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Thelma, Louise, and the Women of the Road

Out of the Western emerged a new film genre in post-WWII America, the Road Movie. Typically, it contained two men on the road in search of some greater purpose in life or to escape the confines of society and find true freedom. In some cases, we saw a male/ female pair fleeing from the law as they robbed banks or went on a killing spree.

No matter the specific plot it was always a pair, touring the American landscape, trying to find happiness. In Ridley Scott’s “Thelma and Louise” we get a new pairing, two women, on a weekend getaway, free of their significant others for a few days, who just want to have a fun vacation.

From “Easy Rider” to “Rain Man” to “O Brother, Where art thou?,” the Road Movie has become a tradition in American cinema, a tradition that leaves little room for women if they aren’t a prostitute or an accomplice. In the normally male dominated genre, “Thelma and Louise” allows its female anti-heroes to escape their patriarchal society and find freedom on the road.

“Thelma and Louise” is the story of Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer, best friends who decide to take a weekend vacation in the mountains. Their plans get side railed when they pull off at a diner and Louise shots a man who was trying to rape Thelma.

They decide to run; as they deeper and deeper into trouble they find themselves freer and happier than ever before. What is most important about their journey is the transformation of who they were in the beginning of the film to who they become at the end, after they’ve cut their patriarchal ties.

Louise is a strong, self-sufficient woman, she lives on her own, she has a job, and she has a boyfriend she doesn’t take any crap from. When she thinks that Jimmy, her boyfriend, is taken her for granted she comes up with the idea for the girls weekend.

Once on the road, in Louise’s car, they stop and Louise tries to protect Thelma from Harlan. Once he attacks Thelma, Louise comes to her defense and shoots him. It is then, up to her to figure out what they should do, what their next step should be. Louise is always in charge…in the beginning.

In contrast to Louise, Thelma is her opposite. She does not work; she stays home under the rule of her controlling husband Darryl.

There is a certain naivety to her in the way she is always eating candy bars the first times we see her, she takes one of Louise’s cigarettes and pretends to smoke in the mirror, she sneaks off on the trip because she was scared to ask Darryl’s permission, and on the trip she asks permission from Louise to do things and has to beg her to pull over at road side stores and diners like a little kid. Thelma is always the passive one…in the beginning.

As they travel farther away from their homes they both achieve a freedom from society that they needed in order to discover who they are as women; they could look back at their lives and examine what they had allowed their lives to become.

Some critics argue that this film is a simple case of role reversal, like the character of Ripley in Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” and just an attempt to pacify both male and female viewers. The role of Ripley was originally written for a man, casting Sigourney Weaver in the part shows how unimportant gender is to that character.

This is not true with “Thelma and Louise”. This movie is about those to female characters; the rape, the abuse, the passions, the emotions, would not have worked with male heroes. It is because women are thought to be creatures of domesticity that makes it hard to understand their escape from that world of the home and material.

However, if women of tied to nature and the outdoors, doesn’t it make the most sense for them to be outside, on the road, watching the sunrise over the picturesque southwest landscape?

If we compare “Thelma and Louise” to other road movie anti-heroines such as Bonnie (“Bonnie and Clyde”) or Mallory (“Natural Born Killers”) one thing sets them apart, the fact that their partner in crime is not male. Shari Roberts, in “The Road Movie Book,” writes:

…the actresses play integral halves of the heterosexual, anti-heroic couple, yet they remain bound up in the limitations of the male-oriented and –dominated fantasy. Fleeing the law-abiding sphere of family, child-raising, and community to escape onto a road that ends violently, these women are crucial to the films, yet still act as appendages to masculinist fantasies.

Meaning that, even when women did make it into the road movie genre they were limited by there male counterpart. That’s when they made it in as a central character; in Easy Rider the only women are free-loving hippies or prostitutes. “Thelma and Louise” proves that there can be a female buddy road picture and it can be successful.

One rule of the road film is simple, road equals safety and to stop equals trouble. “Thelma and Louise” is no different. When they are traveling, on the road moving, they are happy and safe from danger. When they leave the road, when they stop moving, there is a traumatic event and arguing.

They don’t need to be off the road, they just need to stop moving to have a fight. In one scene they stop for a train at a railroad crossing, that’s when they get into an argument over what route to take because Louise doesn’t want to go through Texas. In the next scene they are moving and singing together, along with the radio, as if the whole fight never happened.

When they stop they’re attacked, they fight, and they’re robbed. However, the road isn’t only safety for them it is safety for all because they can’t commit crimes while they’re moving. They shoot Harlan while stopped, they rob a store, they threaten a police officer, and they can’t attack the trucker until he pulls over and gets out of his truck.

Other proof that the road is safety is the fact that they can’t be arrested while they are moving. As long as they keep moving they can out run them and escape. When they stop the threat of incarceration becomes possible.

At the heart of the film it is about women finding freedom away from patriarchal society. Their transformation stems from one accessory, their wedding rings. Once Thelma takes hers off she is done playing victim. At the same time Louise is putting one on from Jimmy. This is when both of their personalities do a 180° turn around.

Immediately after this J.D. runs off with their money and Louise has an emotional breakdown. Now, it is Thelma, free from her husband’s ties, who picks her up and figures out how to fix things. She robs the store to get back the money and it is Thelma who threatens the cop and orders Louise around. Then Louise trades all of her jewelry, including her engagement ring, to a man at a road stop for his hat. Now, like Thelma, she is free again.

Once on the road again Thelma admits that she has gone a little crazy to which Louise replies, “You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.” For the first time Thelma is rid of her ties to her home and husband.

Darryl was the only man she had ever been with, she dated him in school then married him after they graduated. She thought that that was what she was supposed to do to make her happy. After removing her ring she finds true happiness. And in the end, similar to the conclusion of Easy Rider, true freedom only comes after death. As they drive off the cliff they leave society and their past lives behind them. They will never be caught, they will never surrender, and they will go on forever.

This movie could fall into many genres, comedy, drama, feminist, action, but what distinctly categorizes it as a road movie are its opening and closing scenes. In the beginning we get a long panoramic shot of a desert highway, and in the end we get a ’66 Thunderbird soaring into the Grand Canyon.

It is this last scene, where the frame freezes on the car in mid-air that we know that our two heroines have found freedom. We don’t see them crash, we don’t see them die, for all we know they made it to Mexico.

If a road movie is supposed to be about people escaping society and building a bond with the road than “Thelma and Louise” achieves this and more. “Louise, no matter what happens, I’m glad I came with you.” And I whole-heartedly agree.

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