Even in this feminist world, we still teach girls and urge women to organize their lives around men--their needs, expectations, work, schedules, ideas, interests, vulnerabilities, and tempers.
A Review by Donald Williams, M.A.
Even in this feminist world, we still teach girls and urge women to organize their lives around men--their needs, expectations, work, schedules, ideas, interests, vulnerabilities, and tempers.1 Women too often concede power and status to men, and some men also demand these concessions. In Hollywood women make up only about one quarter of the Writers Guild membership, and in Hollywood as everywhere else, women earn less than men for the same work. The old habits of gender discrimination die hard if at all.
Fortunately, some screenwriters and filmmakers enjoy stepping outside the limitations of gender. For example, they show us that people, men included, who take care of children will eventually learn to become good mothering people--think of KRAMER VS. KRAMER or THREE MEN AND A BABY. People, women included, who must fight to live learn to become warriors--think of THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS, for instance. Or recall TOOTSIE and Dustin Hoffman's famous line to Jessica Lange at the end: "I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man."
THELMA AND LOUISE--with the Best Original Screenplay by Callie Khouri--stirred up gender controversy and got Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon on the front page of Time (June 24, 1991). The film challenged our genderizing routines by showing us a "road and buddy" movie with women in the lead roles. Thelma and Louise get in dangerous trouble, enjoy themselves, and unmask the other sex--actions normally reserved for men. Fortunately, the film is never psychologically or politically obvious--it can't be reduced to a telegram.
THELMA AND LOUISE breaks the rules to become an outlaw picture like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Despite this liberating achievement, however, the film confirms the old premise that women can never disentangle themselves from men--except in death. Men never give up trying to control, exploit, punish, or save Thelma and Louise, and they relentlessly chase them down. The two women either struggle to break free or to let go...but never successfully or for very long. The film captures a psychological knot that most women and men experience--they absolutely cannot get free of each other.
Thelma is a study in "learned helplessness." She has never been out of town without her husband, Darryl, and she can't bring herself to tell him that she's going away for a weekend with Louise: "For Christ sake, Thelma, is he your husband or your father? It's just two days...Don't be a child." Darryl, like a parent, defines Thelma's role, her reality, and he tries to intimidate her into submission. Thelma has found ways to tolerate her servitude and her small cell but now she's ready for a prison break.
Thelma and Louise don't just go away to enjoy themselves, they pointedly leave the men they care about. Before leaving, Louise calls her evasive lover, Jimmy, gets his answering machine: "I'm not here right now, but I'll probably be back 'cause... all my stuff's here." She hangs up and slams his picture face down on the table. When they are finally on their way, however, they still can't stop thinking about their men: "I wonder if Darryl's home yet" and "I wonder if Jimmy's gotten back."
Thelma takes a gun with her and explains to Louise: "I'm just really afraid of psycho killers, I guess." The "psycho killer" image works on several psychological levels. First, her fears have kept her a prisoner in her marriage. Her fears have "killed" her naturally independent wishes, ambitions, pleasures, and impulses. Thelma, like all of us, tolerates her particular prison as long as someone persuades her--or as long as she persuades herself--that the world is scary and dangerous. Louise tries hard to persuade Thelma differently but Thelma's "internalized object" or "complex" is personified as a "psycho-killer" because the image accurately captures what has already happended to her in her marriage and what she will encounter in the world.
Second, Darryl fulfills the "psycho-killer" role when he treats her as a child, demands obedience, and shamefully criticizes her. Thelma doesn't have to leave home to meet her "psycho-killers." Third, sexually aggressive and violent men are "psycho-killers." Thelma doesn't know how to protect herself from these killers but Louise does. Unlike Thelma, Louise understands men well enough to know when to hate them (Harlan, the rapist), to fear them (Texans and Texas justice), to suspect them (J.D., the hitchhiker), to love them (Jimmy...when he finally comes through), and to respect them (Hal, the detective).
As the film picks up its pace, we see that the "psychos" are "simply" men, men who desire them, fear them, need them, or hate them. Men are ever-present in the lives of these women. No sooner, for instance, does Thelma hang up on Darryl saying, "Go fuck yourself," than another man appears--the hitchhiker. J.D. is right there to ask, "Miss, are you alright?" and to exploit her vulnerability. A minute later we see her in the car drying her eyes and looking in the side mirror. Suddenly she sees J.D. in the mirror, and she shifts her attention from her image to his. With this simple movement of the eyes Thelma loses herself again.
Every time Thelma and Louise begin to get close to each other, men intrude. When they finally start singing together, for example, they pass the hitchhiker again: Thelma pleads for Louise to stop, Louise relents, and J.D. steps in between them. On another occasion they're driving through the magical canyonlands at night, and in the next cut a tank truck appears on the road, a "semi" with shiny silhouettes of naked women on the mud flaps and a crude and stupid man in the driver's seat. They pass the trucker but of course he comes back. As they drive through the desert Thelma asks, "You awake?" and Louise answers, "You could call it that. My eyes are open." "Me too. I feel awake... Wide awake. I don't remember ever feelin' this awake. Everything looks different." We see them singing and immediately the "semi" comes roaring up on them. The cumulative effect of these intrusions is to convince us that men absolutely will not leave these women alone.
Unfortunately, even though Thelma and Louise are awake and love their freedom, their exhilaration, it's still hard for them to fully let go of men. Louise stands at a pay phone in the early morning and talks to Hal (the detective): "Would you believe me if I told you this whole thing is an accident?" Yes, he does believe her, and for that reason she yields. She stays on the phone knowing it is being tapped, and in a role reversal Thelma steps in to protect Louise--her finger reaches up and presses down the lever.
When I watched THELMA AND LOUISE a second and third time, I was awed by the way one man after another pursues these women and will not let them go. Even the one man who understands Thelma and Louise can't let them go. Hal can't stop trying to save them: he chases their car as Louise floors it and the '66 T-Bird sails out over the edge of the Canyonlands cliff. Psychologically, women and men get entangled, they struggle, and when they almost get free, they look back too soon. Thelma and Louise whet our appetite for freedom, self-respect, and courage. There must be a way to satisfy this appetite without driving off a cliff.
1. There are recent film examples of women who do not feel the need to organize their feelings and ideas around men: ANTONIA'S LINE shows us an exceptionally healthy and fascinating woman while THE LAST SEDUCTION shows us a sociopathic woman who thinks only of her own interest.
© Donald Williams 1996.