Remembering Thelma and Louise: movies and violence against women

It’s been fifteen years since some idiot decided Boxing Helena (1993) was a good idea for a movie, and some days it still feels like not much has changed.

Sin City (2006). Hostel II (2007). Prom Night (2008). Drive by any theater in America these days and you’re likely to find at least one movie that promotes violence against women (when they’re not ignoring women entirely).

But as organizations and individuals speak out against violence against women this week — yesterday Nicole Kidman called it the "most widespread human rights violation of our time" at a press conference for the U.N. Development Fund for Women, and this week also saw the 10th annual "Denim Day" in L.A., named based on the 1998 Italian Supreme Court decision to overturn a rape conviction because the victim wore jeans — I thought it might be worth noting some off the movies that draw attention to violence against women in the right way. Movies that drive home the point in such a way that you finally get why some women make such a fuss about feminism. Movies that help you understand the depth and pervasiveness of the problem, if you don’t, or make you want to get out and do something about it, if you do.

For many of us, the movie(s) that influence us most are ones we see when we’re just coming of age.

For young women twenty years ago, The Color Purple (1985) might have been that pivotal film; for young women in 2005, perhaps it was North Country, about the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States. For women in their late teens today, it might simply be an episode of Law & Order: SVU, which effectively if depressingly portrays our culture’s disturbed attitude towards women on a weekly basis.

For me, the movie was Thelma & Louise (1991). Not yet jaded enough to see it coming, I sat in the back of the movie theater at 17 blinded by rage as I watched Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis drive off that cliff.

The movie’s portrayal of the paralyzing mix of hopelessness, violence, and poverty faced by women every day was searing, to me and other women of all ages. I suspect many women were initially lured in to see the film because of the caliber of the actresses and the well-chiseled abs of a handsome new actor named Brad Pitt, only to leave dazed and confused, still hearing Thelma’s scornful admonishment to a would-be rapist, "In the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having any fun!"

Then, a few years later, I watched The Accused (1988) in a college class that would easily be the most painful and powerful two hours I sat through that year. The Accused was the first major American movie (that I’m aware of) that directly addressed the issue of collective culpability in violence against women. It, too, became the talk of the nation, both because of its message and its stars, Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis.

Just like watching Jaws will ruin you for swimming in the ocean, once you’ve seen this movie, you’ll never feel completely comfortable walking alone into a straight bar again. (At least, I won’t.)

The next summer, I watched Angela Bassett battle it out with Laurence Fishburne in the Ike and Tina Turner story What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993), and that was enough to send me out the next day to sign up as a volunteer at a battered women’s shelter.

Since then, I’ve seen and heard enough about violence against women in real life that I don’t want to spend time consuming it as entertainment, even if it has an inspirational message. But I appreciate the fact that these movies continue to be made, because you only have to look at the vast amounts of money being raked in by torture movies to see that there is still a lot of enlightening left to be done.

Now it’s your turn. Which movies do you think have done a particularly good job at exploring, instead of exploiting, violence against women?