Gender and Genre in Thelma & Louise [part 2]Marc Ehrenbold
. . . 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).
Sturken agrees that the gun, a phallic symbol of masculinity, allows the women to take control of their bodies and their lives in the face of patriarchal control, ‘the possession of the gun allows Thelma to get them money and gives her a new-found confidence. It allows them to teach the truck driver a lesson, to put the all-knowing policeman in his place and to keep going towards the border’ (ibid). Thelma’s confrontation with J.D. (Brad Pitt) leads to her learning how to conduct a robbery, a lesson she puts in to practice when raiding a convenience store. She also ‘imitates the policeman’s manner of speech, ordering him to “step to the back of the car” in the same way he had ordered Louise’ (Sturken, 2000, p.59). The appearances of both characters become more masculine throughout as sleeves are rolled up and hairstyles change, Thelma even acquires the cap of the emasculated truck driver.
“I liked it, but women are different. Why not a different story?”
Emerging from this is the theory that Thelma and Louise gained their power by taking on male traits and committing violent crimes in a revenge spree against patriarchy. For John Leo this provokes violence and ideas of revenge amongst the female audience whereas for Benson and Smith it’s antifeminist due to overriding themes of masculinity and a discordance of femininity. Peter Rainer aptly exclaims that ‘women have as much right to their road-movie shoot ‘em ups as men, but that doesn’t negate the overheard comment of one woman as she left the theatre after the screening: “I liked it, but women are different. Why not a different story?”’ (1991: OCF4).
By imitating the male buddy/adventure films, Thelma & Louise supposedly becomes unfeminine but why is masculinity only associated with men and femininity only associated with women? Cook describes the film as ‘profoundly polyphonic’ in the way it offers viewers ‘ways of crossing gender and identity, of gaining insight into the interrelations of gender and violence’. Additionally, the film suggests that ‘violent agency was not exclusively a male privilege’, an assertion that stirred up controversy in the aftermath of its release (2007, p.1,2). Sturken supports this by confirming that ‘the controversy surrounding this film was deeply rooted in its demand for cross-gender identification’, meaning that men would have to identify with female characters and feminine themes, something that most had never been asked to do before (2000, p.84-85).
“The film is presenting gender as a construct and highlighting, for the benefit of both men and women, that the roles given to them do not have to be the roles performed”
By the end of the film, ‘both characters have shifted from initial fixity (imprisonment in rigid, narrow gender and class roles) to dynamic hybridity: each now incorporates an aspect of the other, and both women have adopted signs (costume) and postures (bodily compartment) associated with male outlaws.’ (cook, 2007, p.7). The evolution of their personalities and appearances resonates as a call for women to reject the limiting roles offered to them by society in the 70s and 80s.
In response to the claim that the heroines adhere too much to masculine traits, one can argue that they do not solely become male outlaws but instead become hybrids of both genders. This is made clear when they seduce the chauvinistic truck driver before destroying his vehicle using Thelma’s gun. They use the role as the ‘temptress’, that society and Hollywood had given women for so long, to their advantage thus highlighting the merging of masculine and feminine aspects in their characters. This suggests that the film is presenting gender as a construct and highlighting, for the benefit of both men and women, that the roles given to them do not have to be the roles performed; ‘the film itself repeatedly emphasises that gender is a social construct, performed and not essential, opening possibilities for mobile identification’ (Cook, 2007, p.27-28).
Thelma starts off as a naïve and bored house wife but ends up as an independent and cool-headed outlaw who makes the emphatic decision to ‘carry on’ over the cliff. The turning point for this transformation is when J.D steals Louise’s money causing her to lose control for the first time. Thelma has recently freed herself from the clutches of her oppressive husband through a sexual encounter with J.D, giving her the necessary confidence to replace Louise as the driving force of the narrative and she exclaims, ‘something’s crossed over me, and I can’t go back’. This refers to her transformation that is partially owed to an increase in masculinity, but also due to an increased understanding and liberation of her femininity. The underlying point is that if men can be shown on screen as killers and law breakers then why can’t women?
John Leo’s theory that this causes women to copy the actions of the heroines is countered by Khouri when she exclaims, ‘people say Thelma and Louise are not role models, well they were never intended as role models, for god’s sake. I don’t want anybody doing anything they saw in this movie. They are outlaws who should be punished and are’ (1991, c21). The idea that women can be dangerously influenced by relatable cinema whilst men can sit safely whilst watching the terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) gun down his enemies in his iconic sunglasses is a clear indicator of gender imbalance.
Praise for Thelma & Louise
Despite the criticisms, Thelma & Louise also attracted a massive amount of positive press in the immediacy of its release. Janet Maslin creates a comparison with the summer of 1990,
The season of the sky-high body count, with Arnold Schwarzenegger blasting his way across mars in “Total Recall” (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), all of whose female characters were prostitutes. In “Another 48 Hours” (Walter Hill, 1980), a buddy film tailored to more conventional tastes, Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte killed enemy after enemy without batting an eye. So, once again, what’s so egregious about “Thelma & Louise”?’ (1991, p. H11)
She makes the point that, compared to the male-dominated action films, Callie Khouri’s road movie possesses hardly any violence at all causing criticisms from writers such as Sheila Benson to appear to be based around the characters’ genders rather than their actions. Maslin goes on to explain that the complaints about violence are in fact a foil for another issue, ‘it’s something as simple as it is powerful: the fact that men in this story don’t really matter. . . For male characters perhaps this is a novelty, but women in road movies have always been treated in precisely the same way’ (ibid).
According to Maslin, men are not being attacked in Thelma & Louise, they are just placed in the periphery in the same way women have been in the majority of Hollywood productions. She offers a unique analysis when stating that it ‘offers transcendence, not instruction’ (ibid), linking with Khouri’s claim that ‘this is a movie about outlaws, and it’s not fair to judge it in terms of feminism’ (Larry Rohter, 1991, p. c21). The story offers a third way of looking at gender with the intermingling of masculinity and femininity but one could say that this has been mistaken as an attempt to emasculate men whilst empowering women to create a new gender hierarchy.
A Lasting Impact or Continued Relevance?
The merging of gender roles should be seen as a step towards equality, where both male and female individuals can take on whatever role they choose without being limited within a single stereotype of masculinity or femininity. This, of course, benefits women more than men in the film due to the discourse being that of female liberation, an obvious stumbling block for patriarchal males. Rita Kempley’s observations are also significant as she believed that the film marked a turning point for women both on and off screen, she declared that it is ‘off the shoulder and ahead of the curve’ and ‘if The Witches of Eastwick (George Miller, 1987) marked a turn against faltering feminism, Thelma & Louise signals the end of the detour.’ (1991, p. B1). Unfortunately, the screenplay did not act as a pivotal moment for gender equality or mobility in either Hollywood or the real world but Thelma & Louise has retained its powerful impact due to its continued relevance.
2016 was the 25th anniversary of the film and Geena Davis offered her views on its long-term impact, ‘as time wore on I realised – so every few years a movie comes out starring women and does great. … Twenty-five years later, it’s astounding to realise that things have not changed in any way.’ (Andrea Mandell, 2016). One could certainly argue that the film would be just as relevant if released today due to the issues on gender inequality and intensifying conservatism still being prominent in both Hollywood and American politics.
“only 23% of speaking characters in action films during this period were female, some twenty years after the release of Thelma & Louise”
In 2006 Davis founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media which has, according to the official website, ‘pioneered and amassed the largest body of research on gender prevalence in family entertainment spanning over 25 years’. One study focused on the female characters in the ten most popular films in eleven different countries to assess whether gender bias still existed in film on a global scale between 2010 and 2013. The ‘Research reveals that the percentage of female speaking characters in top-grossing movies has not changed in roughly half of a century.’ (Dr. Stacy L. Smith, 2014, p.1). The ratio between male and female speaking characters was 2.24:1.00 and only 12 of the movies (10%) ‘featured girls/women in 45%-54.95% of all speaking roles.’ (ibid, p.2). The study also showed that women are massively under-represented as workers on screen, in American films only 23.2% of the on-screen work force are women compared to 46.3% in the real world; ‘given that movies can set an agenda for the next generation entering the workforce, the lack of females in the labour market is a concern.’ (ibid, p.8).
Arguably most relevant, is the fact that only 23% of speaking characters in action films during this period were female, some twenty years after the release of Thelma & Louise. This study only offers an insight in to popular cinema however, and the statistics are likely to be different if, for example, more independent films were included due to the fact that often women ‘have preferred to keep the studios (and their controlling influence) at arm’s length.’ (Linda R. Williams, 2006, p.303). Thelma & Louise did not mark the turning point that so many thought it would but in a way, this can be seen to have helped the film’s success by keeping it relevant. The film challenges the consistent male gaze that seeks to present women on screen as the ‘bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.’ (Mulvey, 1975, p.7).
The heroines are still subject to this gaze throughout the film but in a different way, ‘Thelma & Louise gaze back, they look with agency, if not desire, and they question many of the gazes upon them.’ (Sturken, 2000 p.81). They refuse to allow men to enjoy the gaze in a sexual way when they blow up the sexist hick’s truck and they even subvert the whole concept when Thelma gazes at J.D’s backside in her wing-mirror. Very few films have been as successful as Thelma & Louise in challenging Hollywood’s degrading sexualisation of women in such a direct and effective way, whilst also achieving box office success.
Resisting the Remake
There has been recent talk of a remake of the cult classic which could reignite the flames of female empowerment in a Hollywood era that has been tainted by sexual abuse and intimidation, but one could argue that a remake is the wrong decision. What is really needed is more contemporary films inspired by Thelma & Louise, rather than a following of the Hollywood money-making script with a remake. The film is essentially based around all white characters, apart from one bizarre scene with a Rastafarian cyclist who symbolically blows smoke in to the trunk of the police car, and this can be seen as a product of, and limitation of the time period.
Today there is room for so much more and there is arguably a larger need for films that incorporate the ideas on gender mobility presented in Thelma & Louise. The way the film challenged the norm caused it to become a major box office success grossing in excess of forty-five million U.S dollars highlighting that counter-culture films can still be successful both morally and economically, so why do more not exist?
Hollywood films to Provide an Escape whilst also Provoking Thought
The problem with mainstream cinema today is that it’s based around special effects and spectacle. Robin Wood claimed that the audience are reduced to childhood by such films and his theories remain extremely relevant today:
‘Crucial here, no doubt, is the urge to evade responsibility – responsibility for actions, decisions, thought, responsibility for changing things: children do not have to be responsible, there are older people to look after them. That is one reason why these films must be intellectually undemanding.’ (Wood, 1986, p.165)
According to Wood, the majority of people who go to the cinema or watch films online are seeking an escape and want to relax without having to think too much and this has resulted in a fear of producing politically loaded films in Hollywood studios. suppressive, traditional gender roles are still being reinforced by the majority of Hollywood movies, when in the real world they are being challenged rigorously. Hollywood cinema must become less conservative in its outlook to allow the production of films that challenge the norm and open the eyes of the viewer to chauvinism and other forms of discrimination. Thelma & Louise is a hybrid in the way it both entertains and challenges the mind of the spectator and this formula remains capable of providing a springboard for a new breed of Hollywood cinema that provokes thought alongside enjoyment.
References [part 1 & 2]
- Benson, Sheila, ‘Thelma & Louise: Good ol’ boys?’, Los Angeles Times, (31 May, 1991) p. F1
- Bashevkin, Sylvia, ‘Facing a Renewed Right: American Feminism and the Reagan/Bush Challenge’, in Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 27, No. 4, (Canadian Political Science Association, 1994) pp. 669-698
- Choueiti Marc, Pieper Katherine & Smith, Stacy L., ‘Gender Bias Without Borders: an investigation of female characters in popular films across 11 countries’ Geena Davis Institute, Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, (2014)
- Cook, Bernie, ‘Thelma & Louise Live!: The Cultural Afterlife of an American Film’, first edition, (University of Texas Press, 2007, Austin)
- Eraso, Carmen I. ‘Thelma & Louise: ‘Easy Riders’ in A Male Genre’, in Atlantis 23 no. 1 (AEDEAN, June 2001), pp.63-73
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- Kempley, Rita, ‘Thelma & Louise: In the Hammer Lane’, The Washington Post, (24 May, 1991), p. B1
- Leo, John, ‘Toxic Feminism on the Big Screen’, U.S. News & World Report. (October 6, 1991), vol.110 Issue 22, p.20.
- Mandell, Andrea, ’25 years later, Geena Davis reflects on ‘Thelma & Louise’’, USA Today, (23 May, 2016)
- Maslin, Janet, ‘Lay off ‘Thelma and Louise’’, New York Times, (16 June, 1991), p.H11
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- Michaelson, Judith, ‘Downright Serious’, Los Angeles Times, (12 May, 1991) p. F5
- Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and narrative Cinema’, in Screen, 16.3 (Oxford Journals, 1975)
- Rainer, Peter, ‘The movie plugs into the anger of women in Hollywood…’ Los Angeles Times, (31 May, 1991), p. OCF4
- Raines, Howell, ‘President is Assailed by Women’s Leader’, Special to the New York Times, New York Times (10 July, 1983) p.1
- Rohter, Larry, ‘The Third Woman of Thelma & Louise’, The New York Times, (05 June 1991) p. C21.
- Smith, Joan, ‘Road Testing: The Critique’, The Guardian, (London, July 9, 1991), pg. 17
- Smith, Nigel M., ‘Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis: Hollywood hasn’t had an epiphany since Thelma & Louise’ The Guardian, (Cannes, 16 May, 2016,) URL: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/16/susan-sarandon-geena-davis-hollywood-thelma-louise-feminist-gender-equality accessed: 29/12/2016
- Sturken, Marita, ‘Thelma & Louise’, (British Film Institute, 2000, United Kingdom)
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