Gender and Genre in Thelma & Louise [Part 1]Marc Ehrenbold
“If it wasn’t for women, us men would still be walking around in skin suits, carrying clubs”
– Ronald Reagan, Aug 1983
The rise of “Post-Feminism”
The 1980’s in America marked a shift from social and political progress to opposition and stagnation for the feminist movement. This came to be known as post-feminism, understood as ‘an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 80s came to be undermined.’ (Angela McRobbie, 2007, p.255). The discourse of post-feminism was a product of a profoundly right wing Republican party that promoted ‘the unravelling of reproductive choice provisions and sustained resistance to affirmative action policies’, arguably preventing the feminist movement from fully achieving its goals after 1980 (Sylvia Bashevkin, 1994, p.670, 679).
Kathy Wilson, a Republican who headed the caucus, ‘said she was reflecting the feelings of most other Republican women . . . in denouncing Mr. Reagan as “a dangerous man” in regard to women’s rights’ (Howell Raines, 1983). Throughout the 80’s and 90’s American women were told by magazines and newspapers that the fight for equality was over but Susan Faludi points out how within this, ‘another message flashes. You may be free and equal now, . . . but you have never been more miserable’ (1992, p.1). Not only were women being falsely told that gender equality had been achieved, they were also being told that it was this very goal, not patriarchy, that was causing an increase in depression.
“The ‘Good Mother’ wins and the Independent Woman gets Punished…”
Faludi challenged this by asking, ‘if women ‘have it all’, then why don’t they have the most basic requirements to achieve equality in the work force?’ (1992, p.6). A 1989 study found that ‘three-quarters of all American high schools still violate[d] the federal law banning sex discrimination in education’ – in colleges female undergraduates received 70% of the financial aid men got and in thirty states it was still ‘generally legal’ for husbands to rape their wives in thirty states (Faludi, 1992, p.6-8). Faludi explains the impact this had on Hollywood, how female characters were often set against each other, how their frustration with social circumstances was often depoliticised and presented as personal depression and, most significantly, how ‘women’s lives were framed as morality tales in which the ‘good mother’ wins and the independent woman gets punished’ (1992, p.141).
Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) was a reaction to this reinforcement of patriarchal values. Callie Khouri’s screenplay focuses on blurring the lines of gender through two female protagonists who break free from the limiting roles given to them by an oppressive society. Thelma & Louise has been branded by some as a male-bashing revenge film, by many as an empowering advocate of gender equality and by others as a traditional buddy adventure film, just with female instead of male heroes. These different interpretations will be analysed with reference to the political and cultural environment that the film was born out of, to help understand the statements on gender equality and gender mobility in what is now seen as a timeless Hollywood hit.
The epigraph from Reagan sums up the attitude towards women at the close of the 20th century, a necessity but only as support for men. This view is clearly evoked in the classic buddy adventure films that preceded Thelma & Louise, examples being Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). Both are clear advocates of counter culture and critical of a capitalist and war mongering America, but neither has any place for a relatable and significant female character. For example, when the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) tells Etta (Katharine Ross), ‘your job is to back me up coz you starve without me!’, he reinforces her role as support for the dominant male who acts as the provider.
Thelma & Louise – “It’s a movie about adventures of women, and that’s rare, . . . and we can’t think of another movie like this”
In Thelma & Louise there is a subversion as the two female protagonists break free from their supporting roles and become independent. In an interview Geena Davis bemoaned how most big films show women being ‘raped or killed’ or as ‘just the girlfriend and the side interest’ whilst the real story is based around ‘men’s experiences and men’s adventures’. Thelma & Louise, however, ‘is a movie about adventures of women, and that’s rare, . . . and we can’t think of another movie like this’ (Judith Michaelson, 12 May 1991).
Nevertheless, Butch Cassidy strongly influenced Callie Khouri’s runaway tale and this is most evident when comparing the loaded endings of the two films. Bernie Cook describes how the conclusion of Thelma & Louise ‘suggests a spatial, cultural, and social limit to their freedom of exploration and self-determination’ (2007, p.32), linking strongly with the freeze frame of Butch and Sundance leaping in to battle to embrace their inevitable death, or freedom, depending on how one looks at it. A similarly ambiguous freeze frame is used in Thelma & Louise with the ford thunderbird flying off the cliff. The paradoxical endings highlight how there is no place in a patriarchal society for the two independent women and there is no room either for the two outlaws in Butch Cassidy who fight against a west country dominated by money and industry. Both films suggest that the oppression and inequality in American society, both old and new, causes death to become a route to freedom. This can be read as a negative statement, offering no hope, or as an eye-opening experience for the audience, thus encouraging an active reaction.
In the context of the feminist movement, which had suffered so many setbacks throughout the 20th century, one can understand Khouri’s frustration at a culture so resistant to change, yet the ending of the film isn’t telling women to give up. It is a call for women to take control of their own emancipation and step away from their supporting role in gender politics. The polaroid representing Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise’s (Susan Sarandon) old selves flies out the car as they link hands and accelerate away from an army of men, implying that they are not flying to their death, but flying to their metaphorical liberation, much like Butch and Sundance.
“What the hell’s wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about!”
The eccentric adventures of Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) in Easy Rider can also be compared to those of Thelma and Louise. Hopper’s classic is clear in its critique of America as the so called ‘land of the free’ and this is accentuated in the conversation between George (Jack Nicholson) and Billy (Dennis Hopper);
George: What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell’s wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about!
George: It’s real hard to be free when you’re bought and sold at the market place. But don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free cos they gonna get real busy killing and maiming people to prove to you that they are.
Thelma and Louise free themselves from their limited lives and are chased to their deaths just like George, Billy and Wyatt creating a clear line of influence. In Easy Rider the protagonists are killed by a society that rejects them, but in Thelma & Louise the heroines choose to carry on driving to continue making their own decisions – an agency that was the essence of their freedom.
Despite the ideological similarities, women are presented as a weak ‘plot-trigger; precipitating the hero’s personal evolution’ in their role as ‘sex providers’ in Easy Rider, contrasting with the empowered Thelma and Louise (Carmen I. Eraso, 2001, p.64). Khouri claimed that Thelma & Louise ‘isn’t the story of two women who become feminists; it’s the story of two women who become outlaws’, yet by subverting the gender roles, the film automatically takes a feminist stance (Francke Izzie, 1991, p.17). Sarandon recently stated that, ‘when we were making it, we weren’t making a feminist film – we were making a buddy film’ implying that it has only been branded as feminist due to viewers not being used to powerful female characters in mainstream cinema (Nigel M. Smith, 2016). Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy didn’t receive the same amount of opposition to their depictions of rebellion and this was due to their male protagonists.
The marketing of Thelma & Louise supports Khouri’s claim that it’s not a feminist film and Figure. 1 shows how it was presented before being branded as such. The image is vibrant and positive and evokes a fun buddy/road trip kind of feel, ‘thus, viewers and critics were prepared by the poster for a film without its crucial elements of sexual assault, murder, flight from (male) authority, female violent agency, capture, and suicide’ (Cook, 2007, p.17). These themes created a surprise element that no doubt contributed towards the whirlwind of controversy that followed the release. The omission of these themes from the advertisements allowed the film to be seen as simply a buddy road movie by the audience, something many critics couldn’t accept because the buddy genre had always been synonymous with male protagonists.
Ordinary or Dangerous?
There are two dominant views of the heroines that have monopolised responses since the film’s release and Harvey R. Greenberg summarises them; ‘the heroines are ordinary women, driven to extraordinary ends by male oppression’ or, ‘the heroines are dangerous phallic caricatures of the very macho violence they’re supposedly protesting’ (1991-92, p.20). The fluidity of gender roles and the menial parts played by men caused a variety of negative responses suggesting that the film doesn’t only stand as a modern adaptation of the early road films, but also as a critique of gender politics in Hollywood and society in general.
The most famous attack came from John Leo who claimed the film promoted a violent male-bashing revenge and branded it a ‘small-hearted, extremely toxic film, about as morally and intellectually screwed up as a Hollywood movie can get’ (1991). The description of women committing similar crimes of violence and rebellion on screen that men had been indulging in for decades as ‘toxic’ sheds a bright light on the gender inequality during the Reagan/Bush era.
Throughout the film the two heroines encounter men with whom they clash, either narratively or ideologically, resulting in a rapist being fatally shot, a policeman being locked in a car boot and a trucker’s oil tanker being blown up. Leo was angered by this because, according to him, ‘it is very difficult for moviegoers, particularly women, to bail out emotionally and distance themselves from the apocalyptic craziness’ (ibid) when, in the same year, Terminator 2 (James Cameron, 1991) presents a literal apocalypse during which Linda Hamilton’s character is graphically melted by a nuclear explosion and countless men are gunned down or stabbed. It seems that the violence in Cameron’s top grossing blockbuster is acceptable due to the presence of male heroes alongside the notably unemotional and masculinised female heroine, but in Thelma & Louise there are no male characters looking after the two women causing a loss of control.
Leo believed that the film glorifies this dangerous chaos and that women are especially susceptible to copying the actions of the protagonists. Finally, he bemoaned that ‘all males in this movie exist only to betray, ignore, sideswipe, penetrate or arrest our heroines’, creating a biased attack on men rather than just a buddy film with women at the helm (ibid). The views of Leo can once again be closely linked to the discourse of the time, women had allegedly gained equality and therefore any protest was seen as an unjustified slandering of the male gender.
“what is a gun but, of course, the ultimate signifier of both masculinity and law?”
Alongside John Leo, there were also female critics who saw the film as detrimental towards the progress of women in society. Sheila Benson called for the severing of the link between feminism and Thelma & Louise and stated, ‘as I understand it, feminism has to do with responsibility, equality, sensitivity, understanding – not revenge, retribution or sadistic behaviour’ (1991, F1). She goes on to say that, ‘rather than being equals, the men are drawn for the express purpose of being toppled, fatally or otherwise’ (ibid). Benson also described the ending as ‘downbeat’ and claimed that ‘their fate all along had been determined by men, not their own choice’ causing the theory that links their demise with a sense of freedom to be flipped (ibid). Joan Smith similarly described how the effect of the ending ‘is, perversely, to reinforce the message that women cannot win’ which she sees as a destructive, rather than an eye-opening message (1991, p.17).
A proportion of men and women saw the film as regressive and ‘central to many criticisms of feminism at this time was the stereotypical figure of the male-bashing feminist, who wanted to gain power by taking that of men’ (Marita Sturken, 2000, p.12). There is evidence in the film to support these arguments as the two heroines become markedly more masculine throughout the film, a change that seems to increase with each crime or rebellious action taken, whilst the male characters are antagonised throughout. The close-up shot of the gun pressed against Harlan’s neck can be seen as the moment when the power shifts from man to woman yet, ‘what is a gun but, of course, the ultimate signifier of both masculinity and law?’ (Sturken, 2000, p.61).
[Part 2 to follow]