2011 marks the 20th Anniversary of the release of Thelma and Louise, a film primarily filmed in Utah (my new home state). This past Wednesday Geena Davis came to back our state to participate in a celebration that marks the 10th anniversay of the Utah Film Center, and to also raise awareness around the work of her foundation, The Geena Davis Institute for Gender in the Media (I serve on it’s advisory board). We had a beautiful gathering for her in a private home and also a public screening and Q & A around the film.
Released in 1991, Thelma and Louise made an instant mark on pop culture, and was expected to open the floodgates for female driven films in the years to come. Ha Ha. Twenty years later, people are still waiting for those floodgates to open. This past summer yielded the success of Bridesmaids and The Help, but these successes were labelled unexpected, with many Hollywood insiders doubting the films’ bankability. It would appear that nothing has changed in the twenty years since Thelma and Louise drove off into the sunset in that ’66 Thunderbird convertible.
It is this inequality in Hollywood that caused Geena Davis to found the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004. Fueled by watching children’s programs with her kids, Davis realized that there was a substantial lack of female characters in children’s entertainment. In response, the Institute commissioned the largest research study at that point on gender in film and television, and came to the conclusion that only one out of every four characters in children’s entertainment were females. Furthermore, this statistic has remained virtually unchanged since 1946.
It is this fact that Geena Davis and her organization seek to change through advocacy, research, and the education of Hollywood on the need for more female characters in the media. It is their hope, that by 2016 when they repeat their research, the results will show a significant improvement. At the event in Salt Lake City, Davis spoke of the impact Thelma and Louise had on women at the time, and described how women would approach her and literally grab at her clothes in an effort to make sure she heard how much the film had effected their lives. Clearly there is a void in Hollywood where female voices need to be heard. Thankfully, there are people like Geena Davis coming in to fill it.
On a personal note, as I sat in the darkened theater watching that film I realized how much I have changed since I first saw the film in New York City in my mid- twenties. Then, I am sure I percieved it as a great story with two fantastic women characters who kicked some ass. It is likely I went to work the next day as a bond trader at Goldman Sachs and spoke to my all male trading desk about ‘girl power.’ Perhaps I even quoted that line in the middle of the film where Thelma asked the crying police officer to climb into the trunk of the car and warned him to “be nice to his wife or she could turn out just like me” (a gun wiedling fugitive wanted for murder and armed robbery). But then I left the movie behind and I don’t think I stopped to wonder why I never saw another film like it. I don’t remember asking myself why there were not more films like this, and why was it that almost everything I watched over the next decade had men as the heros and women as only the victims or arm candy.
Now I am 46 and have spent the last 10 years focussed on the advancement of women and girls. Now I see that the attempted rape was not just a scene in a movie, but in fact “1 in 6 American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.” Now I see that that Louise’s courage to say enough is enough, and it is “not ok” perhaps opened the door for countless women to do so. Now I see that violence against women continues to be a pressing issue in our society and the only way we can ever hope to stop it is if women and men, together, say enough is enough, and work to end it.
What also struck me in the film this time, which I am sure I did not notice the first time around, is how much more beauitful the women became on their journey. They started out with barbie doll style make-up and hair, uptight clothing, and a car full of luggage. They were like actors in their own life play, dressed up for the parts of submissive wife, waitress, and more. By the end of the film all that had been stripped away, and their authentic beauty, inside and out, was all we could see. Their iconic journey was one of discovering their true selves and my oh my, isn’t that the universal journey we are all on?
Geena stated that women still come up to her today, telling her how empowering the film was and how it changed their lives. She joked at the irony that a film where the two lead characters commit suicide at the end would have that effect. Well it sure did. I want more films like Thelma and Louise, only this time, can we let them live?
Jacki Zehner with much help from Laura Moore