It’s a plot as familiar to movie goers as stale popcorn and sticky floors: two buddies on the run from the law, piling up a rap sheet of hefty charges on the highway to freedom. The tale never fails to inspire audiences, its on-the-road antics always keenly tuned to stick it to The Man at all the right moments. Problems arise, however, when those characters doing the sticking to The Man are not themselves, men. Such is the case with Thelma and Louse (1991), which essentially pulls a sex change on the old-time favorite Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), spiking the old formula with a shot of estrogen and leaving a busload of ruffled critical feathers in its wake. The implication of the protests themselves, which decry the film as both violently feminist and a fascist set back to the feminist cause, is that girls joining in on the fun and games usually reserved for Hollywood’s macho men must constitute some kind of attempted radical statement on the part of the filmmakers. But while Thelma and Louise certainly has points to make about the constriction of gender roles both in movies and society at large, the vehement reactions from the critical community speak far louder about the limitations of the gender discussion in America than even the film’s most excessive explosion.
The most obvious response against Thelma and Louise, as well as the most difficult to defend, is the charge that it unapologetically bashes men in route to an exploration of female liberation. Certainly, the film’s treatment of male characters leaves quite a bit to be desired (if you are a man). Thelma’s husband, Darryl, is a classic controlling chauvinist, annoyed by his wife’s presence but outraged by her absence; Harlan, the dead rapist, deserves no one’s sympathy; Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy, is indifferent until she’s gone, and the list goes on. In fact, only one male in the entire film receives a semblance of a flattering portrait, the detective Hal, who seems more of an understanding preemptive concession to male backlash than a fully formed character. Accepting, then, that screenwriter Callie Khouri gives men a bit of a bad rap, the question must be: what’s the problem with that? Boston Globe columnist John Robinson believes he knows, as he writes, “Thelma and Louise would have the world believe that a good man is an exception, and that a bad woman is an oxymoron.” A fair reading of the filmic text, to be sure, and a dangerous one if conceding that an audience reads Thelma and Louise as a manifesto on the facts of life. However, no matter how seriously director Ridley Scott seems to take the implications of his buddy picture, the suggestion that the film holds some kind of dangerous transcendence (Robinson calls it an “attack far beyond the realm of elite art”) gives a lot of credit to what essentially amounts to a B-level story given the A-list treatment.
To protest the film’s treatment of men is to ignore the historical treatment of women in art going back ages. Critics like Robinson feign acknowledgement of this history, only to ignore it in their blubbering about male bashing. Sure, Darryl is a bastard and Harlan one mean son of a bitch but in several viewings of the film one would be hard-pressed to find where either woman bites into the apple and causes the fall of humanity. While Thelma does take her first pleasure in original sin, it seems about time that women get their own slice of that apple. The inherent flaw, though, in labeling Thelma and Louise a male bashing film is that obviously the filmmakers don’t really care enough about men in regards to this story to go out of their way to bash them. The title does not lie, as this is a story about two women, and the men along the way serve only as plot devices to get them where they’re going: out from underneath. Just like the femmes fatales that polka dot the history of American literature, the line up of devious men here serve to highlight the strength and virtue of heroes heretofore oppressed by society. That the heroes are women instead of men does not constitute male-bashing, but rather, a clever inversion of a tired formula aimed at the absurd confines of the male-oriented action epic.
While the most obvious criticism leveled at Thelma and Louise condemns the treatment of the film’s unfortunate men, female critics volley back that the movie falters in the treatment of the women and their treatment of men. “Call Thelma and Louise anything you want but please don’t call it feminism,” writes LA Times critic Sheila Benson. “Feminism has to do with responsibility, equality, sensitivity, understanding- not revenge, retribution, or sadistic behavior.” She seems right in her definition of an ideal feminism, but she also suggests that the film must be unaware of this keen insider knowledge which she possesses. The director, Ridley Scott, has shown in his films ranging from Alien (1979) to G.I. Jane (1997) an affinity for empowering women through access to violence in a kind of fascist-feminism, depicting strong females demolishing the gender gap with chin-ups and flamethrowers. This particular film, however, does seem to possess a relatively acute sensitivity for the nuances of its subject matter. Near the end of the film, for example, when a hysterical Thelma joyfully recounts the apparently hilarious antics of Harlan’s murder, a stern-faced Louise responds, “that’s not funny,” reminding the viewer that, despite a common levity in the film’s tone since then, that explosive act of violence wasn’t funny the first time, either. Had the filmmakers sought to create the kind of simple-minded feminine revenge fantasy that Benson condemns, this exchange likely would’ve been abandoned in the first draft of the script, along with Louise’s cold-blooded killing of Harlan. The tyranny of men, it seems, would have been much more clear-cut had Louise pulled the trigger without giving the rapist the chance to rethink his actions. By making the girls indisputably guilty of a capitol crime, the filmmakers choose not to condone this act of violence, but rather to sympathize with its causes, as the murder does not prevent the rape from taking place, but rather shuts up a loud mouth. Murder is depicted here not as a solution to male oppression but as a symptom of its overwhelming emotional impact.
Benson, like the film, pushes her argument beyond black and white discussion. While several defenses of the film (including this one) suggest that Thelma and Louise only participate in destruction at or below the level undertaken by cinema’s steroidal giants on a weekly basis at the multiplex, Benson claims that “action like this is despicable: Why should it be any more acceptable when it’s done by women? Because it’s our ‘turn’?” In three words: no and yes. Of course, the girls’ crime spree would be heinous in real life, particularly the cop in the trunk and the exploded gas truck, but it seems downright playful in comparison to Total Recall, an Arnold Schwarzenegger action romp from the year before in which the hero kills 44 non-rapists to Louise’s 1 rapist (Movie Body Counts). Perhaps the gravity of reality makes the later film’s sole murder feel heavier, but it is the seriousness with which the implications of that murder are treated that makes “action like this” all the less “despicable” in a film like Thelma and Louise. Where the male heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rob and kill for the glamour and the glory, Thelma and Louise do so out of a very real and all consuming rage. Louise kills Harlan not because of what he’s done, but because of what men like him have done to her and women like her throughout all of history, whether it be physical rape or the constant sexual objectification of women in literature and film. While perhaps the act of murder in itself cannot be justified, these potential grounds for discussion do make the violence of Thelma and Louise more acceptable than the senseless killing of many male-centric films of the early 1990s.
If Thelma and Louise is not about male bashing, and not about the pronouncement of a violent militant feminism, then what is it about, exactly? Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri are getting at a much more subtle discussion of gender roles, distinguished only by examining the film on its own terms rather than as a film against the world. The juxtaposition of Thelma with Louise, a reading hinted at by the title itself, demonstrates a rough thesis about the constraining effect of society’s accepted roles for women. While many critics make much of Thelma’s transformation from inhibited housewife to wild rebel in the wake of Harlan’s murder (John Leo chastises the apparent “transformative violence” advocated by the film), this development is vastly misread and is primarily responsible for the film’s mass misunderstanding. Thelma does not change because Louise kills Harlan. Thelma is set loose by the mere glimpse of the possibility of resistance. As she states, she has only been with one man, that awful archetype of sloppy southern gentlemen, and as such has only known male control and oppression. She begins to see the light of day, so to speak, not after the murder but after she decides to go on vacation without Darryl’s approval. When she smokes a cigarette in the film’s early road scenes, emulating the free-spirited Louise, Thelma reveals a long-dormant side anxious to get out. If anything, the violence Thelma witnesses just adds a layer of perversity to her nature, and she takes a growing pleasure in criminal acts and destruction the more she encounters such opportunities. The love of freedom was always present, it just didn’t know how to come out.
The change in Louise, on the other hand, does illustrate a variation of the “transformative violence” that Leo criticizes, but not in a manner that could be easily condemned. While the early portions of the film depict Louise as a strong individual free from the constraints that bind Thelma, she has normal associations with violence that cause her to withdraw from her high-spirited exterior. She questions Thelma’s decision to bring a gun on the trip despite sound (if hysterical) reasoning for bringing it. This suggests an aversion to violence and a familiarity with the tendency of violence to creep out when opportunity arises. That Louise, rather than Thelma, shoots Harlan results not from the flip of a coin, but from the reality that, at this point in the story, only she has seen the face of violence and its recurring nature. She kills Harlan not only out of rage, but out of the knowledge that what has happened before will happen again, as it has to her. She condemns Thelma for glorifying the act, refuses to set foot in Texas (where a violent past incident is hinted at), and watches from the sideline as Thelma coaxes a cop into his own trunk at gunpoint. With Louise, the real effect of violence is explored below the surface, even if the critics miss it behind Thelma’s flashy antics. If anything, it is the quieter Louise who exhibits the film’s real doctrine: freedom is great, but at a certain extreme, freedom will again be lost. Louise represents a “real” woman, if the film contains one, while Thelma would seem slightly crazy in any movie, not a role model but a character of the highest screen order.
The critics of Thelma and Louise can be excused for taking offense to the film’s many extreme stylizations. The men do not look very good, and the women do not take their moment in the spotlight as a chance to behave in a lady-like manner. But as much as the characters may embarrass themselves in the eyes of some, they are still characters in a fictional work with the main goal of entertaining as many people as possible. The critics who bash it, however, live in the real world and their prejudices reflect those of their time (coincidentally the same which the film tries to highlight). Whether they admit it, deny it, or ignore it, those who discuss the film in a context outside of entertainment do so because it depicts strong women taking part in activities normally reserved for men. Complaints that the film mistreats men are weak no matter how intellectualized and over-reasoned, because, no matter how horrible these men look, women have been similarly relegated throughout the history not only of film, but of human existance as a whole. Criticisms that Thelma and Louise make feminism look rash and indefensible come off even worse, because in the end, not only is Thelma and Louise only a movie, it is only a movie that got the mainstream talking about the acceptability of gender roles in America, the ultimate challenge that feminism has always faced. Thelma and Louise is a much more subtle affair than the exploding phallic truck would have one believe, and it had to be in order to generate such varied discussion. Ultimately, the purpose of Thelma and Louise is precisely to generate this kind of talk, although probably not as short-sited as what has resulted. The film does not hate men, it doesn’t hate feminists, and it doesn’t hate movie-goers — no matter how smart they think they are. All it does is give women a chance, and suggests that perhaps others should do the same. Thelma and Louise is that radical.
“Actors: Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Movie Body Counts. Web. .
Benson, Sheila. “True or False: Thelma and Louise Just Good Ol’ Boys?” Los Angeles Times 31 May 1991. Print.
Leo, John. “Toxic Feminism on the Big Screen.” U.S. News and World Report 10 June 1991. Print.
Robinson, John. “The Great Debate over Thelma and Louise.” Boston Globe 14 June 1991. Print.
Thelma and Louise. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. M.G.M., 1991. DVD.