When I was growing up in the 1970s there really was such a thing as feminism. I guess today’s feminists would call it “old school” feminism. But this was, to my eyes, as one of four kids scrambling around after our young single mother, something to bear in mind looking forward. My mother wasn’t really a feminist but she was someone educated feminists would likely defend in an ethics class: unmarried, not religious, working and raising kids. It came at a cost to her and it came at a cost to us. Had she been a feminist in thought and ideas she might have pointed her three daughters more towards education, teaching them that strength comes from awareness, intelligence from curiosity, and power from knowledge. Her lessons, though she did the very best she could, were more about this: most men are creeps, if you’re going to marry make sure you marry a rich man, and work very very hard, save your pennies because you don’t know where your next meal might be coming from: these are the goals of the desperate – and it was into this atmosphere that her daughters were raised. Her son seemed to take things in stride – after all, he was born into a culture that, for a handsome white male, opportunities did not depend on a husband, but simply on whether he took them or not: the choice was his.
But you’d have to have been completely out of it not to take notice of the feminist movement in Los Angeles in the 1970s, especially in Topanga where we were growing up. Women did not wear bras and in fact, they burned their bras. Can you imagine such a thing happening today? It simply wouldn’t. There is no such thing as a woman who would ever, in a million years, proudly burn her bra. In the age of Victoria’s Secret (I am a slave to this) and the female icons of our day, bras are a vital piece of clothing. I own many of them and love all of them; to that end, I am not sure what bra burning accomplished at all. Was our goal to be able to let it all hang low, like the tribal women in certain places in Africa? Or was it: men don’t wear them so why should we?
I used to see my mother come upon women who probably were feminists. Certainly my best friend’s mother, with whom I spent a good deal of my childhood, was one — educated, observant, forward-thinking. But something happened in the 1980s — that check the feminists wrote was never really cashed. It just got worse in the 1990s and now it seems like you have to fight hard to get anywhere without also being desired sexually. The media, if you’ll allow one sweeping, unsubstantiated generalization, seems to have become a yawning chasm of the male gaze. There is no end to it. Women should rule the world. But we don’t, BLANCHE, we don’t.
I read with great interest this column by Carina Chocano for the New York Times on two movies that seem
If, as the film historian David Thomson wrote, “Pretty Woman” was a film about “three very compelling items in the American dream: sex, shopping and transformation,” then “Thelma and Louise” was a film about another dream: sex, not shopping and transformation. Yet in the end, only one of these fantasies could prove triumphant — and it’s not the one I believed in back in 1990s San Francisco.
The character of the ingénue in literature often functions as a transitional figure: at the end of the 19th century, for example, she embodied the instability of the moment as the Victorian era shifted into the modern one. Girls of my generation were transitional, too: we were generational ingénues, moving from one sense of identity to another. And identity, as about a million people from Joan Didion to Jean-Paul Sartre to Oliver Sacks have observed, is really about narrative. It’s a story you tell yourself about yourself, but it’s also a story others tell you about you.
For the few years after the release of “Thelma and Louise,” the culture seemed unusually and (in hindsight) unbelievably receptive to the plaintive howls of a generation of girls who, as I did, felt exiled from the culture. Within a few more years, though, the whole thing would be supplanted by a far more chipper, more palatable, more profitable version of itself. It’s now nearly impossible to imagine a time, not so long ago, when popular culture was more interested in cool girls than hot girls — or a cultural moment in which girls could become iconic for airing their grievances and not simply their dirty laundry. As it turned out, it was a quick traverse from “revolution grrrl-style now” to “girl power,” as Riot Grrrls gave way to Spice Girls and the dominant pop-culture narrative about femininity went the way of “Sex and the City.” And Carrie Bradshaw (among others) stands pretty clearly as a descendant of Vivian, not of Thelma or Louise.
Ultimately, “Pretty Woman” wasn’t a love story; it was a money story. Its logic depended on a disconnect between character and narrative, between image and meaning, between money and value, and that made it not cluelessly traditional but thoroughly postmodern. Revisiting “Thelma and Louise” recently, I was struck by how dated it seemed, how much a product of its time. And “Pretty Woman,” it turns out, wasn’t a throwback at all. It was the future.
My only beef with this piece, which I think pretty much says what I’ve been ruminating on for a few years now, about why the role of women in film and in media has become so … so … disposable, is that Thelma and Louise was controversial during its time not just because it was supposedly feminist, but because it wasn’t: many people complained that the only kind of liberating that went on was that they just got sexier as the movie went along. Chocano says that Pretty Woman was the future – it was. But so was Thelma and Louise because this movie was the starting point for the eroticizing of girl women and violence. This is so commonplace now that most people don’t even recognize it – but it’s the notion that a sexy woman on film can only really be sexy if she does some high kicks, lays out a villain or two, pulls out a gun and shoots someone. In Thelma and Louise, they start out feeling remorse for what they’ve done. But as the movie goes on, their remorse is less and less.
Unfortunately, the movie ends with the two women driving off the cliff and ending their lives. While I thought it was a great movie overall, this ending has always left me less than satisfied. I don’t think that women and minorities always have to be role models in movies. And they don’t always have to do the right thing. But they should, at the very least, be true to their characters. Neither of those two women were quitters to me. And ending their lives like that? It seemed out of character to me. But then again, what do I know.