"Thelma & Louise" at 30: The Geena Davis Institute Still Hopes for Better Representation

Susan Sarandon (L) and Geena Davis (R) in Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise” (1991). Photo Courtesy: MGM/IMDb

Written by Oscar-, BAFTA- and Golden Globe-winner Callie Khouri, Thelma & Louise (1991) is difficult to sum up with a single genre term. Reportedly, Khouri’s screenplay stemmed from a rather vague, but then-revolutionary, note-to-self: “two women go on a crime spree.” What starts out as a buddy adventure movie soon veers into American-road-picture-meets-feminist-crime film. 

But that multiplicity — the fact that the film is many, varied things all at once — extends to its depiction of women on screen. At first glance, we think we know Thelma (Geena Davis), a submissive housewife tethered to an abusive marriage, and Louise (Susan Sarandon), a sharp-tongued waitress who refuses to take anyone’s BS. But then the Ridley Scott-directed road trip takes a turn: When a man tries to rape Thelma in the parking lot of a roadhouse bar, Louise shoots him dead — and the titular duo flee the scene. 

The best friends spend the rest of the film on the run, journeying across the American West. Although the Grand Canyon serves as a loose endpoint, there’s nowhere for them to go, really. Or, at least, there isn’t a destination that feels stable, safe or plausible. Hence that now-iconic ending.

When the Oscar-winning film first debuted, it stirred up some controversy. In a 2016 article in The Atlantic titled “Thelma & Louise Holds Up Well — a Little Too Well,” writer Megan Garber notes that the film was “accused of everything from promoting casual sex to promoting casual misandry,” but that it’s also a “visionary feminist fable.”

Nonetheless, we can’t help but get hung up on the title of that article, which suggests that, maybe, things haven’t changed in the radical way we hoped in the wake of Thelma & Louise’s release. Not just in terms of the conversation surrounding rape culture, but in terms of representation in film. And, as it turns out, Geena Davis is right there with us.