For the women of 'Thelma & Louise,' the glass ceiling is still only cracked

Despite recent successes like "Wonder Woman" and "The Hunger Games," Hollywood still hasn't solved its gender representation problem, says "Thelma & Louise" actress Geena Davis.

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo
Actress Geena Davis poses for a photo in New York on Aug. 18, 2017. Davis starred with Susan Sarandon in the 1991 film, "Thelma & Louise."

When Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon clasped hands, stepped on the gas, and flew over the canyon ridge in that memorable ending to "Thelma & Louise," many in Hollywood believed they were launching more than that turquoise Thunderbird.

It was 1991, and the expectation – or at least the hope – was that they were also launching a new era for women in movies, an era in which it would be easier to get films made with meaty female lead roles, and in which female filmmakers would find it easier to get work.

It didn't happen, says Thelma herself.

"It hasn't changed at all," says Ms. Davis, who in the intervening quarter-century has become an advocate for diversity in Hollywood, focusing especially on gender representation in media made for children. "We never seem to get any momentum going."

In fact, she says, things actually haven't gotten better since the 1940s. "Our research shows the ratio of male to female characters in film has not changed since 1946," Davis said in an interview, referring to studies by the nonprofit research group she launched, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

So what about "Wonder Woman," the mega-hit that has shattered glass ceilings, turned Gal Gadot into a superstar and earned the top global haul for a live-action film directed by a woman? Davis remains skeptical. "Look, there was 'Hunger Games,' there was 'Frozen,' even 'Star Wars' with a female lead... and now 'Wonder Woman.' You figure, 'We're done!'" she says. "But we have to wait for the data. It's been a quarter-century since 'Thelma & Louise' and nothing's changed. I know it WILL change, but to say this is the exact moment – well, you'll have to prove it to me."

Also in the skeptical camp: screenwriter Callie Khouri. Her tale of that fateful journey from Arkansas to the Grand Canyon by Thelma, a timid housewife with a chauvinist husband, and Louise, a hard-bitten waitress with a painful secret, was Ms. Khouri's debut screenplay. And she won the Oscar – the first solo screenwriting Oscar awarded to a woman for an original work in 60 years.

But a turning point for women? "Yeah, that didn't happen," says Khouri, with bitter humor. "I'm still waiting." The rise of "Wonder Woman," she says, feels like a "tiny little crack" in the ceiling. But, she adds: "You know, it's been a little daunting to see how slowly things actually do change. I can tell you that I, for one, am so sick of the conversation. Why haven't things changed for women? I mean, don't ask US!"

Twenty-six years after "Thelma & Louise" landed on the cover of Time because of the gender conversation it launched – was it feminist or fascist, inspiring or outrageous? – the film still resonates, and remarkably so, says author Becky Aikman, whose "Off The Cliff," released this summer, takes a deep dive into the unlikely story of a film that defied the odds merely by getting made. But it was clearly an anomaly, not a launching point, the author says.

"I wanted to see how this one made it through the wormhole, in part because it hasn't happened before or since," Ms. Aikman says. "A lot of people thought at the time, 'Wow, this movie is so successful, we've got to have more movies like this!' And then no one did it, which is wildly frustrating, and just shows how entrenched the point of view of Hollywood is ... that even a very successful movie didn't seem to get people in positions of power to say we should do more like it."

The uphill struggle for women in Hollywood – onscreen and behind the camera – has been the subject of numerous studies, including several in recent weeks. Most research has been about films for adults, but Davis' institute has always focused on content aimed at children. Lately, it has focused its research on family-oriented films.

In a yet-unreleased report, the institute analyzed, using technology developed in partnership with the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering, the 50 top-grossing 2016 family films. It found, among other things, that male characters outnumbered females by 2 to 1, and male characters had twice the screen time and speaking time.

"If you want to change the world, you can change it overnight in the mind of a child," says Madeline Di Nonno, the institute's CEO, who shared the data with the AP. "Geena pioneered this field of research because she was watching programming with her young daughter, and was concerned about what she saw."

Davis says with a laugh that now, when she watches movies and TV with her three kids, "They'll turn to me before I even say anything and say, 'Yeah, I noticed that.'"

In another recent study, the Viterbi School's SAIL Lab (Signal Analysis and Interpretation) analyzed language of 7,000 characters and 53,000 character interactions in 1,000 film scripts. It found that women had about 15,000 interactions, or "dialogues," while men had over 37,000. Women portrayed just over 2,000 characters, while men portrayed almost 4,900.

Yet another study, from USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, found that behind the camera, women directors are still a rarity: In the top 100 films of 2016 there were only five female directors out of 120, including co-directors.

In a statistic that remains ever striking, only one woman has won the Oscar for directing in the awards' 89-year history: Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker."

Khouri's experience is instructive. Her Oscar aside, "It still took 10 years before anybody would let me direct anything – I was trying, every day of that 10 years," she says. She eventually directed "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" in 2002, then was frustrated to find herself typecast as a director of female-oriented films. "I never really understood why I was only ever sent things about women bonding through their tears," she says. "Nobody wants to be put in a box."

"Besides," Khouri adds, "I never thought of 'Thelma' as a particularly soft movie." (The film has a shooting death, attempted rape, armed robbery, and of course, suicide – though Khouri intended the ending as a metaphor.) She later turned to television, creating "Nashville."

But despite her struggles to build on the momentum of "Thelma & Louise," Khouri can point to a clear silver lining – well, besides that statuette on the mantel.

"Honestly, here we are, 26 years later, talking about this movie," she says. "So, I win."

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

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