t is widely debated as to whether Thelma and Louise is a feminist film or not. Either way the film is unconventional, a road movie that’s main characters are female. But as the narrative is not closed to interpretation, the ideological tensions are not worked out conclusively so there is room for argument. I will refer to two articles which hold opposing viewpoints. 1 Dargis claims that Thelma and Louise challenges the ideology of a genre by ‘rewrit[ing] the road movie’ while Carlson argues that ‘for [Thelma and Louise] feminism never happened’.
Carlson claims that the only difference between this and any other road movie is that women are ‘plunked down in the lead rolls’. In the act of attempting to achieve the desired freedom which is a key part of the narrative, the women have to behave like men. It would be considered a feminist movie if they could free themselves from men without having to become that which they are trying to escape from.
Symbols throughout the movie are used to suggest this transition from feminine to masculine.
For example, as Thelma is packing she delicately packs a very feminine gun, handling it with great care and even disgust, trying to touch it as little as possible. It shows her fear of manly objects and perhaps of having to defend herself. When later she saves Louise from the police officer who stops them for speeding, the gun is exchanged for a larger, manlier weapon. This could symbolise a woman becoming empowered.
Dargis suggests it is used as a ‘symbolic castration’. Yet not only does the man loose his phallic symbol, but Thelma gains one.
This could suggest there is a need to become like men to earn any freedom. There are many parallels to the male dominated road movie. Loud music, fast car, and almost never ending road and they are often shown in a extreme long shot, dwarfed by the scenery of the desert. This is often how men in road movies are portrayed, as if they are part of or becoming part of the landscape, or perhaps the landscape becoming a character. Yet I don’t find this technique significant enough to claim that the characters are becoming men, as it is only a reference.
The use of extreme long shots could also be interpreted as making the fugitives look small and vulnerable, although this isn’t usually the case in the typical road movie. The vehicle as in many road movies almost becomes anthropomorphic. In one shot before they first meet the truck driver, the camera has a close up on the front car as its driving past the camera, then dollies down the side then tracks and pauses at the rear of the car to show its brand ‘thunderbird’. It may be a coincidence that a bird is slang for a woman. The car then drives off the screen.
In this shot the idealism of the car is captured, sleek, stylish and fast. It embodies the freedom of the road. I find these parallels don’t lead the viewer to consider the characters to be manly, although it creates an offbeat feeling as we expect that such characters should be men. Dargis argues that the narrative of Thelma and Louise is not just about a film in which women take the role of men in a road movie, but that it is ‘custom-fitting [the road movie] to female specifications’. Although the characters throughout the movie become less feminine in the way they act and dress, their intentions are not ideologically male.
Instead of seeking wealth and power, they seek only freedom and pleasure, according to Dargis. Only when male characters try to force their will over these women do they retaliate to take the power back from the men, as happens when they lock the police man in his trunk, or by shooting the rapist. The narrative works out ideological tensions in power relations. There’s a struggle over who gains the power. The men want the power over women and they have it in the beginning of the film, and women want to have power over themselves, which they try to achieve.
This shows that the women aren’t just ‘plunked down in the starring roles’ as Carlson claimed. It involves the breakdown of typical film ideology, in which everyone has their place, and a woman’s place is submissive to men. We can see Louise beginning to turn away from men as she is packing her bags at the beginning, she calls her lover and receives an answering machine message. This causes her to turn his photograph face down. Although we can not see who the photograph is of, the connection is made by the expression on Louise’s face as she flips it over.
This also suggests that this male character, as well as all other male characters will play a back seat in the rest of the film. Dargis contrasts this with other lead females from other movies who ‘learn from men’ where Thelma and Louise ‘look to each other to survive’. Yet I would disagree with this point, as the men still have a large degree of control over the women throughout the film. The motivation for running from the law was fear of a male dominated justice system, and an incident involving a male rapist. Louise doesn’t have the funds to make it to Mexico, so she relies on her lover to wire her the money.