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Thelma and Louise: 20 Years On

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by Katrina Gulliver

Has it really been twenty years since Thelma and Louise was released? I hadn’t seen it again since it opened, but it was certainly an indelible influence on me at the time, as a protofeminist pre-teen, and it stuck with me more than other films I saw at that age.

To celebrate the anniversary, I decided to watch it again. For those who never saw it or whose memories have fogged over two decades, Thelma and Louise is the story of two friends: a waitress (Louise) and a housewife (Thelma) from Arkansas who head off in a 1966 T-Bird to spend a few days in a cabin by a lake. Their trip turns sour when they stop at a bar on the way. Thelma gets very drunk, and dances with a man who later tries to rape her in the car park. Louise shoots Thelma’s attacker, and here the real adventure begins.

Thelma’s first instinct is to go to the police, until Louise reminds her that a hundred people saw her dancing cheek to cheek with her attacker, and asks who would believe her story? Louise says “We don’t live in that kind of a world”. So they run. Of course, this took place before cellphones and GPS, the opportunity to run was greater in some ways. But it isn’t long before the police are on their trail.

From this point, their story becomes a contemporary western. There is no single antagonist for our heroines; their “enemy” is society at large. However, even the cop leading the pursuit (played by Harvey Keitel) feels empathy for them, and shows he understands their plight in a way that no other characters do.

While they are sexually harassed, belittled, and betrayed by the men around them, Louise’s personal history as a victim of sexual violence – and the legal response to it – is key. Louise states “You get what you settle for”. They also represent a brand of Southern womanhood who would not leave the house without lipstick. Retouching their hair and makeup is a recurring element, and in one scene where Louise sees other women looking at her in a way that seems judgmental, she instinctively checks her lipstick. This element is easily dismissed as disempowered, but self-presentation can be a way of self-validation. It is not code here for vapidity or desperation for male attention.

They led the way for the feminism of the 1990s, riotgrrrl culture, and a more raw (and diverse) imagining of female freedoms. Women like Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill could not have existed before Thelma and Louise. To the extent that they were inheritors of the Western, they helped to create the role of the kickass woman (taking on some aspects from Ripley in the Aliens series – although a key difference of course is that her foes were in no way connected to current society, or even human).

But some of the “feminist” movies that followed in fact retreated, by focusing only on the white and educated. Such iterations of female empowerment like the First Wives Club, with their message of taking the husband to the cleaners in divorce court: they explicitly link the woman’s value to that of the man she married. If she managed to snag a medical student on his way to becoming a top cardiac surgeon, then she’s worth more than a woman who married a guy earning minimum wage. The “don’t get mad, get everything” mantra rings pretty hollow to a woman when everything might be a pile of past-due bills and a house with a mortgage that’s underwater. Taking him for “all he’s worth” implicitly indicates that some wives are only worth a six pack and a car up on blocks. This is a particularly disempowering message to send.

Thelma and Louise wrote their own version of emancipatory feminism, for women in low-wage occupations, the kind often left out by feminist discourse, who are not “allowed” to seek freedom in the same way. They are not women looking to “have it all” – both are childless, and the idea of children is never mentioned. The film was about pursuing goals as individuals, not as wives, or mothers. About a type of freedom long afforded to men, particularly in the Western genre. They solve some problems – meting out justice as deserved – then head on down the road. Yes, they stole money out of desperation, but their goal wasn’t criminal. Thelma muses at one point that when they get to Mexico, she wants to work at Club Med. Not stay there, work there. Thelma and Louise consistently installs great value in women in blue-collar occupations. A waitress at the roadhouse where the shooting has taken place, says while being questioned by the police, “If waiting tables in a bar don’t make you an expert on human nature, nothing will”.

It’s also about Thelma’s development. Having been married at 16 to the only man she’d ever dated, who is boorish and probably unfaithful, her home life seems to encapsulate soul-destroying suburban ennui. In this sense, she could be an inheritor of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, although she would not have read it. She changes in the course of the movie, from a shy housewife to an armed robber. As she says to the stunned Louise after she holds up a convenience store, “something’s crossed over in me; I can’t go back”.

Their friendship is stronger than their bonds to the men in their lives. This kind of same-sex camaraderie is a classic trope of male adventures, war stories, buddy movies, but is more often demonstrated in women as the theme of comedies: Sex and the City, for instance. We need to look to fantasy fare such as Xena: Warrior Princess to find a narrative based around two heterosexual women to whom male relationships are secondary. Although we have seen more female-driven films and TV, the mode in which a romantic dénouement with a man is the goal is still dominant. One truth was told in First Wives’ Club that there are only three ages of women in Hollywood: Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy. In defying that model, Thelma and Louise blazed a trail that few films have followed.

One journalist, writing on the death of the femme fatale, says she doesn’t exist in films now, because today’s heroine doesn’t need a man to do her dirty work. Attempting to use their sexuality to lure men into helping them is one strategy Thelma and Louise don’t employ. The women who came after them onto the big screen owe them a debt.

When I first saw it, I wasn’t aware of the controversy it inspired, and the accusations of “toxic feminism”. I just thought Thelma and Louise were awesome. At one point, they live out many a woman’s fantasy of delivering retribution to such jerks when they blow up the rig of a truck driver who has verbally harassed them on the road. Being tall for my age, I started getting that kind of verbal street harassment young, when I was around 11. I found it frightening. So Thelma and Louise came along at the right time,  offering me a view of women being empowered, and telling those guys to go to hell.

Rather than a showdown with their enemies (like Butch and Sundance), they are fleeing their pursuers. That they view death as their only outlet is one tragic reading of this feminist parable. Instead of seeing it as a punishment for women’s freedom, I prefer Callie Khouri’s interpretation. Commenting on the ending, she said:

“I don’t even think of them as dead…They flew away, out of this world and into the mass unconscious. Women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough to support them…After all they went through I didn’t want anybody to be able to touch them.”

Twenty years later, they are still flying.

Images from Thelma and Louise, Metro Goldwyn Meyer, 1991


About the Author:

Katrina Gulliver is a research fellow in history at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. Her book, Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars, will be published by I. B. Tauris later this year.