When the movie Thelma And Louise was first released, I was 21. Last night, we got to take our sons (21 and 17) to a screening in London from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I wondered whether it would hold up, whether my boys would like it. It held and they loved it.
I remember walking out of the cinema after watching it nearly 30 years ago. The entire audience was on a high – not a bad result for a film that exposed rape, harassment and emotional abuse and left its heroines with only a couple of tough options at the end.
But Thelma and Louise transcends the bounds of plot. It opens up its protagonists to the heady joy of freedom and power, and shows women learning to enjoy both of those, and then learning to use them to hit back at injustice and crime. That standing up for yourself was possible was an eye-opener for me, and for so many women, especially in 1991 when few movies touched on these themes.
Today, in America, 24 people per minute, mostly women, are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. There is still so much work to do. But films and TV have a role to play – in reminding women that there are alternative narratives to acceptance of abuse, or victimhood. We use stories to help us make sense of our busy, confused lives, to escape from our own dilemmas and immerse in someone else’s. But these fictional worlds feel real to us, and no matter whether we feel it or not, they tell us something more about the world we live in.
I believe that when we experience emotional uncertainty or pain, stories are more influential than ever. This, to me, is why the role of writers and directors is so crucial in giving women narratives that are real and reflective of both the lives we experience now, and the way life can be. And let’s not forget the men in all of this. I firmly believe we don’t see nearly enough men with rounded, emotionally available characters on screen. Or men who are proud feminists. Does this mean heroic, unflawed characters? Not at all. Human beings will always be a mass of contradictory, self-sabotaging, habit-driven creatures whose ups and downs are enthralling to watch on screen and read about in books. But within these flawed characters, let’s challenge the assumption that a strong man has to take charge or be uncaring or cut himself off in some way. Let’s push the envelope on the idea that men are threatened by women who know what they want. Harvey Keitel’s sensitive policeman in Thelma and Louise is just such a character and he adds immeasurably to the meaning and poignancy of the film. Callie Khouri and Ridley Scott’s road trip in Thelma and Louise is an unflinching look at the abuses handed to women on a daily basis. But it also left me reminded that it is also a poetic ode to the American landscape, and to the potential of a vast world that we can all leave a mark on.