The Thelma and Louise Effect
by Alice Crossley
I am a self-professed sucker for rom-coms and grew up on a steady diet of Richard Curtis films. But recently, perhaps in the wake of the hetero-normative pop-culture confinements of ‘Love Island’, I have found myself drawn to a different type of love story on Netflix.
More and more programmes are passing the Bechdel test which was originally created to assess how women were represented in film. The test dictates that there have to be at least two women that, (1) converse with one another and (2) talk about something other than men. (Don’t be shocked that you haven’t heard of it, most of your favourite films probably don’t pass it…). Finally, we are getting the bold and multi-dimensional female characters we have long lusted for. Not only this, but female friendships are at the forefront of the best television shows streaming right now.
This long-awaited shift in the portrayal of female friendship on screen is something I have coined the ‘Thelma and Louise Effect’. The 1991 film was the first on-screen representation of two women’s relationship which I truly engaged with. The men come and go, but their friendship and devotion to one-another is unwavering.
Western culture undeniably pits women against each other; it is ingrained in our minds that there is much less space for women in this world, and that this space is notoriously hard to access. We are told to see each other as direct competition and that dragging another woman down might be our ticket to the top. ‘Thelma and Louise’, as well as more contemporary examples on screen could arguably be the antidote for this mentality. It could remind women that our relationships are entitled to be as complex, messy and rewarding as male friendships and romantic relationships alike.
Grace and Frankie
My latest binge is Netflix’s ‘Grace and Frankie’, a show I had overlooked time after time until a rainy day blessed me with the boredom to test out the pilot. I was instantly addicted. Jane Fonda and Grace Tomlin’s relationship is endearing, heart-warming and laugh-out-loud-in-the-office-with-your-headphones-on hilarious. They embody everything I look forward to in getting older and create a fresh perspective on the meaning of family.
For those of you who have not yet watched it (do it! now!), the show follows Grace and Frankie; two polarised representations of older women united by their husbands’ leaving them to pursue a homosexual relationship together. The two seventy-year-old women become wives as much as their exes become husbands. They are relentlessly there for one another, completely accepting of each other’s quirks and flaws and bring out the best in one another. Their relationships with men wax and wane as they navigate dating in their seventies, but their friendship is a constant.
Dead To Me
We all know friendships aren’t simple or easy, but what do you do when you find out the friend who has carried you through the grief of losing your husband is the one who killed him in the first place? (Not a spoiler- the deceit is the premise of the show!)
‘Dead To Me’ portrays the true complexities of women outside of the usual stereotypes we see on screen. Judy is a free spirit who is passive and submissive yet harbouring a deadly secret, whilst Jane is a career-driven power Mum who copes with her husband’s death by head-banging to screamo music in her people-carrier. Poignant and flippant, dark and humorous, the show is deeply enthralling and entirely addictive.
Just when I thought I had finally outgrown television shows about high school, ‘Sex Education’ graced our screens… and my god it was good. In one season the show managed to humiliate most of Netflix’s other content by proving just how easy it is to incorporate diversity into a cast and script. The show’s title took on a nuanced meaning when it examined (and educated) its audience on both sex and gender.
This is the television show every teen needs. It shows women enjoying sex, women having sex with other women, women pleasuring themselves sexually - and is an all-round insight into a woman’s sexuality existing for herself, not for the pleasure of men. The men too enjoy boundless and curious character development. Adam’s bad boy exterior is exposed as a coping mechanism as he grapples with his identity. Eric faces the regressive duality of having a space to express both the feminine and masculine parts of his identity when with Otis, and the self-protective desire to repress this when with his very traditional family.
Perhaps unintentionally, the stand out relationship was not at all sexual in nature. Aimee (bubbly, popular, feminine) and Maeve (a rebellious outcast and the punky-cool girl we all secretly aspire to be) strike up an a-typical relationship which is so pure; existing only to support each other through the painful experience of high school.
Aimee initially falls into the trap of aspiring to be popular, willing to sacrifice morality and independence, whilst Maeve is self-contained in her mean-girl-who-doesn’t-need-anyone ways. Their friendship marks a metamorphosis for them both, as they realise the power of female friendship and push one another to be their best selves. Aimee Lou Wood (who plays Aimee in the show) summarises this perfectly in an article for Teen Vogue:
“It’s so great to see a friendship where there isn't any competition. I think it is so scary at school, because you want to fit in. I think that's what Aimee's trying to do, she's just trying to blend in. And she thinks the best way to do that is by hanging out with the popular group.”
The allure of being ‘popular’ probably hooked us all as teens, but the show teaches a significant lesson to young people about the power of authentic relationships. Let’s just say if their friendship isn’t a core storyline in season two, there will be some disappointed fans.
Whether you see their relationship through a homo or hetero gaze, there’s an undeniably charged tension between assassin Villanelle and FBI agent Eve. Arguably, both invert traditional modes of femininity. Villanelle is both the ultimate femme fatale and a fragile psychopath in a bright pink tulle dress. She is terrifying and yet strangely innocent. Eve is a complete badass who defies all social cues to follow Villanelle; mystified and obsessed by the beautiful hit-woman. The character complexity enables an on-screen relationship that subverts anything we’ve seen before. It is deeply toxic yet impulsively comforting to both women. It’s taking every morsel of my self-restraint not to binge the whole of series two on BBC iPlayer right this second.
Slowly but surely, Western culture is adapting to become more inclusive of diverse women’s experiences. Models of femininity are not as restrictive, and we can flourish without having to choose any one box to squeeze into. This increasing freedom is being reflected on our screens.
By writing multi-dimensional characters we finally have space for accurate depictions of female friendship. These friendships can be empowering and hilarious and painful and dramatic, mirroring real life. For me, nothing is as precious as my female friends. But, it has taken me twenty-two years to fully appreciate the rare trust and love that comes from true friendship. I only wish I had access to such wildly varied portrayals of female friendship in its unfiltered beauty as a teenager to speed up the process.
Alice Crossley is a blogger with a degree in English and Film Studies about to embark on a Masters in International Journalism. To read more by Alice, visit her blog.
Cover photo by Holly Maguire