thelma & louise (1991): redemptive violence, femininity and queering masculine space

[contains spoilers, content warning: rape, sexual violence]

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This essay weaves together some of the cinematic elements that animate romance, dark comedy, redemptive violence, absurdity, feminism and queer space – tethering them to the centre of the compelling cinematic universe of Thelma & Louise (1991).

Callie Khouri’s screenplay

“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake”

In writing Thelma & Louise, Callie Khouri composed a 131-minute long love song for the screen, an ode to women and freedom, and in doing so earned herself the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Thelma & Louise has one of the most beautiful, quick-witted scripts to emerge from this genre, a genre that can only be seen to fit a loose definition of comedy, action, mystery, romance, in one marvellous, amorphous conflation. Below are some of the iconic quotes that evidence Khouri’s mastery at writing the female voice as an agent of the reworked crime/romance/comedy genre.

Louise: You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.

Thelma: [with her gun to the state trooper’s head] I swear three days ago neither one of us would’ve EVER pulled a stunt like this, but if you’d ever meet my husband you’d understand why.

Thelma: You awake?

Louise: Guess you could call it that, my eyes are open.

Thelma: Me too. I feel awake!

Louise: Good.

Thelma: Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feeling this awake. You know what I mean? Everything looks different. You feel like that, too, like you got something to look forward to?

Louise: We’ll be drinking margaritas by the sea, mamacita.

Thelma: Hey, we could change our names.

Louise: We could live in a hacienda.

Thelma: I gonna get a job. I’m gonna work at Club Med.

Louise: Yeah. Now what kind of deal is that cop gonna have to come up with to beat that?

Thelma: Have to be pretty good.

Louise: Have to be pretty damn good.

fluorescent light motifs

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Borrowing from a Lynchian aesthetic, the fluorescent lights are emblematic of Edward Hopper paintings, of the illuminating metropolises of America at the height of mid-twentieth-century modernity. If Thelma & Louise is to writer Callie Khouri a love-song to women, to director Ridley Scott it is a romantic novel translated onto film, to simulate rain-speckled gas station signs and advertisements that glow neon from the highway.

feminising the road-trip

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Perhaps the reason Khouri writes such a vibrantly comic and erotic road-trip tale is that it is her reimagining of what is otherwise a historically masculine genre. To avoid any comparison to its masculine contemporaries and predecessors, Khouri reinvents the road trip film as an active site of femininity and romance mitigated with a plot of criminality. Even the initial crime itself is feminised, as an act of sexual violence against women, male-on-female. Thus the violent action throughout the film, all of which comes as a result of the male-on-female violence at the start, is the only remaining satellite that orbits the masculine genre at its core, and is feminised. Therein lies a kind of liberation in the betrayal of masculine convention. We don’t witness Thelma and Louise meet a historical expectation of weak feminine subaltern characters wrapped up in action, instead, there is inversion. Their friendship is eroticised, the men they meet are enemies for their abuse of power or their enforcement of the law, their violence is reactionary at first and evolves into comedy, influenced by that of which they’ve seen on TV. In all aspects, there is an inversion of the female role and of the action genre, and together, in the absence of men in a man’s universe, they find a space where femininity and action coexist in harmony.

“nobody’d believe us”

Louise: I think I fucked up. I think I got us in a situation where we both could get killed. Damn, I don’t know why I just didn’t go to the police right away.

Thelma: You know why. You already said.

Louise: What’d I say again?

Thelma: Nobody’d believe us. We’d still get in trouble, we’d still have our lives ruined. You know what else?

Louise: What?

Thelma: That guy was hurting me. If you hadn’t come out when you did, he would’ve hurt me a lot worse. And probably nothing would’ve happened to him ’cause everybody did see me dancin’ with him all night. They would’ve made out like I’d asked for it. My life would’ve been ruined a whole lot worse than it is now. At least now I’m havin’ some fun. And I’m not sorry that son of a bitch is dead. I’m just sorry it was you that did it and not me.

Rooted in the film’s feminism is a harrowing consciousness of rape culture and the judicial system’s treatment of rape victims. One of the first incidences we witness a self-awareness of Thelma’s otherwise naive characterisation is her acknowledgement of the reaction to those who claim to have been raped, upon reflecting her own close encounter with assault. The act of self-defence, Louise shooting the attacker, represents a process that is altogether contentious and perplexing according to judicial law: the grey areas of innocence, guilt, attack and defence. Thelma & Louise takes a social and feminist issue and turns it into something we as audience are subjected to stomach: the same consciousness of our own culture’s attitude to rape and sexual violence. Even after 27 years, little in attitude has changed. Beneath the fluorescent lights of the bar and the drinking and the comedy, there is a known reality. We don’t take Louise’s violence as we take a typical action film’s violence, as superficial entertainment, hypermasculinised, emphatic power assertions. We don’t view the violent act of shooting the attacker, preventing Thelma’s rape, as escapist mythology, but as a mode of survival. Thelma and Louise don’t experience the cinematic luxury of slinging a gun and outrunning the bad guys. They commit violence as a mere reaction to the violence inflicted upon them, ‘them’ as a symbol of women.

Louise: In the future, when a woman is crying like that, she isn’t having any fun.

violence as a vehicle of control, more pertinently, taking back control

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Thelma & Louise has been criticised by some for its abundant violence. Some have even stretched far enough to claim misandry. Troublingly so, these inconclusive critiques raise the question: is cinematic violence only ever permissible when it’s male-on-male, female-on-female, or worse, male-on-female? If so, does female-on-male violence have to be so outrageously untethered to a known reality in order to be permitted? If so, only the blood-spattered Uma Thurman armed with a Samurai sword in exoticised rural Japan is allowed. Apparently, female-on-male violence for cinematic and aesthetic entertainment can only exist if it promises to leave the U.S. and travel into the realm of the unbelievable in order to be unthreatening, in order to uphold the monuments of violence that are ‘normal’, or at least the ones we are used to seeing. It is probably worth remembering that the only man who is actually killed in Thelma & Louise is the sexual predator, in an act of self-defence, right at the beginning. God forbid there were actual spontaneous female-on-male killings, or perhaps our newly found sensitivity to violence would render us uncomfortable and upset. Any other kind of violence though? Sure. Grab a gun. Go crazy. When we enter the realm of the fictitious, of the cinematic, we should maybe debunk this sensitivity to violence that seems to only exist for female-on-male exclusively. Especially, in this case, when the violence is an act of self-defence. If even reactionary violence can be seen as ‘too violent’ or misandrous, then we are at a crossroads in which we must actually decipher what cinematic violence means regarding gender relations entirely.

Incidentally, not only is the violence compelling (here, I refer to the killing of the sexual predator thus it is definitely not misandrous but deserved), it is necessary. Our position as audience depends on it. It circumvents the structure of the story, it emancipates Thelma out of her subordinated life and it draws the women closer together. Without the crime spree, catalysed from the killing at the start, we would spend our viewing expecting the weekend to come to an end, as the credits roll and a far more bleak finale presented to Thelma and Louise: returning back home to their suffering, their normal.

In fact, in its necessity, violence becomes a vehicle of control. In a hyperbolic and feminised fashion, embellished with one-liners, the violence throughout keeps the plot in motion whilst garnering control for the women. In stark contrast to their occupations back home, a housewife and waitress respectively, once they unwittingly begin this spree of criminality and outrunning the law, they find an obscured sense of control within their own lives, a kind of redemption for the violence they have both endured as women.

it passes the Bechdel test

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I wouldn’t usually examine a film according to its Bechdel assessment. Bechdel tests can be rather unfortunately sobering and feel somewhat futile to discuss for their indication of cinema’s stagnant lack of gender representation, but here it seemed significant to mention. For a film that orients femininity through a narrative of criminality, we see the feminine space operate to cinematically and symbolically omit men: Thelma and Louise running away from male partners for the weekend, the killing of a sexual predator and the preoccupation of skirting the notably all-male law enforcement in their constituents. In constant motion, following Thelma and Louise on the run, we spectate their dialogues and their omission of men as subject (passing Bechdel) and we witness this omission in practice. Throughout the narrative formation itself, men are not subject, but object. Nearly always in the distance (excluding Brad Pitt’s thieving cowboy subplot), men are at a remove spatially and temporally; across another state, back home, in a helicopter or police station, in memory. From the lens of Thelma and Louise, whose perspective from which we are exclusively confined, we are given access to a meta-cinematic visualisation of passing and somewhat reframing the Bechdel test altogether. Our heroines certainly do have at least one conversation about something other than men, and they have at least one of these conversations in the 1966 Ford convertible as they drive on into the desert, far from the men who subjugate them.

the punctuative and concluding kiss

Arriving at the end of the film, where Thelma and Louise have been surrounded and the anticipated confrontation with the law is at our feet, we stand over the grand canyon. We are given more dialogue of how much both Thelma and Louise feel they have changed, their reluctance to go back home and their exchange of silent compassion. They implicitly agree to “drive on”, over the edge of the canyon, and in doing so, punctuate the film’s absolutely beautiful, necessary absence of men. Thelma and Louise’s tireless effort to escape the men who dominate their lives (domestically or even societally, ie, the law) inevitably draws them into each other. What is seen by many as the final piece of evidence for the film’s queer undertones, is concluded with a kiss before they drive off into the canyon, “to keep on going”. This ending has left its mark on cinema and routinely and referentially lives on in modern culture. I don’t think (mainly female or queer) audiences have ever been so thrilled and heartbroken and emotionally invested in a car flying into a ravine. Perhaps because of the love story framed with criminal excitement we experience this unusual sense of beauty in this mania and euphoria. It isn’t Tom Cruise jumping out of a helicopter, it’s our heroines turning their backs on mistreatment, injustice and unfulfillment. It is, in all its absurdity, the happiest, most beautiful resolution for Thelma and Louise, and for us their audience, as their faithful companions.

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