Thelma & Louise was controversial upon release in 1991, seen as radical for having two female leads, and even criticized for being anti-man. “I heard [screenwriter Callie Khouri] being interviewed,” Geena Davis, who plays Thelma, recounted at a 2020 screening of the movie, “and they told her, ‘We don’t think the men’s parts are good enough,’ and she said ‘So what?'”
The film follows two best friends – ditzy housewife Thelma and sharp-tongued waitress Louise – on a road trip to escape their mundane suburban lives, but things quickly take a turn for the worse. Directed by Ridley Scott, the supporting cast includes Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, and Brad Pitt in one of his first big-screen roles. It received six Oscar nominations and Khouri won the award for Best Original Screenplay.
"Usually you’re the only woman in a movie"
And, well, it’s true: the men in Thelma & Louise are not always the nicest people. In fact, there isn't really a sympathetic male character in the whole movie. To put it simply, the men that Thelma and Louise (Susan Sarandon) encounter on the road – and back in the suburbs – don't treat them well. They abuse them, they steal from them, and worse.
More importantly, though, the central duo is formed of two women. Talking about the movie's script last year, Sarandon told The Cut: "When I read it, I was really impressed with how much fun it would be to have a woman partner. Usually you’re the only woman in a movie. If there’s more than one woman, then there’s an older woman and a younger woman and they hate each other just for… you don’t even know why."
Thelma and Louise were also two older women – Sarandon was 44 and Davis was 35 when the film reached cinemas. Not "old" in any sense of the word, but older than the usual female protagonist at the time. Other big releases in 1991, such as The Silence of the Lambs, featured a 28-year-old Jodie Foster, while Rush starred a 29-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh. Plus, in both of those examples, Foster and Jason Leigh were the only lead female actors.
So why have there not been any comparable female duos since the release of Thelma & Louise? The only mainstream examples of female double acts taking the lead on the big screen are in comedy titles, such as the recent Netflix release Thunder Force, starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer. There have been plenty of male examples in a variety of genres since Thelma & Louise's release, like Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, both released in 1994, and 1999's Fight Club, to name just three. Male-female duos have always been more common in Hollywood than those involving two women, too, from the titular characters in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde to Rey and Finn in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
These are, of course, all very different pairings and dynamics, but there is still a distinct lack of female friendships on the big screen away from the chick flick genre (when the Wikipedia page for "female buddy films" lists Mulholland Drive as an example, you know it's slim pickings). Of course, there's nothing wrong with those movies, but women in action movies still, ultimately, tend to be relegated to the roles of wife or mother. And, if they're not, there usually isn't another woman in sight. Neither Thelma nor Louise is a mother; Thelma may be a wife, but only in name – she escapes from her husband at the first chance she gets.
TV is ahead of film
Television does a better job – female friendships take center stage in plenty of series, like Big Little Lies, whose all-female lead cast includes Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, and Dead to Me, starring Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate. These women are closer in age to Thelma and Louise than Clarice Starling, too. And yet, these dynamics don't often make their way over to cinemas.
Thelma & Louise is a great movie, sure – the plot and the performances make it a gripping watch. But it's the bond between Thelma and Louise that really makes it. Their friendship makes us believe in their actions; we understand why Louise shoots the man who assaults Thelma, why they stick by each other until the bitter end, and why they drive over the ledge, hand in hand.