Today (May 24) marks 25 years since iconic road movie Thelma & Louise was released, unleashing hopes that it might signal a new wave of feminist films (not to mention the fear that it might encourage volatile behavior among women).
Such hopes have failed to materialize, however. So much so that at a panel in Cannes earlier this month, the movie’s stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis agreed that it was unlikely to get made nowadays, unless, in Sarandon’s words, it was “an animation.”
When asked about what was holding Hollywood back, Sarandon blamed the “male executives making these decisions.”
So is she right? Have any mainstream flicks been truly feminist in the past 25 years? While there are plenty of kick-ass women on TV (there’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course, or Veronica Mars in the eponymous show, or Sarah Manning and her sisters in Orphan Black), it certainly seems they are lacking on the big screen.
Here are a few of our suggestions; you may have a few of your own.
Fried Green Tomatoes (U.S.A., 1991)
Fried Green Tomatoes came out in the same year as Thelma & Louise, and, like that film, centers around the murder of an abusive man, though the perpetrator has more cause to plead self-defense than Louise.
It’s just one of the many movies of this era that celebrate female friendship (or friendship between men and women in the case of When Harry Met Sally) and proved that such a subject can garner both critical and commercial success.
Orlando (U.K., 1992)
Virginia Woolf‘s Orlando presents a pretty major challenge for the big screen: its hero is a nobleman in Elizabethan England who lives a life that spans centuries, and is suddenly transformed into a woman midway through it. You’d need a special kind of actor to see this one through.
Step forward, Tilda Swinton, whose performance as the gender-bending Orlando set her on a path to becoming one of the major actresses of her generation.
The Piano (New Zealand, 1993)
Directed by a woman (Jane Campion), and starring Holly Hunter as mute pianist Ada McGrath, The Piano not only won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and critical acclaim, but also went on to be a commercial success.
Oddly, it also starred Harvey Keitel, who played the sympathetic cop in charge of the operation to track down Thelma and Louise. Set as it is in 19th-century New Zealand, Ada’s life is even more proscribed than the two Oklahoma natives, and she is forced to navigate the small space allowed to her by men, using all she has left—her sexuality—to barter.
All About My Mother (Spain, 1999)
The trailer to this Oscar-winning movie from Pedro Almodóvar does little to show its dark message, but in that it’s not alone (have you SEEN the original trailer for Thelma & Louise?).
You’d be hard pushed to find a more diverse collective of complex women: a pregnant nun, a grieving mother, a lesbian actress, and a transgender prostitute. In some ways a colorful parody that rates high on the melodrama scale, All About My Mother clearly shows the threat of violence is ever present for these women too.
Erin Brockovich (U.S.A., 2000)
A box office hit, this gutsy biographical film finally got Julia Roberts her first Academy Award after two previous nominations (for Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman).
Before it was released, however, studio executives were reportedly concerned audiences would be put off by Erin’s use of bad language, not something they probably worry about when the lead character is a man. Erin is a ballsy and wise-cracking hero, but she lacks the humanity of Thelma and Louise: she gets in trouble, but it is rarely self-inflicted and the obstacles in her way remain external.
Bridget Jones’ Diary (U.K., 2001)
She’s a career woman (check), she’s oh-so-human (check), and she’s caught between the attentions of two guys (…not so check). Bridget Jones’ Diary has been riling feminists ever since Helen Fielding started the newspaper column that inspired the movie in 1995.
For someone so keen on a happy ending, Bridget is rarely happy for long, however. Her enduring appeal, especially among women, is testament to the comparative lack of truly rounded female characters on the big screen. Just like in Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) is one thing, but it’s Elizabeth Bennet—or Bridget (Renee Zellweger)—we’re rooting for.
Whale Rider (New Zealand, 2002)
Thirteen-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Pai, a Maori girl whose belief she is destined to be the new chief of her tribe pits her against a thousand years of tradition.
Directed and adapted by a woman (Niki Caro), the film tackles the short-sightedness of a patriarchal society, though not with the vigor and take-no-prisoners attitude of some others. Instead, it balances criticism with sympathy and sensitivity for a way of life that is fast disappearing.
Kill Bill (U.S.A., 2003)
You can’t get much kick-assier than kickass Uma Thurman in this movie. Her character The Bride seeks revenge on her near-murderers in a series of escalating martial arts conflicts, proving women can give as good as men, but the violence is the cartoonish kind we’ve come to expect from the current rash of comic book movie adaptations—with none of the real squeamishness of the kind in Thelma & Louise.
That said, it’s an action film peopled almost exclusively by women, with a lead character who possesses the kind of steely determination and composure usually associated with men, without losing her vulnerability. A character flaw would have been nice, but you can’t have everything.
Bridesmaids (U.S.A., 2011)
It says something depressing about Hollywood’s gender politics when an admittedly very funny movie about women is hailed a feminist manifesto.
Like last year’s Trainwreck, Bridesmaids stars women, and is resolutely for a female audience, but there’s nothing revolutionary about it. Perennially single Annie (Kristen Wiig) eventually finds her salvation, in the form of—you’ve guessed it—a man: the for-some-reason-Irish police officer Nathan (Chris O’Dowd). And the breakdown of the friendship between Annie and Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is finally restored, just in time for Lillian’s wedding.
If Thelma and Louise had been invited? They’d have torn a makeshift neckerchief from that wedding dress and be shooting up the chandelier and the wedding favors.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Iran, 2014)
What do you mean you’ve never seen an Iranian vampire western? You haven’t lived.
Ana Lily Amirpour‘s darkly comic film can be viewed simply as a spooky tale set in an imaginary netherworld, but it also tells a story about a girl (Sheila Vand) who bears her (quite pointy) teeth at a society that oppresses women.
Like Thelma and Louise, The Girl (she’s not given a name) pursues a campaign of revenge—this time against Saeed (Dominic Rains), the tattooed, coke-snorting, and bling-clad dealer-pimp who takes the clean-living Arash’s car in exchange for money owed to him.
So there you have it. Not many truly feminist films have made the mainstream since Thelma & Louise was released, and few of those reached the benchmark it set. It wasn’t a movie that simply pushed men to the margins, or showed women who gave as good as men. It wasn’t even a movie that hated men, as some critics lamented at the time. It depicted a world where men didn’t matter, and that is radical.Read More