“We don’t live in that kind of a world, Thelma!” Louise raggedly admonishes her bloodied, sobbing friend, as they speed away from the scene of their first crime, the murder of Thelma’s would-be rapist, Harlan, outside a truck-stop bar.

In the cinematic moment, Louise is explaining why they can’t just turn themselves in: many people had seen Thelma dancing with Harlan, and thus the notion that she could decline sex with him—that therefore his insistence would be rape—is not one the authorities are likely to accept; Louise’s steely apprehension of this dynamic is the seed of the defiant narrative to follow. That conviction also strikes at the heart of what made Thelma & Louise’s 1991 release so combustible and controversial, coming as it did at a fulcrum moment in women’s history in the United States.

For the fifteen years following the peak of the women’s movement in the late 1970s, the nation had been in an airless, antifeminist deep freeze, a period that Susan Faludi would describe in her book Backlash, published months after Thelma & Louise’s release. Reagan-era Christian conservatism, informed by crusaders like Phyllis Schlafly and her view of liberated American women as an unnatural threat to domesticity, had permeated not just government but also pop culture and media. Those who had fought for women’s legal, educational, economic, and sexual parity had been caricatured as ugly cartoons: hairy, humorless, and definitely sexless.

On big screens, working women were shoulder-padded and chilly; they chose promotions over love; they took jobs that forced their poor husbands to parent or cook; when they did exhibit sexual desire, it was rapacious—they wanted love so badly they’d boil children’s bunnies to get it. Unconcealed anxiety about women, especially white women, forgoing marriage and kids was rampant: in 1986, two years before the thirty-year-old first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri—fed up with the prevailing on-screen depictions of women—began writing Thelma & Louise, Newsweek had published a panicked story claiming that single women at forty were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to marry.

But as the eighties ended, the message that feminism’s work was over was becoming less persuasive, as women reckoned with ongoing inequities at the workplaces and on the campuses into which they had so recently been admitted in greater numbers.

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