Like many women in the 90s I thought Thelma and Louise was one of the most empowering movies I had seen. Not only have I watched the movie many times, I’ve been interested in news and criticism about the film. In an interview the actor who plays the FBI agent, Stephen Tobolowsky, asks what is so “empowering” about the film, pointing out all the tragic elements of the plot: the rape, the impulsive shooting, getting ripped off after a one night stand, driving over a cliff. It’s a good question, and it also applies to mythology which empowers women. The female protagonist is virtually never in any role analogous to the victorious male hero.
Many people have pointed out that the popularity of Thelma and Louise can be explained simply because there are very few Hollywood films where the action revolves around two strong women characters. Try to think of ten right now, before or after 1990. The situation is similar for Western mythology and folklore, although probably not as stark. Men decide what is preserved and recorded, and it almost always centers on men. Strong female characters such as Penelope or Isis certainly crop up, but they are usually peripheral to the plot, and a central character such as Antigone rarely has a female alter ego or nemesis. A few myths that come to mind that fit the Thelma and Louise mold are Persephone and Demeter, Cupid and Psyche, many of the Baba Yaga stories, and Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld. Male scholars rarely mention these stories, or only mention them in passing, in treatises that are supposedly general interest. I just finished a book called Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia by French scholar Jean Bottero where the Epic of Creation, which focuses on the male hero/god Marduk, is referred to eighteen times, often extensively, despite this deity being an anomaly in Mesopotamian history and exclusively Akkadian. The number of references to Inanna’s Descent? One. The tendency for each succeeding generation of historians to progressively weed out references to female deities (and historical women) as minor or peripheral has motivated feminists to celebrate and highlight stories such as Inanna’s Descent.
One of the similarities between this Mesopotamian myth and Thelma and Louise is that neither was originally developed as a feminist statement. Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay, has said that she was trying to create a plausible story with female characters that was true to the American Western cinematic genre. Inanna’s Descent is believed to be a relic of pre-patriarchal mythology preserved because religions of all times and regions tend to be conservative, and because it has insights about power that are relatable across many cultures and centuries.
I believe the theme of power is the crux of why Thelma and Louise and Inanna’s Descent continue to resonate with women. The two are empowering because they are about power. Thelma and Louise are trying to take control of their destiny, and they accept that this involves the responsibility of making choices. That they make poor choices is irrelevant; that they ultimately fail is irrelevant. This is not a movie where the women are passive characters in a male drama.
In the Mesopotamian myth Inanna is trying to wrest power from the underworld goddess Ereshkigal. Inanna has a great deal of power already and wants more; Ereshkigal will do everything in her considerable power to defend her hegemony and bring about Inanna’s demise. Whether Inanna accomplishes her mission is secondary to the issue of women’s empowerment, although we want Inanna to succeed. Inanna faces consequences for her quest, but these have to do with the nature of power seeking and are not an indictment of her (and by extension, of women). Neither is Ereshkigal cast as the villainess for defending her interests. This in itself is empowering to today’s women.
A more detailed exploration of Inanna’s Descent, and a lot of great folktales about women, can be found in my book Invoking Animal Magic http://invokinganimalmagic.com. I will be teaching an online course through Mago Academy starting the end of April called Emerging Interpretations of Inanna’s Descent, and power will be an important theme. More information can be found at on the magoacademy.org website at http://magoacademy.org/2015/02/24/online-class-emerging-interpretations-of-inannas-descent-2/
Bottero, Jean. Religion in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stoies and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.
Thelma and Louise. Dir. Ridley Scott, 1992, USA.
Thelma and Louise: The Last Journey. Dir. Charles de Lauzirika, 2002.
Hearth Moon rising is the author of Invoking Animal Magic –