Film

Feel Good, Fatalist Feminism: The Cult of Two Bitches in a Car

11 July 2016

“I guess I went a little crazy, huh?”

“No, you’ve always been crazy; this is just the first chance you’ve had to really express yourself.”

Ridley Scott may have hinted at his female-led action blockbuster potential with Alien, but if you’re a woman and you like seeing women doing rad things on the silver screen, you first and foremost have to thank him for a little road movie called Thelma and Louise. Written by Callie Khouri in her screenwriting debut, the film was rebuffed by networks when Scott originally shopped it around. “It’s two bitches in a car,” an unnamed exec reportedly told him, “I don’t get it!”

Millions of women got it. Almost trebling its budget of $16 million, Thelma and Louise rose to icon status by providing for an extremely undernourished market – one that producers didn’t seem to think existed – of women who wanted to experience an onscreen escape through characters that actually resembled them. It’s a film that, in the words of an LA activist quoted in Time magazine’s (front page) piece on the film, “tells the downright truth”.

Slotting neatly into the road movie and buddy film genres, Thelma and Louise benefits from the somewhat paradoxical facts that it heavily resembles films traditionally about men and that it could not have been made about anyone but two women.

The film picks up in the southern US state of Arkansas, where Louise works in a diner and Thelma tiptoes around her domineering husband. A break from their drudging realities presents itself in the form of a weekend trip to Louise’s friend’s cabin; Thelma, knowing Darryl (“is he your husband, or your father?”) would never willingly let her go, leaves him a note and some dinner to microwave. The two then tear off in Louise’s sea green Thunderbird.

Looking for a snapshot of freedom from lives they’ve “settled for”, Thelma and Louise end up finding themselves in “Deep Shit, Arkansas” after Thelma, having had a few drinks and a line dance at a roadhouse, is violently attacked in the parking lot by her dance partner. Louise apprehends and eventually kills him with a gun Thelma brought along for “psycho killers, bears or snakes!”

“Shouldn’t we go to the police?” Thelma asks as they’re fleeing the crime scene. Lousie yells, “Who’s gonna believe that? We don’t live in that kind of a world, Thelma!” – So the two go on the run. It’s a stark portrayal of sexual assault and its aftermath, particularly for the time – and yet Louise’s reasoning makes immediate sense to current audiences.

Thelma and Louise certainly doesn’t pull any punches or treat lightly its heavy subject matter but it manages to be a feel-good movie regardless (as the genre demands). Between discussions about unspeakable things they’ve done and had done to them, Thelma and Louise have highway singalongs with their hair whipping round their faces and enjoy a kind of freedom neither one of them would have believed possible days earlier. It’s exactly this type of freedom – reckless, unrestrained and unanswerable to anyone but oneself – that excited female viewers in 1991 and that still wields enormous cathartic power.

It’s not a perfect feminist film and I doubt it was trying to be, but Thelma and Louise is pure wish-fulfilment on a scale unknown to female audiences at the time. Sure, there’s the short-term and yes, sometimes cheap satisfaction of violent revenge against initial male violence and disrespect – particularly the scene in which Thelma and Louise, having failed to extract an apology from the truck driver harassing them, shoot at his fuel tanker until it explodes and then drive around him in circles, “hollering” in the way Thelma’s husband tells her he hates – but Thelma and Louise cuts deeper as a feminist film by acknowledging that the system, and the odds, are stacked against us.

When, in the middle of the film, Louise, previously the controlling calm in a crisis, takes one too many low blows and breaks down, Thelma takes charge, robbing a convenience store to make up money her one-night-stand J.D. (young and lush Brad Pitt) stole. It’s a change that seems sudden but has been steadily developing throughout the film. Their first crime was out of self-defence; their second, desperation; their third (locking a highway patrolman in the trunk of his car and stealing his gun), a final, irreversible step in their only plan: don’t get caught.

Beyond any hope of appealing to its protection, Thelma and Louise find themselves suddenly unbeholden to the law; they’re living outside its borders and it’s clear neither of them has felt freer. The transformation is beautifully represented through incredible attention to detail in costuming, direction and the powerful, subtle talents of Davis and Sarandon. It’s a matter of incremental changes: the pieces torn off the girls’ clothing for comfort in the heat of the South, Louise’s trading in all her jewellery for an old man’s hat and later, her perky sunnies for their abducted cop’s aviators. It’s a matter of the vibrant, ambiguous Deep South landscapes that fade in from black-and-white over the opening credits and a particularly beautiful stretch of road Louise drives them through late in the film. Marianne Faithfull sings: At the age of thirty-seven, she realised she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair

“I always wanted to travel,” muses Thelma, “I just never got the opportunity.” Louise tells her, “You have it now.”

When the authorities finally pin them down (following a truly excellent car chase), it’s at the edge of a gaping hole in the Earth. “I think,” says Louise, having skidded to a halt, “that’s the goddamn Grand Canyon.” Most people, at this point, will know exactly what’s coming.

Accused of defeatism or of undermining the film’s feminist message by having Thelma and Louise take the final, iconic suicide leap, Khouri called the ending “symbolic”. “You were left with the image of them flying… women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. [It’s] not big enough to support them.”

For Thelma and Louise, it’s a final grasp at agency – the free will they’ve just got a hold of and don’t want to forfeit – when all other exits are blocked. Turn back? Trust the system? No way in hell.

“Let’s keep going,” says Thelma, indicating the void. “Go.”
They kiss. The guitar riff soars. Louise floors it. They cry (no, sorry; that was me). The Polaroid they took of themselves only a couple of days ago, depicting two very different-looking women, flutters out of the backseat.

They clasp hands; they go.

“After all they went through,” said Khouri, “I didn’t want anyone to be able to touch them.”


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