How Thelma & Louise taught us to challenge expectations and rebel against the status quo
30 years later, one of cinema's most iconic friendships still strongly resonates
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
Contains strong language.
Like many millennials, my first introduction to Thelma & Louise was through The Simpsons. In 1993's "Marge on the Lam," Marge Simpson meets Ruth Powers, a single mother who embodies glamorous rebellion with her leather jacket, sunglasses, and red lipstick. Marge quickly becomes enamoured with her new friend, and the two find joy not only in doing the things Homer hates (see: attending the ballet) but engaging in straight-up best friendship. Things unravel one night when Ruth reveals that she's driving them in the car she stole from her ex-husband, and the duo are pursued by the police, who manage to stop them before they drive off Springfield's Grand Chasm. And while we never really see much of Ruth again, my eight-year-old self aspired to be as badass as her.
At the time, I had no idea that what I was watching was a tribute to Thelma & Louise, nor that what I was truly in awe of was their friendship-fuelled social rebellion. But three decades after we watched these two best friends on the run after killing Thelma's attempted rapist, I can see clearly now that there's much to learn from Thelma, Louise, and their unbridled "burn it all down" energy. Their choices rose from the social norms that dictated their place as women in society: they rejected the pressure of being co-operative, polite, and passive and advanced onto a newer, more assertive path with gusto. (Although for the record, killing a man is still not advisable.)
Pop culture loves an outlaw story. We're swimming in mafia franchises, Bonnie and Clyde have maintained their allure for nearly a century, and the glorification of the anti-hero fuelled the 2010s' golden age of television. But Thelma & Louise isn't a story about two women merely breaking bad. Instead, it's a tale about what happens when two women are pushed to the brink and tap into their rage instead of ignoring its existence. It's a movie about friendship, of course, but it's also about rebelling against the status quo and the expectations put on you and very confidently saying, "Fuck it."
To recap the pair's misadventures: on a weekend away, Thelma (Geena Davis) is nearly assaulted by a man she meets at a bar while out with Louise (Susan Sarandon). Thelma narrowly escapes, but when her assailant begins mouthing off, Louise shoots and kills him. Knowing they won't be believed by authorities since they'd been drinking, the two hop in the car and begin driving to Mexico. From there, they rob a convenience store, blow up the truck of a driver who was sexually harassing them on the road, and fully commit to abandoning who they used to be while forging a new path on their own terms. Heartbreakingly, that path comes to a screeching halt when they decide to end things on their own terms and, rather than facing prison or the death penalty, drive into the Grand Canyon. But they make even that choice consciously: saying goodbye, holding hands, and moving full speed away from their pasts.
Despite the extremes of the plot, Thelma & Louise is not really a romanticization of murder, crime, or taking one's own life when faced with dire consequences. Instead, what it does romanticize is the idea of doing whatever you want whenever you want and reclaiming your power after a lifetime of having little. The lasting appeal isn't the violence — it's playing witness to two women who've granted themselves the authority to have the type of unhinged misadventures typically reserved for men. They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.
After all, there's a reason that Thelma & Louise awed audiences upon its release and is still revered 30 years after we joined the duo on their ill-fated road trip. It's mesmerizing to watch two women eschew the myth of how women "should" be. It's powerful to watch a survivor of sexual violence confront the man who's trying to assault her best friend. It's enticing to watch aspects of our broken society be called out in ways that leave anybody who's watching feel shocked. Thelma and Louise existed in worlds in which they were supposed to sit down and be quiet. They're urged not to question their unhappiness or the root of their unfulfillment — but then they do exactly that. Which leads all of us watching to ask: what am I putting up with that I don't need to?
Of course, it doesn't hurt that so much of what makes Thelma & Louise especially great is its fantastical nature. It isn't a road map for living or reacting, but a way to revel in the fantasy of abandoning social norms and challenging them masterfully. It roots itself in the very simple question of whether you're happy, whether you're fulfilled, whether you feel trapped. And if you don't like the answers you find, what can you do about it? Which is an especially timely reminder for this generation — one raised on the guts and mystique of Ruth Powers.