Movies, according to conventional wisdom, reflect society. And so they do. Politically, movies often reflect the perspective of Hollywood artistes who think they possess a gift for reflecting society. Commercially, movies reflect not only audience taste but what some director or studio executive assumes is audience taste; they reflect not only what we’re willing to buy but what someone else believes—hopes—is marketable. This odd combination of marketing guesswork and artistic pretension is more evident in movies than in any other form of popular entertainment, and it results in, among other things, film “realism” that has nothing to do with reality. This is especially so in current movies about women.

In an adolescence that spanned the late 50’s and early 60’s, I had movie interests rooted in the late 30’s and early 40’s, the reason being that everything about the women in those movies was better. Carole Lombard was funnier than Doris Day; Irene Dunne was warmer in her femininity than Crace Kelly; Barbara Stanwyck was a better actress than Natalie Wood. There was nothing premeditated about Katharine Hepburn’s quirkiness, nothing self-conscious in Myrna Loy’s valor. Rosiland Russell was faster on her feet than anybody before or since, and Bette Davis could handle anything. Collectively, those actresses, and the roles they played, resonated wit, confidence, courage, independence, and—not the least of it—a desire to please, which is not quite the same as a desire to be liked (and which explains why it is more entertaining to watch an old Jean Arthur movie than a new Sally Field movie).

The actresses of the Golden Age were unique in their desire to please, in that the desire was wedded to intelligence, a combination that gave them female size and also precluded any compromise of their status as human beings—that they could be hurt made them people, not victims. Both their willingness to give and their intelligence shone best in their humor. They were funny women and they were good company, to their male counterparts on screen as well as to their audience. Too clever to be merely in on the joke, they often drove the joke; too generous—and too self-assured—to keep the fun to themselves, they spread it around, making their humor a bond, not a wall. As the constricted “Hopsy” Pike in The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda says to Barbara Stanwyck, “Snakes are my life, in a way.” When she responds, after the most exquisite pause, “What a life,” she is entertaining herself, us, and, she can only hope, the clueless “Hopsy.”

Now flash forward about fifty years, to Postcards From the Edge, and watch Meryl Streep’s comic turn with Dennis Quaid. Quaid is as irrelevant as the audience, since Streep is talking to herself, about herself, in a movie that explores her character’s relationship with herself It is a film, like so many today, that presents female confusion as a sign of moral superiority, a film pumped full of feelings but drained of heart. The movie is not meant to be experienced; it is meant to be overheard. (Postcards From the Edge was directed by Mike Nichols, who appears to believe he possesses a gift for reflecting society, probably because reviewers are very nice about ignoring the fact that all of his films display a nearly creepy detachment from their subject. Every Mike Nichols movie feels like two movies: the one he makes to amuse his friends, and the other one that is meant for paying customers.)

Except for their human and female credibility, nothing about the movie women I loved in my adolescence—not the way they talked, looked, dressed, or lived—reminded me much of the women in my own life. That is, it was not necessary to identify with them in order to understand them. Those women, and their movies, were for me the opposite of current film fare: they reflected reality without realism.

But I was yanked out of the black-and-white past by the popularity of Marilyn Monroe, a phenomenon that was as difficult to miss as it was to understand. Monroe was not about reality, or realism either. She was a fantasy figure who was not worth the effort it took to suspend disbelief. The pleasure of her cinematic beauty was always spoiled by her film persona. She was insulted on screen by people Barbara Stanwyck would have had for breakfast. Rotten men took advantage of her, and good men had to find charity in their hearts in order not to. By her own choosing, she was laughed at, not with.

Today, of course, Monroe is a feminist icon, an actress whose private life is supposed to add poignancy to her screen persona, a woman whose image as a “dumb blonde” rouses feminist ire. Why this is the case is a mystery to me. Marilyn Monroe was a dumb blonde, and made every public effort, in movies and out of them, to project herself as such. For taking her at her word, “society” is now implicated in her death, just as “society” is implicated in her death for not taking her at her word. For Monroe, we are now told, also wanted privacy and wished to be taken seriously for her mind, two needs the public would not honor. Unless you are a feminist desperate to fill your victim list, it hardly needs pointing out that a woman who desires privacy and intellectual respect places “society” in a real bind when she puts on a flesh-colored dress and publicly coos “Happy Birthday” to the President of the United States.

Feminists now exploit Marilyn Monroe’s vulnerableness as shamelessly in death as sexist men exploited it in life, revealing in the process what modern feminism has never understood: most women consider the experience of womanhood too important to be politicized and the subject of female abuse too serious to be romanticized. Marilyn Monroe had gone from sex object to political tool, and the latter makes her seem no less pathetic, no less “used,” than the former.

Once a phenomenon, an image, a symbol has been explored and reexplored ad nauseam, there is nothing left but to find the current “logical extension” of that phenomenon, image, or symbol. Many would argue that the logical extension of Marilyn Monroe is Madonna, another overfly sexual performer, but one for a liberated age, a woman in “control” (the word used endlessly) of her life, her career, and her “art.” The first flaw in the Monroe-to-Madonna theory is, of course, that Madonna is not a movie star—she has no film identity. The big screen is still unmatched as a vehicle for creating or revealing a persona—a vehicle for capturing charisma—and Madonna’s acting ambitions prove she knows it. (And sorry, but self-starring documentaries do not count.) The second problem is that Marilyn Monroe was not intellectualized until after her death. As a living actress and a movie star, she belonged first to her audience. Madonna is a rock star-turned-social event, and her initial audience, which was made up of adolescents, has been replaced, for her image if not her recordings, by professional feminists, who love displays of female sexuality without “vulnerability” (it evens the score for Marilyn); by the media, who are easy marks for any performer who lacks the nerve (or the creative imagination, or simply the talent) not to shock; and by a collection of lightweight social observers who require nothing more than the trigger of a celebrity’s “contradictions” to become intellectually engaged. This audience shift is important because it is doubtful that the discretionary income of professional feminists, journalists, or intellectuals is spent on Madonna records.

To realize how irrelevant Madonna is becoming to adolescents, one need look no further than The Hollywood Reporter‘s description of her documentary Truth or Dare as a box-office “disappointment.” If the movie was a commercial disappointment, it was because kids did not flock to see it; and if kids did not flock to see it, it is probably because they do not care anymore, if they ever did, whether it is “truth” or not. Adolescents want their rebels to exist without conditions, and Madonna’s professional pose becomes more conditional all the time: while she will permit an audience to be pleased by her, it is beneath her to want to please. Those conditions may inspire feminists and fascinate intellectuals (and explain, by the way, why Madonna is so bad at comedy), but sooner or later most kids just want to dance.

It is now for America’s mature thinkers, from those at the National Review to the ones at the New Republic, to explore the “meaning” of simulated masturbation onstage, and a breathless nation can only await the further dispensation of their insights. (The Middle East, the recession, race relations. Madonna. Makes sense to me.) In the meantime, the problem for living legends is that they can dissipate their own mystique; they have the capacity to disappoint, to alienate, and, most dangerous of all, to bore. When it happens to Madonna, she—and the mature thinkers—will be the last to know.

If Madonna is not the logical extension of Marilyn Monroe, who is? If you saw the movie Thelma and Louise you have the answer. Thelma and Louise is about two dumb women—redheads this time, not blondes. Yes, they are insulted by people Barbara Stanwyck (and Madonna too) would have had for breakfast. Yes, rotten men take advantage of them; and if good men do not have to find charity in their hearts in order not to, it is only because there are no good men. (Screenwriter Gallic Khouri has stated that her movie “isn’t hostile toward men. It’s hostile toward idiots.” Since most “serious” movies, including this one, are over-analyzed, it would be nice to believe her—but I don’t. The “idiots” in this film aren’t idiots, they’re slime. And they’re unmistakably male slime.) Through a series of literally incredible decisions—how many women do you know who, after experiencing sexual assault and witnessing murder, would plead to pick up a male hitchhiker?—Thelma and Louise find themselves in ever worsening circumstances that allow no recourse but repeated criminal violence and, finally, suicide. But the important thing is, they do it together.

After twenty-five years of feminist cultural influence, this is Hollywood’s first Big Statement for and about women; death is not so bad when you share it. Hear the echoes? If Marilyn Monroe killed herself because her pride, specifically her female pride, was lost, Thelma and Louise kill themselves because pride is the one thing they have left. Suicide as sisterhood.

Thelma and Louise is astonishing as a feminist statement not because its heroines resort to behavior feminists assail in men—that is, expedient and gratuitous violence against the opposite sex. Feminists are habitually self-contradictory (and were, unsurprisingly, divided in their public reaction to a film that mythologized female violence). The movie is astonishing because its heroines are so relentlessly, hopelessly stupid. No less than Marilyn Monroe, they are female caricatures. Unlike Monroe, however, they are expected to be laughed with, not at. Thelma and Louise is a grossly sentimental movie.

The great female dramas of the 30’s and 40’s often ended with a close-up of an actress’s face. Only the emotion on the faces of Greta Garbo or Bette Davis or Ingrid Bergman was sufficient to capture their experience and finalize their stories; and only something as large as a movie screen was sufficient to accommodate their faces. Heartbroken, resolute, resigned, or hopeful, those faces were a movie’s human emblem. By contrast, the end of Thelma and Louise comes when the two women drive to their deaths off a cliff. The camera is very far away and the image is frozen: two people in a car, a vehicle, suspended over a canyon, a void. Were it not for the presence of the vehicle and the void, the scene would have no meaning—thus the remoteness of the camera. And thus the fact that the two women at the center of the movie are, at its climax, so small, so indistinct as to be unrecognizable. They are very, very tiny.

That frozen moment in Thelma and Louise is the capstone of decades of female diminution on screen. On film, if not in life, women have shrunk. The progression of movies into exercises of realism over reality has rendered women indistinguishable—visually incidental to the effect of an automobile suspended over a canyon, subservient in their potential for common sense to the demands of an irrational plot, subordinate in their human complexity and pain to the imperatives of sexual politics: cinematic midgets.

More than once in Thelma and Louise, the supposedly worldly-wise Louise says to the flea-brained Thelma, “You get what you settle for.” Ain’t it the truth. That should be the slogan of moviegoers weary of films filled with tiny women.