Cultural Trends/Popular Culture

'Thelma and Louise' Marks 20 Years in Driver's Seat

Saturday, August 6, 2011

"Thelma and Louise," which turns 20 this summer, is celebrated as the grande dame of female-revenge dramas. Rihanna's "Man Down" video offers something of a sequel, but has stirred more controversy.

"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.

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"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!"

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