I watched “Thelma and Louise” again this week.
Boy, how times have changed.
Remember, in 1991, how topical the movie seemed? How revolutionary, how thrilling, how cathartic?
It didn’t seem any of those things to me the other night, when I attended a screening of the film guest-hosted by Senator Susan Collins and Representative Jane Harman.
It simply seemed depressing, oppressive and hopeless. It seemed like a relic from the past, a buried memory. It was dark. It was disturbing. It was — it dawned on me, driving home and still sniveling over the sight of that blue Thunderbird plummeting into the void — a movie that could not be made today.
The “Thelma and Louise” screening was one of a series of events organized by The Week magazine, which periodically invites politicians to choose and introduce their favorite Washington-themed movies. Previous choices, by male lawmakers, have included “The Candidate,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “Dave.” But Collins and Harman, the cheery Maine Republican and tough-as-nails California Democrat, who have worked together on intelligence and homeland security legislation, broke the mold with their choice of the dystopic female buddy movie.
They wanted, they said, to showcase their against-the-odds, across-the-aisle friendship. Yet they weren’t, they warned those in attendance, planning on driving off any cliffs. They made clear that the Susan and Jane show isn’t a continuation of Thelma and Louise’s struggles. Rather, Collins said, it’s the “sequel.”
I found that a nice thought. But after watching the movie I realized that it isn’t really true.
It would be true if “Thelma and Louise” were really, as it has always been considered (except by its makers), a timeless meditation upon sexual politics and women’s general position in American society.
But it isn’t; “Thelma and Louise” is primarily a movie about sexual violence. It’s about all the myriad forms that sexual violence can take – from the psychic violence done to Thelma, who at 18 married her boyfriend of four long years, to the shattering physical violence of Louise’s long-buried rape, to the verbal and gestural violence done to both women by the endless stream of drive-by harassers who pollute their road trip. It’s about the long-term effects of such psychic and physical violence: the childlike Thelma, blindly drawn to men who victimize her again and again, the raging Louise, shut down on the surface but harboring a burning, ultimately self-immolating, rage.
It seems clear to me now that Thelma and Louise’s final act of hara-kiri was not meant to be symbolic of the alleged dead end reached by feminism in the early 1990s. Instead, their act of mutually assured self-destruction was just the end of the line for two abuse victims unwilling to be victimized further by an abusive system.
Yet in 1991 it was altogether understandable that a movie about sexual violence would be turned into a fable about women’s general social and political progress. It made perfect sense then to conflate sexual violence – in all its verbal, psychic, physical and political forms — with sexual politics. That year, the William Kennedy Smith rape case went to trial, belittling and publicly humiliating the victim; Anita Hill confronted Clarence Thomas and emerged besmirched while he reigned victorious; and Roe v. Wade seemed destined for extinction.
All the talk, nationally, was of sexual harassment, date rape and crimes against women generally. Violence against women spiked. “Fear,” wrote Ellen Goodman, had become most women’s “most deeply felt constriction on daily life,” and that fear, in the heart of a generation raised upon hope and a sense of entitlement, brought fury and outraged disbelief. “Now, women who have won equal access to the colleges of their choice are more resentful at the idea that they have to be wary at the fraternity door. Women who live comfortably in coed dorms are more outraged at those men who can’t be trusted. Women who work on the same terms with men are less accepting of inequity on the streets,” she wrote in The Boston Globe in the summer of 1991. “Will this go down in the records as the year that the greenhouse effect of violence is finally recognized?”
The memory of that fear and anger and outrage – the sense of its momentous, transformative power – might have lasted longer had the “Thelma and Louise” moment not been followed, soon after, by a repudiation of “victim feminism” that was widespread and totalizing and highly welcome in the larger culture. It’s easy to forget now how vital and urgent the new focus on date rape and sexual harassment seemed, for a brief moment, back then. And yet it was, truly, transformative; the world of “Thelma and Louise,” I think it’s fair now to say, is not the one that we inhabit psychologically or physically today.
Date rape is no longer a contentious concept; it’s a known reality. Rape victims are no longer so thoughtlessly named and shamed by the media as was William Kennedy Smith’s accuser. Rape itself is down – its incidence having dropped 75 percent since the early 1990s, according to the Department of Justice.
These are profound and meaningful changes, and we should celebrate them — and revel in “Thelma and Louise”’s passage into history.