"They have this exhilaration that only comes from being on the road, which was something that really struck me for the past 20 years," said Nona Willis Aronowitz, who moderated the Aug. 2 discussion of the movie following a screening at the 92YTribeca, the 92nd Street Y's downtown location. "It was a step in revising this whole male-dominated trope of being on the road; even if you're in real big trouble like these two women."
Aronowitz, author of the 2009 "Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism," told a sold-out auditorium that she took her own road trip with a good friend in 2007 in order to write the book, which describes what feminism means to a new generation of women across the U.S. through photographs, diary entries and profiles.
"The difference was, we weren't running away from something. We were running toward something," she said.
Melissa Silverstein, editor of Women and Hollywood, a Web site that addresses the climate of gender in film, was among the panelists. She said the movie remained a stand-out two decades later.
"'Thelma and Louise' is still a touchstone for so many people because it has never been recreated," she said. "When a movie is successful, it's usually recreated over and over and over again."
Story of Two Friends
The story of "Thelma and Louise" focuses on two friends, one of whom is almost raped at the beginning of what's supposed to be a weekend getaway. The other friend murders the attacker.
Thelma is played by Geena Davis, who went on to star in ABC's "Commander in Chief" as the first female president of the United States. She was nominated for a Golden Globe award in the category of "Best Actress in a Drama Series" in 2006. The actress also leads a media advocacy group for girls and women, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, and is well known for her activism.
Louise is played by Susan Sarandon, who has done a number of other key female roles in films ranging from "Dead Man Walking" in 1995 to "The Banger Sisters" in 2002. Sarandon is also an activist in her own right, focusing on political campaigns and human rights causes.
"Thelma and Louise" accumulated four Academy Award nominations, and one Oscar for "Best Original Screenplay."
However, panelist Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of WAM!, an advocacy group for gender justice in the media based in Cambridge, Mass., noted that real-life female revenge drama doesn't earn such acclaim.
Friedman pointed to the most recent music video from pop star Rihanna, whose assault by her former boyfriend, the musician Chris Brown, in 2009 made headlines. In her "Man Down" video Rihanna shoots a man who assaulted her. In a tweet to fans last May she said it had a "very strong underlying message 4 girls like me!"
But the Parents Television Council, a Los Angeles group that patrols popular culture for "inappropriate" entertainment, among other organizations, criticized Rihanna for not taking advantage of her celebrity and telling other victims of domestic violence to seek help instead of revenge in the form of murder.
"If Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video and BET premiered it, the world would stop. Rihanna should not get a pass and BET should know better. The video is far from broadcast worthy," said Paul Porter, co-founder of Industry Ears, a think tank that monitors the music industry, in a press release.
The singer shot back with a response via Twitter: "U can't hide your kids from society, or they'll never learn how to adapt! This is the REAL WORLD! . . . The music industry isn't exactly Parents R Us!"
"The idea of the song is she shot a man who did violence to her, and the parents, TV counsel and the people who worry about these things freaked out because she was sending the wrong message to young girls, as opposed to say Kanye West's 'Monster' video or any other 7,000 examples of men's violence, even just in music videos," said Friedman. "I don't remember the same freak out happening when 'Thelma and Louise' came out."
The "Monster" video, banned from MTV for its vulgar content, opens with dead women hanging on ropes from the ceiling while the rap star sits on his throne. It shows eroticized murder victims laying in the same bed as West.
Interestingly enough, a negative reaction to the video from the Parents Television Council was nowhere to be found.
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Krystie Lee Yandoli is a Women's eNews editorial intern.