Thelma and Louise (1991)

Director: Ridley Scott

Production Company: MGM

 

 

I.                   Characters

 

Louise

Thelma

Hal Slocomb

J.D.

Jimmy

Darryl

Harland

 

II.                Theme

A.     Two Critical Perspectives:

                                                               i.      This film attempts to deconstruct gender roles, particularly those associated with women, and redefine a new feminine space outside of patriarchal control

1.      The film attempts to do this in a number of ways:

2.      Road Movie Genre:  generally a male genre because it involves outlaws and fugitives who try to confront the Establishment (I.e., Easy Rider); however, Ridley Scott reappropriates this genre for female characters who become fugitives after leaving stereotypical feminine roles of wife and waitress, drive a 1966 Thunderbird convertible (an old model which suggests it has been passed down to the women from men who we can assume formerly drove it), and take a route from Arkansas to Mexico that is different from the route that is accepted by male reasoning.

3.      Opening credits:  The opening credits foreshadow the conclusion or resolution of the film.  The opening credit are shot in the desert with the mountains in the distance as the focal point.  Traditionally, the desert was the setting for the classic western, a genre with focuses on masculinity and male independence.  The mountains in the background which must be overcome or dealt with represent the female experience in a stereotypically male domain.  Like the western, Thelma and Louise leave civilization to try to escape the patriarchal domain, yet at the end of the film, they drive to the edge of the Grand Canyon—a helicopter rises up out of the Grand Canyon so that they run back into the patriarchy they were trying to escape from.

4.      The Inversion of Spaces:

 

Male Space:

*The open road----------get feminized later in film

*Darryl’s car

 

 

Female Space:

*Thelma’s house (kitchen)---------get masculinized later in film:  Darryl and the cops take over Thelma’s house 

*Louise’s diner                    and set around and watch “girlie” movies

 

 

a.       Women seem to be more comfortable in the male space—Thelma repeatedly comments,“I seem to have a knack for this shit” to which

      Louise replies, “I think you do.”

b.       The men, on the other hand, are less comfortable in the feminine space because they can’t find an alpha dog—Darryl tells the policemen to wipe their feet—cops try to instruct Darryl on how to be nice to his wife because “women like that shit”—they have to move to patio because indoors is too crowded—no intimacy

5.      Appropriation of the Male Gaze[1]: 

1.      In her seminal 1975 work, Laura Mulvey asserted that the dominant male gazes in mainstream Hollywood films reflect and satisfy the male unconscious: most filmmakers are male, thus the voyeuristic gaze of the camera is male; male characters in the film’s narratives make women the object of their gaze; and inevitably the spectator’s gaze reflects the voyeuristic male gazes of the camera and the male actors.  The result is film narratives that marginalize women and encourage spectator identification with male protagonists.

2.      Brenda Cooper argues that Thelma and Louise creates instead a female gaze by:

1.      Resistance to male objectification and dominance through the protagonists’ mockery of the key male characters—Daryl, the law enforcement officers, the leering truck driver, and Harlan

2.      “Returning the Look” by making men spectacles of female attention, particularly J.D.

3.      The Celebration of women friendships.

1.      Mockery

1.      Exaggeration of the men’s chauvinist attitudes

a.       Darryl: (1) In the opening scene in which Thelma is working up the courage to ask Darryl for permission to take the weekend trip with Louise, she stalls first by asking if he’d like “anything special” for dinner.  While Darryl continues to primp his overmoussed hair, he chastises Thelma as if she were a child: “I don’t give shit what we have for dinner.  I may not even be home for dinner.  You know how Fridays are.”  When Thelma responds—“Funny how so many people want to buy carpet on a Friday night”—spectators know that Thelma is passively mocking her philandering husband for assuming she’s naïve enough to believe his story about working late.  This scene encourages spectators to share Thelma’s gaze and participate in her mockery , making it easy to laugh when Darryl slips and falls while getting into his bright red Corvette convertible (a macho symbol in itself.) (2) Thelma’s initial telephone conversation with him.

b.      Law Enforcement:  State Trooper, Max (the FBI officer)

 

c. The Truck Driver:  (1) The trucker’s overt sexism (2)  In their 3rd encounter with the trucker, they try to

teach him a lesson, but he does not understand their point—men rely on power not communication.  The scene is also shot to show Thelma and Louise’s point of view.  The truck serves as a phallic symbol and represents the trucker’s masculinity, which the women take away.  This scene is juxtaposed to the black biker blowing smoke in the air holes of the trunk of the police car—actions of another minority support women’s actions.

c.       Harlan:  His pick-up lines to Thelma in the Silver Bullet club are so juvenile and sexist—“Now what are a couple of Kewpie dolls like you doing in a place like this?” and “It’s hard not to notice two such pretty ladies as yourself”—that Harlan is depicted as comical.  And when Louise and the night club waitress roll their eyes and exchange a “knowing” look in response to Harlan’s crude flirting, spectators are encouraged to share that knowledge; women especially can participate vicariously in the mockery of Harlan.  From the first words he utters, Harlan is presented to viewers as chauvinistic, unsympathetic, and simultaneously laughable and dangerous character, a depiction that again challenges the male gaze that has dominated mainstream Hollywood films.

 

2.      “Returning the Look”

1. Thelma and Louise refuse to yield to the male gaze:  They “speak” female desire

2. J.D.’s character and Thelma’s attraction to him function as narrative devices to represent Thelma’s liberation  

    from her passivity, allowing her to become an assertive initiator and actor in her relations to men.

     

3.  Not only does Thelma gain sexual liberation in her relationship with J.D., she also gains the opportunity to play

out his life story, to adopt a dominant male role when she performs her gun waving bandit act which J.D. taught her.”

                                                                                          4.  Thelma and Louise “speak female desire” , while simultaneously mocking Darryl’s ineptitude that left Thelma

sexually unfulfilled during years of her marriage.  Further, Louise is happy that her best friend has finally been laid properly:  “Oh darlin’, I’m so happy for you.  That’s great.”  Here the women’s “girl talk” mocks standard male “locker room” bragging:  Thelma and Louise appreciate and share the intimacy of Thelma’s sexual awakening, bonding in a way that ridicules the macho bravado typical in media depictions of men’s discussions of their sexual conquests.

3.      Celebration of Women’s Friendships

1.      The women take care of each other, exchanging the roles of protector and caretaker symmetrically:  in other words, neither competes to be the one in charge, each assuming that role when necessary when the other falters.

a.       Costuming: 

 

Louise(Archtypal Male)                                    Thelma  (Archetypal Female)

                                                                                                            *white blouse with long sleeves             *halter-type blouse             

                                                                                                            and buttoned to the neck

                                                                                                            *Jeans                                                              *Denim skirt

                                                                                                            *Tidy hairdo                                                     *”Let’s her hair down”

                                                                                                                                                                                    *Later wears bikini

 

b.      This initial costuming establishes a revised relationship where men are not needed—Louise is initially the alpha dog, and Thelma is the follower—Louise wants Thelma to get out of her marriage and see Darryl as a dog. Later, these roles are reversed when J.D. steals Louise’s life savings and Louise collapses on the motel floor and breaks into tears.  At this point, Thelma takes charge:  “Louise, hey.  Now you listen to me, you hear me?  Come on, stand up.  Louise don’t you worry about it.”  Thelma later claims she has a knack for crime, which is generally defined as a male act.  In her first criminal act, she uses the lines she learned from J.D. to rob the store.  When she holds the gun on the police officer, she begins to make up her own lines, which suggests she has more ability to surpass cultural lines than Louise.  Ultimately, the decision to jump off the cliff is Thelma’s.

2.      Thelma and Louise deny a major patriarchal myth when they reject the notion that the only way a woman can live “happily ever after” is with the right man.  Thelma and Louise mock sexism and resist patriarchal control over their lives.  Their ultimate suicide is “heroic” because Thelma and Louise are triumphant in death.  Death allows them to “keep on going.”  Life would have meant confinement, in prison or in marriage.

 

 

  



[1] Cooper, Brenda.  “’Chick Flicks as Feminist Texts:  The Appropriation  of the Male Gaze in Thelma and Louise.