25 Years After Thelma & Louise: Five Memorable Female Partnerships
Posted on: 24/05/2016
As the 25th Annivesary of Thelma & Louise arrives, we reflect on the trailblazing film and some of the most memorable groups of women in film and TV herstory.
As we inch toward the twenty-twenties, the representation of women on screen still leaves a lot to be desired. Impassioned declarations by many of our beloved moving image stars abroad, and at home, have been made, but the industry still remains dormant and impervious to change.
And yet, every now and then a mainstream film or TV show defies the odds and offers us an alternative point of view - proving that perhaps there is room for diverse storytelling. Ridley Scott’s Oscar-nominated Thelma & Louise, 25 years on, is one of these films.
An iconic movie daring to put women in the driver’s seat, Thelma & Louise is a funny, action-packed, rebellious road trip and most discernibly, frames a story from the perspective of two women. The film smashes the Bechdel test, was a Box Office success, and is often praised as a turning point for women on screen. Geena Davis reflected "I thought, 'Oh, yeah, things are going good for women.' I just assumed things were getting better all the time."
A quarter of a century after the two friends rocketed away from their pursuers forever, the current state-of-play for women on screen sadly remains in stasis. Women are 3 times more likely to have to do a nude scene; men still receive more dialogue than their female co-stars; and a recent study found that from the top-grossing 100 films of 2014, only 12 per cent featured a female lead character.
In the spirit of standing up to society and honouring the 25th Anniversary of Thelma & Louise, we take a look at films and TV shows which put more than one woman centre stage.
1. Lucy and Ethel (I Love Lucy)
In the conservative 50s, Lucy and Ethel from the hugely popular I Love Lucy TV series managed to evade being demoted to the background. Together they stood out as a team who were just as pivotal to the show’s plotlines as their on screen husbands. While male comedic duos such as Abbot and Costello or Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin dominated the era’s popular culture, Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, as Lucy and Ethel, staked their own claim in the public’s hearts to become household names. Unsurprising, given the show’s first season had a whopping 50.9 Nielsen rating.
Of course, the show is moored in its time. Lucy and her best friend are often consumed by petty, material desires; they are frequently depicted as incompetent; their messes are usually cleaned up by their more sensible, authoritative husbands. The show is guilty of infantilising Lucy and Ethel, representing them as wholly dependent on their partners rather than as liberated individuals. In watching episodes of the show, the sexism and degradation towards women is certainly evident.
Despite the patriarchal impact upon TV at the time there are things to celebrate about I Love Lucy. Neither Ethel nor Lucy can be simply defined as a one dimensional subservient and dutiful housewife. In defiance of expected gender roles on screen, the two women entered into business together to sell salad dressings and Lucy campaigned for a pay rise from her boss. Lucy was refreshingly bold, wasn’t afraid to defy her husband Ricky, and was determined to break into show business. Much like in reality, where Ball became the first female owner of a TV broadcasting studio, her character had career aspirations and pursued them.
Though the women could be viewed as "incompetent" this could also be interpreted as directly opposing stereotypical 50s roles of women – rebelling against the expectation of polished domesticity. The pair weren’t perfect and they embraced it, continually finding themselves in ridiculous situations ensuring audiences were never far from a laugh. In fact, the famous Chocolate Factory scene from the show is still marked as one of TV’s funniest moments in history.
Admire or shun I Love Lucy, we can be proud that the show championed an interracial couple; a woman who wasn’t afraid to respond to anyone with her trademark “ugghh!”; and two friends who weren’t your ordinary women on screen; Ethel ever the level-headed counterpart to Lucy’s playful and mischievous rebel.
2. Anna and Elsa (Frozen)
Traveling six decades into the future and some of the changes for the roles of women on screen are like night and day. It’s no accident that little girls everywhere have become obsessed with Disney’s latest princesses. Anna and Elsa, two sisters whose relationship is the central storyline of Frozen, are a refreshing take on the traditional fairy-tale stars.
First: a caveat. Yes, these characters and Frozen are far from ideal in terms of representing women on screen. Frozen is one of the Disney films in recent years where the percentage of dialogue featuring women has actually dropped. Both sisters are beautiful and rich. Both sisters are white, which is a whole other heartbreaking problem influencing PoC, especially considering the reach of media and corporate storytellers like Disney influencing children everywhere.
Conversely, Frozen represents a more empowered pair of females who work with the men in the film to achieve goals, rather than defer to them to make decisions or needing them as saviours. Kristoff and Olaf are Princess Anna’s sidekicks as she endeavours to track down her runaway sister and convince her to return home.
The film probably received the most praise for the relationship it dreamt up between Anna and Elsa. Instead of two women trying to compete with one another, they encourage each other. In fact, it is the women who end up saving the day discovering that “an act of true love” (that has nothing to do with a man) is the key to averting disaster. The film is fundamentally about the connection between two women over the course of their lives. It is complex, fractured, and needs healing. It is through their inner strength and resolve that things get better.
Another issue that Frozen tackles subtly is the notion of self-doubt, mental illness, and confidence that a lot of impressionable young women experience. Elsa feels she must conform to her community’s expectations for fear of her powers being discovered, meeting society’s image of their ideal ruler. In being keenly aware that her supernatural skills make her an outsider, it’s not until she gives herself permission to be who she really is that her circumstances change. Elsa represents anyone that has ever felt like they don’t belong or fit in.
Though Frozen has its flaws, it’s certainly a shift in the right direction.
3. Jessica Jones and Trish Walker (Jessica Jones)
The super powered team up of Marvel and Netflix not only gave us one of the most mature comic book screen adaptations in Jessica Jones, it also gave us one of the best on-screen female friendships of 2015.
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) isn’t your typical hero, and her eponymous show isn’t your typical superhero fare. Aside from centering on a strong female lead dealing with trauma by kicking ass between whisky shots, the show portrays real adult relationships - whether they're plutonic or sexual, interacial, queer or straight - putting the human back in superhuman. One character who isn't superhuman but embodies the show's feminist spirit is Trish Walker (Rachel Taylor), Jessica Jones' adopted sister and ex-child star who is the BFF any superhero could want.
Though Jessica has a relationship with Luke Cage, another super-powered human, it’s Trish who is there for her throughout the series. In the final confrontation with the show’s mind-controlling villain Kilgrave, it's Jessica and Trish, and just because the latter has no powers, doesn't mean she can't kick ass. No men need apply to help these two.
When Trish’s lover Simpson takes rage pills and becomes blinded by his desire to defeat Kilgrave, savagely going after Jessica, Trish puts herself between her beserker boyfriend and her sister. In order to match him physically, Trish takes the same dangerous pills despite knowing they could kill her, all to save her friend.
In the final showdown with Kilgrave, Jessica convinces the villain she’s under his control by letting him take the most precious thing in her life – Trish – but the two women have come up with a safe word, “something I’d never say” according to Jessica. It’s “I love you”, and the only time it’s used is between women in a completely non-sexual way. It’s the power of this bond that finally helps Jessica break free of Kilgrave and you know, break his neck.
As Kristen Ritter said recently about season one, “I think people really respond to seeing a female friendship that is not perfect. And they’re never talking about shoes or a boyfriend. Their own story is enough to sustain a narrative, and I think that’s really cool.”
Also check out how Jessica Jones turns the Bechdel Test upside down.
4. Buffy and Willow/Willow and Tara (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Prior to Jessica Jones, Joss Whedon’s late 90s early 2000s seminal show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, set the bar very high for gender equality in TV. Buffy is a strong female lead that faces her demons – literally and figuratively – on a regular basis. She’s complex: vulnerable, loving, loyal, fierce, imperfect. We love her because of all these traits.
Her best friend Willow is never far from her side, proving invaluable to Buffy as she faces off against the constant evil released from the Hellmouth. Willow is a force to be reckoned with and, with her romantic interest Tara, has become one of TV’s most cherished characters on TV. Together, the slayer and witch have become an enduring representation of kickass female characters done right.
The show immediately positions the duo as smart and capable, equivalent to the male characters in the show, namely Xander and Giles. All the characters rely on each other for assistance with no one person being infallible and in a role reversal, Buffy’s strength and street smarts as the slayer often ensures the gang live to see another day. Neither Willow nor Buffy are routinely positioned as the side-characters, or those assisting the men to complete the mission.
Then there’s the relationship between lovers Willow and Tara.
Fans were outraged when Willow was separated from Tara. Primarily, the reasons were that they were a prominent LGBTQI+ positive relationship portrayed on screen and, thus, much loved.
As vadamagazine.com states:
“Buffy was always more than a standard genre show, with complex characters and fantastic use of metaphor… It still stands as a mature and fascinating portrayal of sexuality.
The coming out scene to best friend Buffy is surprisingly realistic, and Buffy’s acceptance charming. The tone is very much in line with the show’s accepting atmosphere.”
The more substance, detail and care that is given to characters the greater a show’s appeal, so it's fitting that Buffy remains quintessential TV viewing.
5. Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia (The Golden Girls)
This list wouldn’t be complete without The Golden Girls.
Fighting sexism and ageism, the immensely popular TV show explicitly proves that gender, race or sexuality do not impact adversely upon the commercial viability of a film or series. Great writing and acting speaks for itself.
The title sequence for The Golden Girls says it all, the show is about enduring friendship. As the quartet of older women living in Miami face the joys and angst of their golden years we’re taken on the journey with them. The conversations they have about love, life and getting older are universally salient and perhaps the reason for their cult following.
The show’s creator, Susan Harris (inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2011), has long written stories for women and diversity on screen, notably with Soap and Maude. In talking about the show’s success with Out Magazine, the show’s creator Susan Harris said:
“I think number one it's funny. Secondly, I think this explains the wide appeal [with audiences]. I think everybody - including younger people - when they reach an age when they feel alienated, the thought of being alone and spending your life alone is terrifying. These women... constructed a family that really, really worked. They encouraged each other and had a life together. It showed that you didn't need the customary, traditional relationship to be happy.”
The Golden Girls proved that you could be older and still be beautiful, vivacious, energetic, funny and a part of society.
Honourable Mentions and Beyond
There are other stand out films and TV shows which could have made this list: A League of Their Own, Bridesmaids or the newly released Ghostbusters reboot. But, these are still few and far between. Our screen culture should reflect the diversity in potential audiences, not mirror a fragment.
We can be proud of the films and TV which have introduced us to dynamic female duos or groups, offered an alternative narrative, and influenced pop culture as much as works sans female leads. This amazing nod to Thelma & Louise by The Simpsons is a testament to the fact that the film is just as culturally ingrained and worthy of satirising as any Hitchcock or Kubrik masterpiece.
Let’s hope there are many more nods to come.
Digital and Social Media Advisor - Miles Openshaw
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