Hello and welcome to Is This Problematic? the ongoing thought experiment where we (Brooke and Shannon) revisit the films of the past and near-past with a feminist lens and ask ourselves the tough questions about the narratives that shaped the culture, and our younger selves.
The film: Thelma & Louise
Now widely considered a classic, Thelma & Louise was an unlikely choice for Ridley Scott in 1991. The film, the first screenplay effort from Callie Khouri, was unique in the landscape of the day and quickly found a host of top-tier actresses ready to jump in, but struggled to find a director. When this tale of put-upon women who head out of town for a weekend in a borrowed fishing cabin and find themselves on the lam after killing a would-be rapist finally made it to the big screen, it was a controversial, surprise smash. Nearly three decades later, it still has a revolutionary smack to it, and you know what that means. Here we go again.
S, I’d like to get vulnerable with you and admit that I have so many thoughts and I simply cannot reconcile a way into this discussion — it’s as vast as the desert that ferries Thelma and Louise on their path from unassuming women who need to get away to outlaws trying to manage a getaway. Where do we even begin?
S: Here’s the fun thing about revisiting Thelma and Louise. This film has become so ingrained in our popular culture that I was sure I’d seen it before. Instead, I realized about five minutes in that I’ve actually only seen bits and pieces while flipping through channels (back in the 90s when one flipped through channels), but I’ve never seen the entire film all the way through.
On my virgin voyage through this early 90s classic, I had a few revelations, most notably that Thelma & Louise provides ahead of its time commentary on rape culture in the United States. It’s a film that feels more at home in a post The Hunting Ground and #MeToo era, yet somehow managed to be produced by a major studio 20+ years before our culture’s normalization of sexual assault began to be questioned en masse.
Two scenes in particular struck me.
- Early in the film, Thelma spends the night dancing with, and later is raped by, a creeper named Harlan. Louise responds by straight up murdering the guy. Thelma then suggests the two women call the police and explain that Harlan raped her and the crime was committed in self-defense. Louise’s response? “People saw you dancing cheek to cheek with him. Who’s gonna believe that?”
- Toward the end of the film, as the women are on the lam, Thelma shares Louise’s opinion, telling her friend, “Nobody’d believe us. Probably nothing would have happened to him. Cause everybody did see me dancin’ with him all night. They would have made out like I’d asked for it.”
Disclaimer: I do not condone the murder, nor the crime spree that followed as an appropriate response to sexual assault. However, the fact that the two women were so certain they would not be believed that they were driven to such extreme behaviors speaks volumes.
Though I applaud this film’s overt takedown of rape culture, many early 90s critics did not agree, seeing the movie instead as an over-the-top assault on men. So what say you, B? Are the naysayers right?
B: I know we’re intellectually and factually based here, but in this case, I have no problem making the leap to say anyone who protested Thelma & Louise as anti-man has never been a woman. Is every man in this picture deeply flawed? Absolutely. Does that mean the conceit of this picture is that every man is deeply flawed? Absolutely not. Rather, Thelma & Louise is an exploration of normal women pushed too far. Their journey isn’t really about the men they encounter, it’s about the fact that in the end, they feel more free with dozens of police cars bearing down on them than they ever did in their daily lives.
Just before everything really gets wild, Louise says to Jimmy, “We both got what we settled for,” which is not only another example of the devastating certainty these women exist with every minute of the day, but also an irresistible invitation to examine the deals they made. And for our purposes, I think that means taking a closer look at Jimmy and Darrel, but also J.D. and Hal and that complete dick, Harlan.
My Reader’s Digest opinion? J.D. is a mistake I would make too, but this isn’t about how foxy Brad Pitt was — S, give us your take on these chaps.
S: The fascinating thing about the way the men of Thelma & Louise are written is that they can be viewed in two ways: 1) at face value or 2) as metaphors. This is interesting because in most movies of the early 90s, you see the opposite. The leads — predominantly men — are written as complex and layered characters, and the love interests or supporting characters — predominantly women — are written as one-dimensional “types.” Instead, Thelma & Louise gives us two rich, multidimensional women in its lead roles, and delivers men who serve a singular narrative purpose. I wonder if this is one of the reasons why Thelma & Louise drew such backlash.
I agree with you, B, this movie does not bash all men (as it shouldn’t), but rather, puts a microscope on the types of men that make Thelma and Louise (and all kinds of IRL ladies) feel powerless.
Therefore, I give you … the men/metaphors of Thelma & Louise (ranked from most creepy to least):
- Harlan/The Rapist: The worst kind of human.
- Darryl/The Emotional Abuser: This guy does nothing but make women feel less than.
- The Truck Driver/The Aggressive Ogler: I think we’ve all been made to feel unsafe while walking down the street thanks to this guy.
- Jimmy/The Anger Addict: A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Yes, he comes to Louise’s rescue, but at the first sign of conflict, he starts to throw furniture. Louise’s response that “you start this shit, I’m outta here,” means it’s not the first time she’s seen this behavior from him.
- Hal/The Condescending Protector: Hal may be designed to be a sympathetic character in Thelma & Louise — after all, he’s the only cop on the ladies’ side. However, by microaggressively referring to the women as “girls” and assuming that they’re in over their heads, he too disarms them of their power.
- J.D./The Mistake We All Make: You may be surprised that I list J.D. as the least creepy on this list, and it’s not because of Brad Pitt’s abs. Yes, he stole their money, and he may even have seduced Thelma with the explicit intent to rob her (or maybe it was a crime of convenience because she made the not smart move to leave $6K laying around … lock that shit up, Thelma!). But, where J.D. differs from the other men is that he makes a choice that helps Thelma feel safe. When J.D. and Thelma begin to get intimate in her hotel room, she asks him to wait. He immediately stops and steps back until Thelma reaches out for him. Yes, J.D. is the mistake we all would make, but he’s also the mistake who understands consent.
Now that we’ve discussed all of the men who try to keep these ladies down, I think it’s high time we dive into an exploration of how they get their power back. So B, talk to me about T & L’s character arcs over the course of the film.
B: When we meet Thelma, she’s frazzled. She’s kind of cleaning, but mostly fretting about calling her husband to ask if she can go on a weekend getaway with Louise, and also eating an Eskimo Pie a bite at a time, putting it back in the freezer after each indulgence. In the end, she doesn’t ask her husband anything. Meanwhile, we meet Louise at work, casually chatting to Thelma on the phone while managing the lunch rush. Her packing is pristine, with entire pre-planned outfits placed in Ziplocs and neatly piled into a bag that zips on the first try. She takes her fabulous car over to meet her frazzled friend and they hit the road, bound for a cabin we’ll never see.
Cut to several hours later. It’s a sleazy saloon that provides respite from the road. Thelma goes in for shots and cozies up to dance with the resident creep — the heady lightness of being away from Darrel has her game to live it up more than Louise is inclined to herself. But when all that fun quite literally goes to Thelma’s head, Harlan seeks to take advantage. The simplicity and swiftness of his decision to rape Thelma is indifferent and starkly terrifying. Her protests don’t stop him, but the sound of a gun does. Louise isn’t the one who packed it, but she’s the one with the level head. At least until Harlan, incapable of letting a woman have the last word, spits, “I should have gone ahead and fucked her,” acting as if he made the choice to stop for any reason other than the gun against his throat. That demonstration of macho defiance gets him real dead and simultaneously catapults T&L into the shifts that carry them to their fateful decision to ride over that cliff.
Even as Louise unravels, finding a new kind of devil may care in the fate she feels she’s already sealed, Thelma becomes self-possessed and recklessly confident. Her tryst with J.D. leaves her, quite literally, a new woman. By the time our gals start blowing up trucks and sticking cops in the trunks of their own squad cars, they don’t even look like themselves so much as standard issue biker gang extras. Gone are the flowing dresses and the cute blouses, replaced by aviators and cut off shirts with tough designs.
After one of these outlaw activities, Thelma muses, “I know it’s crazy, but I just feel like I have a knack for this shit.” “I believe you do,” Louise confirms. Their hair whips in the wind and the camera pulls back to show their car, the only vehicle in sight, blazing through the vast desert. I can’t read that as anything but freedom.
S, before we ride off into the sunset ourselves, I think we owe T&L some stray observations.
S: Let’s get into it! Let the stray observations begin…
- One of my favorite things in this film is Thelma being an O.G. murderino 20+ years ahead of the game with her insistance that they bring the flashlight “in case some psycho killer cuts the electricity and tries to kill us.”
- B, you mentioned it previously, but Thelma putting the Eskimo Pie back in the freezer between each bite reminded me so much of Sex and the City‘s Miranda eating cake out of the trash and me eating “just a few” Junior Mints out of my freezer on nights I’m up working late.
B, bring us home – hit me with your stray observations and let me know where you think this film ranks on the cringe-o-meter.
B: I have two simple notes to add:
- Vanity Fair has an exceptional write up on Thelma & Louise and how it came to be — it’s lengthy, but oh so worth the read.
- I can’t get over how much I love that Louise takes advantage of a captive audience to dispense some real knowledge on Harlan, the would-be rapist. (Not that he gets anything from it.)
Now, here’s the part where we’re meant to do cringe math. And while I’m ready to deduct so many cringes for Thelma and Louise doing what they do … I’m struggling to think of a single thing that earned a cringe.
S, did I overlook any major blips, or do we have our first zero cringe picture on our hands?
S: You’re absolutely right. There is nary a cringe to be found in this gem of a film. This movie is a brilliant character study of two fully-drawn women — a near anomaly for the early 90’s. Congratulations, Thelma and Louise, you earn the first ever zero cringe award. Well, well deserved.
Prepare yourself for a double feature, dear readers, and a musical one at that. Next time on ITP, we tackle Danny Zuko, Stephanie Zinone, and the glory that is Grease and Grease 2.