Thelma and Louise' in the Historical Context: Analytical Essay

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‘Thelma and Louise’, written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott, is a drama and mystery film released in 1991. It was a remarkable film at the time, given that it had two strong female leads. It is very representative of the second and third waves of feminism. Although this was not the only film or show displaying feminist ideals at the time, it is one of the most well-known, highly criticized, and controversial because of its differing views and values. ‘Thelma and Louise’ moderates the conflicts between the second and third waves of feminism, and it acts as a tie to bring these two feminist theories together.

Defining the third wave of feminism can be very complicated because there is no singular definition. According to the article, ‘What Is Third-Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay’, written by R. Claire Snyder, the wave has three major parts. The first is that it presents “personal narratives that illustrate an intersectional and multi-perspectival version of feminism”, second, the fact that “third-wavers embrace multivocality over synthesis and action over theoretical justification”, and finally, this wave “emphasizes an inclusive and non-judgmental approach that refuses to police the boundaries of the feminist political” (Snyder 175, 176). In other words, third-wave feminism is attempting to give women their own voice and give them the decision to define what feminism means to them so that they can have their own version, in a sense. It is also very much contemporary. However, this is just one of the many interpretations of third-wave feminism. Another interpretation is that third-wave feminism was seen as “…fun, feminine, and sex-positive” (179). This is where ‘Thelma and Louise’ comes into play. Both women embrace their individuality and sexuality in the film, but do they go too far when trying to find themselves?

The original reviews for the film were very positive. In their reviews, both critics begin their articles with positive attributes of the film. One New York Times movie review from 1991, written by Janet Maslin, states: “‘Thelma and Louise’ can coax a colorful, character-building escapade out of such relatively innocuous beginnings is a tribute to the grace of all concerned, particularly the film's two stars, whose flawless teamwork makes the story gripping and believable from start to finish” (Maslin, 4). I would have to agree that this was an exciting tale about two women on the run, but I feel that I side more with the review written by Tom Mathews. He states in his opening paragraph, “The ‘60s specter of the outlaw anti-hero is updated and given a feminist twist in ‘Thelma and Louise’, an aimless largely unpleasant road movie with a big chip on its shoulder. This man-hating comedy-drama will no doubt attract critical attention for its two female leads, but audiences will take an alternate route past this one (Mathews, R-26). There is a very stark contrast between these reviews. I would assume so because these reviews are particularly gendered. The more positive review was written by a female who loved the empowering nature that this film offered, and the more negative one was written by a male who felt that Thelma and Louise were man-haters and that the film sends negative messages about men.

Fortunately, the journal article ‘The Many Faces of ‘Thelma and Louise’’, brings both these, and some other, contradicting views together. This film has been interpreted in many ways. Some see it as a tragic comedy, some see it as a ‘feminist manifesto’ (Greenberg et. al, 20), while others see it as an unfortunate tale of two women in the wrong place at the wrong time. I see it as a mixture of all three, but watching some of the dumb and naïve decisions, that mostly Thelma made, gave me pain. The journal article has different sections, each written by a different author. The section entitled ‘Thelma and Louise’s Exuberant Polysemy’, written by Harvey Greenberg, states: “Callie Khouri’s script also enhances the film’s ambiguous openness for interpretation by sharply scanting information about the protagonists’ prior lives, except for a few bold strokes. What one gets of the women is essentially what one sees” (Greenberg et al., 21). Given my differing views on this film, I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. I interpret this as a feminist film, it is just hard to discern what type of feminist film it is, given all of its different discourses.

As I stated earlier, the third wave of feminism has no one definition, it is very broad and is open to many interpretations. That is why it is so hard to discern where ‘Thelma and Louise’ lies on this ‘feminism spectrum’. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas sheds some light on this question in her article ‘The F Word: Power and Gender in 'Thelma and Louise'’. One word she uses that struck me was ‘feminisms’ rather than the singular ‘feminism’ (Heller-Nicholas, 1). This helps us understand that feminism or the feminist movement is not one thing, it is much bigger than that. A main feminist point that she points out in the film is that “‘Thelma and Louise’ is about female unity… This feminist fantasy of two women released from the shackles of gender-based oppression who learn to fight back and stand up for themselves…”. She also goes on to say that “…the film suggests that gender struggles are more complex than simply boys versus girls”. This is true because, as it has been said, feminism is a complex subject that is open to interpretation.

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If I had to argue what I believed this film to be, I would have to agree with Heller-Nicholas. I see this as a third-wave feminist film, given that it is all about liberation and fleeing from oppression. I also see hints of the second wave of feminism as well. The second wave of feminism dealt mostly with equal rights and justice. Even though the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were rewritten to ban sexism in the workplace, inequalities still existed and sadly they still exist today. By this, “some deemed these measures insufficient in a country where classified advertisements still segregated job openings by sex, where state laws restricted women’s access to contraception, and where incidences of rape and domestic violence remained undisclosed” (Britannica). This is seen in the film when Thelma was being raped by Harvey and Louise took action and killed him. They felt that they had no other option but to run because they were “…convinced of the futility of justice in a male-dominated court system…” (Man, 40).

The article ‘Gender, Genre, and Myth in 'Thelma and Louise'’, written by Glenn Man, discusses ‘gendered myths’ and their connections to feminist ideas in the film (Man, 36). When discussing the idea of ‘transforming the classical heroine’, Man states that ‘Thelma and Louise’ frames new fantasies for spectator appropriation, those that link the feminist desires within the film’s audience to those of its female protagonists. The attempt is no less to construct a new way of seeing, a new bearer of the look, as it is to deconstruct traditional male structures. Thelma and Louise transform from passive characters into active characters throughout the film. In the beginning, Thelma is controlled directly by her husband’s demands, while Louise is controlled indirectly by her boyfriend. Running away from their old lives to go on adventures at their own will is another way in which they are liberated.

Although there have been three waves of feminism, three defined ones I should say, none of them have really ended. However, there is the idea of postfeminism. To put it simply, postfeminism is more ideas or thoughts about women and their rights that were left out of the first three waves. In other words, it is a “backlash against feminism” (L.S. Kim, 319). Women who are considered ‘postfeminists’ feel that there is nothing more to do because they believe that they have been liberated and have already reached equality. One character who is an example of a postfeminist would be Ally from ‘Ally McBeal’. Ally, along with Carrie and the girls from ‘Sex and the City’, are seen as active characters because “…don’t just fantasize in a surreal world. They don’t just talk, they do; and they don’t just think, they act. They also make mistakes and learn and move on and continue to make choices” (324). However, what is being left out in these shows is men being seen in a positive light (feminism is not about man-hating), women of color, and women acting unselfishly. Sometimes I feel that feminism is an excuse for women to do what is best for them without caring how it makes the other people around them feel. We saw this in ‘Shrill’ as well when Annie attended WAHAM and tackled the idea of ‘self-care’ and what it means to be a woman.

Although the film ‘Thelma and Louise’ was not technically set in the postfeminism era, we can still see these ideas radiate throughout the film. First of all, there is a clear lack of color in the film. All of the characters are white. Secondly, some may view Thelma and Louise as selfish characters. I certainly viewed Thelma as more selfish than Louise. Thelma was definitely the character who needed more liberation given that her husband was emotionally abusive, but she went about in the wrong way, in my opinion. At the bar, the pair stopped at while on the road, Thelma had no regard for Louise when she went dancing with Harvey. She was doing what she thought was best for her at that moment. Then, she slept with J.D. and left the only money they had out, and it was stolen, and because of that, she had to rob a bank, traditionally in film, a male-dominated role, and had no concern for those innocent people whom she scared in the process. Then in the end they do not turn themselves in and they drive off a cliff, and it is unknown to us, viewers, if they survive or not. I understand this was all part of the plot of the movie, but since we are delving deeper, it requires me to think about and critique this underlying message.

After working through all of this, to answer the question that I posed before, did Thelma and Louise go too far? I think in certain areas, yes but they needed this adventure to feel liberated and free. They definitely contradict themselves and their feminist values throughout the film. Yes, women need to stand up for themselves when they know something is wrong, but it is certainly not okay to kill a man in cold blood and flee the scene. Even though there are discrepancies in the movie, “Thelma and Louise overturn the classical paradigm in two important ways. They take over the dominant roles normally assigned to men, and they resist to the end the enticement to compromise or recuperate” (Man, 40). These characters represent and bring the ideas and values of the second and third waves of feminism together, and in doing so, they break the restraints of male-dominated film roles.

Works Cited

    1. Burkett, Elinor, and Laura Burnell, editors. 'Feminism'. Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 5 Mar. 2020. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
    2. Greenberg, Harvey R., et al. 'The Many Faces of 'Thelma and Louise''. Film Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 2, Winter 1991-1992, pp. 20-31. JSTOR. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
    3. Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. 'The F Word: Power and Gender in 'Thelma and Louise'. Screen Education, no. 66, 2012. ProQuest Research Library. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
    4. Kim, L. S. ''Sex and the Single Girl' in Postfeminism: The F Word on Television'. Television and New Media, Nov. 2001, pp. 319-34. SAGE Journals Online. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
    5. Man, Glenn. 'Gender, Genre, and Myth in 'Thelma and Louise''. Film Criticism, vol. 18, no. 1, 1993, pp. 36-53. JSTOR. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
    6. Maslin, Janet. 'On the Run With 2 Buddies and a Gun'. The New York Times [New York], 24 May 1991. The New York Times. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
    7. Matthews, Tom. 'Thelma and Louise'. Review of Thelma and Louise, 1991. Entertainment Industry Magazine, vol. 127, no. 5, 1 May 1991, p. 51. ProQuest Newspapers. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
    8. Snyder, R. Claire. 'What Is Third‐Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay'. The University of Chicago Press Journals, vol. 34, no. 1, Fall 2008, pp. 175-96. JSTOR. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
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