and oceanic force, high tide and low ebb of the woman’s film. (Haskell, 157.) She points out the films of the 1930’s and 1940’s usually end tragically with the woman embroiled in a conflict of affliction (holding of a secret, an illness or a disease, or martyrdom is proportionate to guilt), choice (normally two suitors, a male curable only by her, a confirmed bachelor or a clergyman), and competition that she must do battle with the woman whose husband/fiancé/lover she loves. These themes, she states are sexist depictions of women in common patriarchal roles representing women as sexual objects, suffering mothers, man-hating spider-women, or dependent girls. Their fates were centered on either their successful romance or marriage, or around the punishment for their crimes of sexuality or aggression.

Laura Mulvey, feminist filmmaker and theorist uses psychoanalytic theory, structuralism, and avant-garde aesthetics in the 1970’s to target her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” addressed the question of how male fantasies about women through voyeurism and castration structure the “LOOK and PLEASURE in cinema, both through the conditions of spectatorship in the film theater and also in the representation of sexual differences on the screen.” (Kuhn, 1990:271). She identifies three “looks” or perspectives that happen in film which objectify women; the first perspective of the male character on screen and he perceives the female character, the second, is the perspective of the spectator as they see the female’s character on screen, and the third, is the male audience member’s perspective of the male character in the film (allowing the male audience to take the female character as his own personal sex object, relating to the male character in the film.) She calls for the destruction of the modern film structure as the only way to free women from film’s sexual objectification and creation of a distancing between the male spectator and the female character. Her coining of the term “male gaze” explains that in film, the woman is the “bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning.”

Claire Johnston’s “Women’s Cinema as Counter Culture” (1973) offered a sustained critique of stereotypes from the Marxist inflected semiotic point of view. She asserts that the ideological image of woman is constructed by classical cinema and explores that “myth.” “The sign ‘woman’ can be analyzed as a structure, a code or convention. It represents the ideological meaning that ‘woman’ has for men. In relation to herself she means no-thing. Women are negatively represented as ‘not-man’. The ‘woman-as woman’ is absent from the text of the film. (Smelik 1999.) The shift here is from understanding cinema as reflecting reality to viewing it as constructing a particular ideological view of reality.

What came out of the film theorists’ academic argument was the ideology that, not only are women underrepresented and misrepresented on film from the male perspective, but that the structure and techniques of portrayal of women in the movies needed to change to reach the female audience from a woman’s perspective. The employment opportunities for women in Hollywood had been incredibly limited since the early days of Hollywood. Even today, as the LA Times points out, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego University, that women are still a rarity in top film jobs, holding only 16% of key jobs such as director and producer on the top 250 films of 2010. (This is about the same as it was in 1998.) Of these top 250 domestic grossing films in 2010, women were represented by 2% of cinematographers, 7% of directors, 10% of writers, 15% of executive producers, 18% of editors, and 24% of producers. The women’s movement opened up a new avenue in the area of teaching feminist film theory. A feminist counter-culture developed with an attempt to completely restructure traditional practices of looking by developing alternative forms and techniques to both make the viewer self-aware of the patriarchal structures of cinema’s looking, telling, and viewing women. The need to change the spectatorship to a female audience and female point of view expressing women’s concerns led the way for feminist founding of a vast number of media institutions which included venues for exhibition, discussion, media centers, festivals, conferences, journals, production education, distribution and funding. The feminist counter-cinema did not only pertain to fictional film, but also to documentary and alternative film and in 1973 the national organization, Women in Film, founded in Los Angeles supported women’s networking and career growth in the industry. Johnston stated that “Feminist documentary should manufacture and construct the ‘truth’ of women’s oppression, not merely reflect it.” (Smelik) In NWSA Journal, Kelly Hankin argues that female directors are not given the same support and opportunities as their male counterparts in both Hollywood and commercial independent film industries. Beginning in the 1990’s several documentaries emerged “featuring women filmmakers of varying national, racial, and sexual identities who work in a range of film production practices… by privileging the voices and experiences of these diverse female directors, these documentaries function as important activist texts in women’s studies and media studies classrooms.” (NWSA 2007:19.1)

Whether looking at women in Hollywood from the eyes of the “male gaze” or through the feminist women’s spectator perspective where the filmgoer could have positive identification with mainstream female characters, one thing that is agreed upon by all, women have had limited access in the professional world of film since the inception of the celluloid world. Linda Williams points out from Lizzie Franke’s Script Girls, that screenwriting has been one profession open throughout the history of Hollywood. ‘They have been allowed to be editors too, but sewing up films in a dark room under the judicious eyes of the director obviously limited their participation in the story-telling process…’ “Yet apart from these traditionally “feminine” areas (also including costume, make-up, and music), female involvement behind the camera was relatively limited from the coming of sound to the coming of feminism.”(Williams, 299.) Classical Hollywood saw Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino in the early days of films.

Ann Kaplan (2003: 16-22) reads women’s film history in four phases: the first, up to 1930 (the

period of women pioneers); the second, from 1930-60 (the period of “the Silencing of Women”);

the third, from 1960-90, in which white women became more dominant in US and other

national cinemas; the fourth, from 1990 onwards, in which a growing multiculturalism became

evident in European and North American women’s cinema. (Williams, 300.)

With the second wave of feminism and women’s reaction to the patriarchal structure of filmmaking, women began to dramatically enter the playing field through independent and foreign filmmaking. The growth of independent cinema facilitated better access to equipment and distribution. The period from 1967-75 (Hollywood Renaissance/American New Wave) saw only a few women emerge onto the list of Hollywood women, including Polly Platt (production designer, producer, screenplay writer), Joan Twekesbury (screenplay writer), Carole Eastman (screenplay writer), and Elaine May (screenwriter who move into directing), and independent film producers Claudia Weill and Jean Micklin Silver. The 1980’s and 90’s brought women screenwriters and directors in independent documentary film production with Connie Field’s and Michelle Citron’s contribution, as well as adding Nora Ephron, Kate Lanier, Caroline Thompson, and Leora Barish. Often female actress/stars would form their own independent film production companies and would assume the key role in direction and production, such as Barbra Streisand, Diane Keaton, Jodie Foster, Penny Marshall, Jane Fonda, Sharon Stone, Sandra Bullock, and Goldie Hawn.

Key executive appointments became widespread in the industry starting the 80’s with Sherry Lansing becoming the president of Twentieth Century Fox (1980), Paula Weinstein’s appointment as president of United Artist motion picture development (1981), Dawn Steel’s 1984 position as president of production at Paramount and then Columbia’s overseer of both production and marketing operations, Lucy Fisher’s appointment to Zoetrope (formerly Warner Brothers), and Kathleen Kennedy Amblin. (Williams, 311.) In 1977 Julia Phillips became the first women ever to win Best Film Oscar for producing The Sting; Lili Fini Zanuck became the second woman to win Best Picture Oscar in 1989 for Driving Miss Daisy. By the end of the twentieth century many more women were active in the field of filmmaking in the areas of new black cinema and new queer cinema such as Kasi Lemmons, Troy Beyer, Donna Deitch, and Patricia Rozema. The 1990’s saw the screenwriting works of Amanda Silver, Hilary Henkin, Barbara Benedek, Carol Sobieski, Becky Johnston, Lindy Lamb, June Roberts, and Malia Scotch Marmo. As Linda Williams quotes Leslie Felperin’s special “Women Directors” edition of Sight and Sound (1999:10), “The traditionally male-dominate technical filed such as cinematography, lighting and sound are slowly tipping toward a more even gender balance, while the proportion of women directors in the Director’s Guild of America, though only 10 per cent, still represents an improvement over the 1985 level of 4 per cent. (Williams: 312.)

The 1991 MGM release of Academy Award winning screenwriter Callie Khouri’s Thelma and Louise, produced and directed by Ridley Scott and co-produced by Callie Khouri embodies the genres of road movie, buddy film, feminist film, comedy, melodrama, and action movie. The controversy that the film stirred up out of the second wave of feminism has led to decades to scholarly interpretation, study, and teaching. For the first time a film was released from the female spectator’s perspective, utilizing the new voice of women, dealing with unspoken subject matter, and challenging the patriarchal society of our American culture, laws, and lives as depicted in both film and the real world. Phillip Green states, “In their tentative way, the [se] movies attempted to appeal not to a new audience of women, but rather to an audience of “new women,” alerted by feminism to new possibilities of spectatorship. (Phillip Green, 158) John Leo strongly attacked the film condemning it as “toxic feminism on the big screen” due to the dissonance created by manipulation of the audience. Once able to identify with the likeable Thelma and Louise and the legitimacy of their complaints about men, the audience is led step by step to accept the nihilistic and self-destructive values they come to embody. By the time it becomes evident it is not possible for the audience, particularly the women, to bail out emotionally and distance themselves from the apocalyptic craziness that the script is hurtling toward. (J.Leo, U.S. News & World Report) Leo’s commentary fed the controversy over the film. Thelma and Louise has been used as a statement of female empowerment and self-assertion. It also serves as a warning, the threat that the controversy strikes deeply at, of perceived dangers of female access to violence. For the first time “transformative violence, found in none of the male-buddy movies” is seen as spiritual liberation for the two heroines in the film, especially Thelma. This female violence against males and suffocating male oppression is the perceived threat to a patriarchal world where violence against women is the accepted and the norm, where all women who resist or simply try to live their own lives are crushed. (J.Leo) The assault and attempted rape of Thelma, which is stopped permanently by Louise shooting the perpetrator and killing him when he stops with his pants down, backs up, and says, “ You bitch! I should have fucked her anyway,” turns the tables on society at large, granting the audience the perspective through women’s eyes, of the new found freedom to say no to sex. With feminism came women’s rights to obtain equality in the arena of sex and sexuality and an enlightening for society to treat women differently in regard to self-protection and self-defense. Where those threatened that women and violence and women with violence would rebel and lead a counter revolution against all males, chauvinistic pigs or not, sparked debate against feminism and the film, the voices of women, empowered by the character development of Thelma and Louise, sparked a healthy awareness of women’s issues of violence against them brought out into the open and psychological strengthening of women’s positive power of liberation from male victimization and expectations, and to allow for change. Louise tells Harlan in response to his comment that, “We’re just having a little fun,” “In the future when a girl’s crying like that, it means she’s not having any fun,” as the gun is aimed at him. Bernie Cook points out in the introduction of Thelma and Louise Live! how professional football exemplifies the American tendency to normalize masculine violence into sport, legal permissiveness, and invisible systems of control of gendered bodies. “By representing women as both victims and agents of violence, the characters of Thelma and Louise broke radical new ground in mainstream American representation, profoundly threatening masculinist critics who objected to its breach of the norm of violence as male privilege.” (Cook, 2007) This gender role reversal was a first, along with bringing “… to center stage ideas that have long been taken for granted in less respectable (because of class and gender elitism) media forms, in classrooms, and in private conversations [issue of date rape]. It made public, in a healthy way, how very fragile and contested many of the old Hollywood assumptions have become, how little men can depend—in any arena—on women’s silent, smiling acquiescence to male desire.” (Rapping: Cineste, 12/91.)

Once Louise gets over her momentary illness and vomits alongside the road after rescuing Thelma from Harlan’s attack, she become stronger, giving her finally the strength needed to dump her emotionally stunted boyfriend Jimmy who arrives in Oklahoma City with an engagement ring only after thinking Louise was leaving him. Thelma’s strength comes when she conquers her aversion to guns, commits armed robbery, takes on the phallic symbols of huge trucks (the suffocating male oppression) and hoses and spraying machines aimed at them (representing the spraying phallus in fire hoses, garden hoses, pumping derricks, street cleaning trucks, irrigation systems, and a crop dusting plane) as she shoots and blows up the harassing, sexual gesturing trucker’s rig, after finally confronting him after their third encounter when he refuses to apologize. The film places our heroines on a path of liberation, freedom, and exultation, once they Louise has killed. They get stronger and stronger with the violence and freedom they experience in each overthrow of male dominance. Thelma apologizes profusely to the crying NM state police officer that pulls them over when she has him climb into the truck of his cruiser after she shoots air holes in it for him to breathe. She takes charge and tells Louise to shoot out the radio. (Louise first shoots out the car radio and then shoots out the police radio when Thelma instructs her to do so.) They find themselves and realize their own potential, their own feeling, their own identities, with such passion that they refuse to give up that freedom with the women in the audience relating and the males sympathizing, just like the local sheriff does, “… of all people, as a cop with a semblance of a heart and some sympathy for what he calls these poor girls.” (Cynthia Fuchs, Feminist Film Reviews, U. of Md.)

They achieve what the existentialist philosophers call transcendence. Having experienced

what it is to make their own choices, speak with their own voices, and take responsibility

for their own actions, they are unwilling to relinquish that freedom. And they choose freely

and with full awareness of the meaning of their choice not to relinquish it. It is an extraordinary

resolution that ennobles Thelma and Louise—the characters and the film. And it is a stinging

indictment of this society that the choice they make is the sane and reasonable one. (Linda

Lopez McAlister, Feminist Film Reviews, U. of Md.)

Thelma is jubilant as she jumps into the car screaming for Louise to drive away from the convenience store market after her mimicking of J.D.’s description of how he committed armed robbery. She looks at Louise and tells her, “It was like I was born to do this.” Louise responds with, “Think you found your calling?” Thelma repeats again as they travel at 110 miles an hour down the road, “I just think I have a knack for this kind of shit.” Thelma finds her identity, expresses her voice and her feelings when she tells Louise, “Something has crossed over in me. I just can’t go back. I feel awake, wide awake. I never felt this before, like I got something to look forward to.” This is the freedom from male oppression.

The references made by both Thelma and Hal Slocomb to the psychological baggage that Louise carries around with her from Texas, the only state she won’t enter, indicate that Louise is no stranger to the male patriarchal sexual mores. Thelma asks her directly as they speed away from heavy police cruiser chase scene with a momentary reprieve when the police cars are jammed up under the trestle bridge. Thelma bursts out laughing, “Harlan, just the look on his face. He sure wasn’t expecting that. Suck my dick! Kaboom!” She asks Louise, “Is that what happened in Texas? You got raped.” Slocomb tells Louise over the phone, “I know what’s making you run. I know what happened to you in Texas. That’s why Louise knows so much about the law, the legal system, and the penal system. Louise to Thelma when she suggests they go to the police: “Tell the police? Who is gonna believe you, dancing cheek to cheek all night. We don’t live in that kind of world.”

In the last few minutes of the film, as the helicopter rises from the Grand Canyon and jumps into their faces and countless police cars with flashing lights and sirens descend upon the convertible Thelma and Louise are driving in, they women know the road has ended. Louise backs away from the cliff edge and sits the car in the middle of the flat open area. “I’m not giving up,” she tells Thelma. On Thelma’s encouragement that they should “go on” Louise floors the gas pedal as rifle after rifle, loaded with high caliber bullets are pointed at them, and off the cliff they are catapulted (over and into the abyss, unseen by the audience.) It was unfortunate that the freeze frame didn’t end the film, providing the riveted audience who is experiencing the female perspective, feeling the freedom, a long(er) sense of transcendence and suspended animation. It was almost as if the director needed to remind that audience with clips of love and laughter shared between Thelma and Louise that it really is okay, not a sad ending, remember the good times. And the controversy? Maybe the patriarch slipped back in at the very end as Ridley Scott yells, “Cut.” As Louise repeatedly says throughout the film, “You get what you settle for.” Feminism and its impact on the way women are portrayed and employed in Hollywood film have made it plenty clear that change is happening.


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