If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mini-marathon of female buddy movies, it’s that these films are not inherently feminist (I’m looking at you, Romy and Michele) except insofar as they feature women at the center. But the best ones offer both feminist critiques of male domination and a vision of what happens when you push women to the edge.

Set it off3If F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off doesn’t quite rise to high filmic art, it makes for perfect marathon material, especially after seeing Thelma and Louise. The themes in both films match up — these films show women who’ve been jerked around by men, bosses, the police, and the system — but become even more critical when they treat Black women rather than white. Their rage is all the more justified because they’ve been fighting two battles, not just one.

MV5BMjA1NjgzODM0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzYxNzU0NA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_If any of them who should have made it out of their housing project, it’s Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), whose immaculate straight hair, professional wardrobe, and talents as a bank clerk have won her raises and promotions at her job. But when one of the guys from the neighborhood shows up at her teller’s window and initiates a bank robbery, she tries to talk him out of it — a conversation that the police and the bank manager see on the security video later. How can they know she wasn’t involved as an inside man? Of course they fire her, and refuse to offer her a reference.

Just like that, all those years of professionalism go down the drain. Worse, she’s reduced to working alongside her lifelong friends cleaning office buildings in downtown LA during the night shift.

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Each of them has a story like this one. T.T. (Kimberly Elise) struggles as a single mother to pay for childcare on her lean income. Cleo (Queen Latifah) is openly gay and has developed the tough persona of one who deals with homophobia on a regular basis. And then there’s Stoney (Jada Pinkett). It’s bad enough that she’s willing to do anything to find the money to fund her brother’s entry to UCLA. But then he gets shot and killed by police, mistaken for one of the project’s bank robbers, and all the police can do is apologize weakly.

In other words, the film’s setup follows that of Thelma and Louise: it highlights the ways that women get beaten down by men — sexually, economically, psychologically — and have so much of their potential taken out from under them. But there are marked differences between those earlier white women and Set It Off‘s Black women. Whereas Louise is able to get thousands of dollars from her own bank account, these four have nothing. When you add racial discrimination to gender bias, the women’s rage is all the more infectious.

tumblr_mdz3s45add1qhovk4o1_500Frankie knows exactly how to respond: rob a bank. She knows how banks work; she knows how to avoid the mistakes made by the guys in the project who got Stoney’s brother killed. Most of all, she’s clearheaded about the morality of it. “We’re just taking away from the system that’s fucking us all anyway, y’know?” The main question, after their first hit goes fast and furious and they escape with thousands of dollars, is how many more banks to rob.

In the meantime, Stoney gets hit on by a slick banker (Blair Underwood) while casing the joint. Keith is tall, rich, educated, and good-looking. A Harvard grad. With a glamorous apartment. She struggles on their dates to hold him at arm’s length — why? Is it because the attraction is so one-sided? because she’s worried he’ll learn about the grittiness of her life and her job as a cleaner, or about her sideline as a bank robber?

Blair and Jada2I’m not sure, but I’d like to say Stoney’s hesitation springs from Keith’s patronizing tones — his “I’ve got the wind at my back” cockiness, his overly slippery eagerness to transform her into Pretty Woman, to “take her away from all that.” No one can convey that kind of motivational ambivalence better than Underwood, who could win a nationwide contest for Guy I’d Most Like To Date Who’s Most Likely To Have An Evil Side. At one point he even takes a detour on their way out so he can buy her a glamorous dress and shoes. On their dates, he asks Stoney loaded questions like, “Do you feel free?” “I don’t feel free,” she replies. “I feel very much caged.” And clearly her dates with him don’t help.

But to be fair, the bank jobs don’t help, either. They start fighting amongst themselves, allowing them to reference Thelma and Louise and The Godfather and thereby raise questions about how it will all end.

set-it-off-1I’ve already mentioned that Set It Off doesn’t climb to high art, but what it does achieve is a far more powerful indictment of racial & gender discrimination than in Thelma and Louise, and a conclusion that (like its predecessor) goes places you wouldn’t expect. In fact, I began to realize that the film’s weaknesses reflect the same kind of low expectations from Hollywood that are turned into themes in the film. For all those reasons I urge you to hunt down a copy (not easy! I had to inter-library loan mine) and watch it as a double bill with T&L to get another glimpse of the female rage made possible by feminism in the 1990s.

In retrospect, Set It Off and Thelma and Louise reflects that great, pre-ironic feminist moment in film when narratives could evoke the enraging, impossible constraints placed on everyday women. It reminds me of the most disturbing aspects of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, which describe how media began to undermine the feminism with ironic winks at the audience while peddling old-fashioned sexism. Can I just say, again, that I miss the old-fashioned female rage?

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I haven’t re-watched Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise since it opened in theaters, so I’d forgotten how terrible it is at the beginning. And not just the beginning. Major Plot Turns are so heavily foreshadowed that a better word might be forestomped. Men are so evil — and Thelma’s taste in them so spectacularly bad — that you feel your vagina tightening up to shut that whole thing down. In short, though I’d begun watching with the plan to celebrate Callie Khouri’s script, I quickly started to itch for something to distract me.

But that’s the thing about this film. An great film gets birthed out of the head of a more mediocre film, and it rises like Athena through some great scenes that defy all the logic imposed early on. This isn’t so much a female buddy movie as a makeover movie — a movie about before and after.

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We all remember this great shot: Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) posing for a selfie as they head out. This shot encapsulates the important differences between the two women: Louise’s persnickety neatness (her scarf worn like a snood, her lipstick), Thelma’s propensity to live recklessly (the blue eyeshadow, the impractical sundress).

They’re good friends, but underlying their friendship is all that stuff that makes friendships between women hard. Louise can be disapproving; Thelma can be childish, asking for permission from the stronger characters around her. The film’s first act focuses on the breakdown of this relationship.

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At first it seems as if Thelma’s impetuousness and childishness will be the end of them. It’s bad enough that her cartoonishly boorish husband (Christopher McDonald, above) probably won’t give her permission to go away for the weekend with Louise, so she just runs out, taking along a handgun that she pulls, gingerly, from a bedside drawer. “I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate,” she proclaims from the passenger seat, and the movie waves a Giant Red Flag at us so we know something bad’s gonna happen. 

You can’t help but identify with Louise in these early scenes. When the shit starts to hit the fan, Louise is the one who takes charge, protects her friend, and finds an exit strategy. But we can also see that her solutions mask old traumas. When Thelma is nearly raped by a bubba named Harlan in a roadside honkytonk, Louise uses the gun to rescue her — but when he calls her a bitch, she whips around and nails him in the heart with a bullet, and they run away.

brad-pitt-thelma-louiseThe film’s middle act traces a shift in the women’s relationship after they escape. Thelma still makes spectacularly bad choices — not least of which is hooking up with an adorable if oily grifter/ hitchhiker named J.D. (Brad Pitt) who steals all their money — but she also begins to transform.

There’s a beautiful moment at the film’s midpoint, as a disheveled, traumatized Louise sits in the Thunderbird convertible in a parking lot, waiting for Thelma to return from the convenience store across the street. Everything has gone wrong, and it shows on her face. But then she locks eyes with an older woman inside the restaurant, a woman with a careworn face and a big helmet of hair. The film just allows them to look at each other, sharing an indescribable connection that you can’t help but ascribe to their mutual understanding of the burdens women carry. The scene breaks when Thelma careens out of the store that she’s just robbed — using J.D.’s script for such situations — and the two go roaring back down the road.

ThelmaLouise_151PyxurzThat delicate scene of mutual recognition opens the film’s final act, which encompasses a set of emotions that are difficult to convey neatly. No longer does Louise need to carry Thelma or clean up her messes; their shared outlaw status has transformed their relationship. Even as they race for the Mexican border, their relationship has a new feeling of possibility that mirrors the open sky. I don’t quite know how to explain this mood in the film, except to say that men have been squelching and molding and constraining women for so many centuries that no one, no one, really knows what they might do if they evaded that constraint completely — and the final third of Thelma and Louise reveals one version of what might happen when women free themselves.

How perfect, then, that this part of the film takes place in Monument Valley, and part of it during a quiet night. They coast through the eerie, glowing, open space, hardly speaking.

thelma-louise_36“Something’s crossed over in me,” Thelma says with new self-realization as they coast into the dusk of that beautiful, surreal landscape. “I can’t go back. I mean, I just couldn’t live.”

“I know. I know just what you mean,” Louise responds.

“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake,” Thelma says. Moments like that — perfect filmic moments that combine spare dialogue, scenery, and movement — explain how Callie Khouri’s script earned such praise.

0540806_4804_MC_Tx360How can such a story end? After all this time the ending still feels precarious. On the one hand, the implausibly sympathetic detective (Harvey Keitel) screams at the FBI, “How many times do they have to be fucked over?” — a line that rings as false as it did 20 years ago. On the other hand there’s that kiss, which still feels as radical as it did in 1991. As they sit in the Thunderbird knowing that there are only two (bad) options, and Thelma says, “Let’s keep going,” their kiss becomes a statement of mutual love that has gone beyond the usual worldly confines of sex or friendship.

Ultimately that’s why Thelma and Louise has the reputation it does: not for the ham-fisted opening act, or even for Brad Pitt’s abs while he wields a hair dryer like a pistol, but for the way the film sheds its skin to become something we’ve never seen before.

THELMA AND LOUISEIt’s not worth our time comparing this to other female buddy pictures because this defined one side of the field — it starts out with clichés from the domineering husband to the rape scene to the corny-funny lines (Thelma aiming a gun at a guy: “My husband wasn’t sweet to me, and look how I turned out”), but it transcends them to do something that still confounds description. Even as it gestures to the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it also does something that men’s Westerns never could.

Before and after. Perhaps this is not only the quintessential female buddy picture, but also the greatest makeover movie in history.

So Aldine came up with a great recommendation: that I start a mini-marathon of female buddy movies.

Beyond the classic Thelma and Louise (1991), it might be difficult to think of many of these — after all, we know from the Bechdel Test that the vast majority of films can’t be bothered to have two female characters with names who speak to each other, and who speak to each other about something other than men.

This is why the internet was invented: to offer a Wikipedia page called Female Buddy Pictures. So I’m going in search of some of the titles I’ve found there — including the weirdly intriguing Revenge of the Bridesmaids (2010), which is streaming on Netflix. (I hasten to note that the film description and photos online do not promise great things about this one, but I just like the fact that its two main stars are actually Black and Latina. Is that possible?)

DAVID CLAYTON ROGERS, RAVEN-SYMONE, JOANNA GARCIAAnyway, I might have to revisit the film optimis Thelma and Louise along the way, but in general I’m going to look for the overlooked — and imagine my perfect world, in which I run a movie theater that people actually come to, at which I get to hold my own movie marathons. Please join in!

Now that it’s 20 years old, we can see that Thelma and Louise (1991) was greater than the sum of its parts. No matter what kind of criticim it received on initial release, it has since attained a canonic position in film — it implies something more radical about women than it ever says explicitly — something more unsettling about female friendship and love, about men’s treatment of women, and about what women can do for recourse. 

Melissa Silverstein asks today, “Why didn’t we build on Thelma and Louise?  It feels like we have spent the 20 years since losing power for women onscreen.” One begins to suspect that keeping a blog on the topic isn’t much help. And yet this is the eve of my one-year anniversary as Feminéma, so it’s incumbent on me to say, dudes, watch out.

A note: I saw this film 20 years ago while on a road trip through western Massachusetts with my college friend Nan. I don’t know about you, Nan, but don’t we need a reunion trip/repeat viewing?