Analysis of Gender in Thelma and Louise (2022)

Analysis of Gender in Thelma and Louise


In every film, characters are portrayed differently depending on their roles, gender, position, among other variables. Depending on the type of film, characters are defined by the role they play. For example, in some movies, women are portrayed as primitive, or objects and men are portrayed as active and responsible, among others. In some films, some forms of gender, more specifically women, are underestimated. In cinema, there exists sexual imbalance and, therefore, the pleasure that results from looking resulted in a division of active/male and passive/ female (Laura Mulvey, 1975). Generally, women are portrayed as the weaker sex as compared to men. They are represented as passive and dependent on men. Men are described as active and entangled in relationships and housework. This paper aims to analyze the gender in the movie Thelma and Louise, directed by Ridley Scott, which talks about how women are represented and how they are judged as passive members of society.

The film Thelma, And Louise is a feminist film about two women Thelma and Louise, and revolve around their friendship and mishaps. It focuses on the female protagonist, who breaks free from the limiting gender roles that are given to them by society. The film challenges the Hollywood gender-based myths such as patriarchal underpinnings and oppression, which exists in society in an attempt to transform the classical paradigm with an authentic women agency. It exposes old theories and brings to light new ones. The psychoanalysis provided by Laura Mulvey sums up societal attitudes towards women during the 20th century. Gender imbalance has resulted in a split between active and passive characters. Traditionally women were represented by their looks, which are coded for strong erotic and visual so that they can be judged as attractive. Women being objectified is a theme that is commonly used in films (Laura Mulvey, 1975). In the 1950s, women were portrayed as submissive, vulnerable while men were powerful and stayed in control. Feminist theory basing on Mulvey’s argument explains active male subjectivity and the passive female objectivity.

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This film triggered controversies and acclaim with critics suggesting that it was a wrong representation of women and that it betrayed the norms of feminism since the protagonists did not achieve much. The description of sexism and marginalization of the experiences that women go through every day is an affirmation of strength they have and a justification for their anger. The protagonists dared to be angry towards male domination and gender-based violence. They abandoned femininity and chose friendship, which resulted in fearlessness, and therefore, to women, this is an empowering aspect.

Thelma and Louise, which was produced in 1991, triggered debates over gender inequality, violence, and sexes. This forced filmmakers to reconsider how they portrayed women and, therefore, developing a genuine portrayal of women subjectivity. Throughout the film, viewers witness the concept of a traditional woman and how it has changed, focusing on Thelma and Louise, the plight of these protagonists is relevant to the experiences of women in their daily lives. Many women in American society are facing domestic issues, and therefore taking a stand is a reasonable subject towards harassment and intimidation by men.

At the beginning of the film, Thelma is portrayed as a housewife, and she is a wife to her high school boyfriend called Darryl. Their relationship is compared to that of a father and daughter since Darryl never lets Thelma do anything, which is fun on her part. Thelma has to ask for Darryl’s permission to visit her friend. This film portrays women as the weak gender while the male is the stronger one and in control. The film represents the male gender as active while the female is passive. The film marginalizes women and supports the identification of spectators with men as dominants. This helps the man’s role as the active one, being at the center of all decisions and making everything happen. The man is in control of the film’s fantasy; therefore, he is the representation of power. Thelma is submissive, which is a clear representation of a traditional woman. The use of female-based themes and female protagonists results in reducing patriarchy by appropriating the gaze.

Darryl is a clear representation of males as powerful, selfish, narcissistic, and intolerant. He is overly confident, which is displayed by how he fixes his hair and the way he is bossy, which is evident by the way he treats his fellow car salesmen. According to another feminist, Elizabeth Hill, films such as Thelma and Louise, deconstruct the gender binary logic by portraying women as aggressive, transformative, and heroic (Lewis, 1975). These two protagonists redefined and measured their lives, both of them being working class; they make their own decisions by not minding men. This is contrary to how films transgress in the genre and cultural gender codes, which give them roles that portray them as immobile, passive, and peripheral. The development of the female gaze in this film teases male dominance and sexism. Daryl is a macho man, and therefore he is an easy target for mockery as Thelma grows into being a feminist.

The two characters achieved female independence and subjectivity by appropriating the male gaze, which was used traditionally to objectify and control women. They created a vision that was free from patriarchal construction, therefore, promoting women spectatorship to embrace other choices apart from heterosexuality. Thelma and Louise represent the liberation of women and develop the desire to make choices and decisions freely, enabling them to create a more assertive and active principle of creativity. For example, in the scene where they came across a foul-mouthed truck driver who was making obscene gestures to them. The two stopped and demanded an apology from the driver, and when the driver did not apologize, they short his tanker that exploded.

The significance of this film lies in the revolutionary act changing the traditional Hollywood representation of female characters by giving them new fantasies and representing them as subjects and agents of the narrative. They are given a chance to state their wants and desires. According to Brenda Cooper, Thelma and Louise put more emphasis on the creation of the female gaze, which changes Hollywood’s traditional representation of women. It perpetuates an essential myth about the feminine essence, which is generous, non-violent, nonaggressive passive, and nurturing. Mulvey’s theory failed to explain female spectators with an agency. The current view of this film focuses on multiplying gazes and identifications, which might be considered in the context of a viewer. In the culture of the contemporary image, men are assumed objects of the gaze, and sometimes women are perceived as characters with no power. In the movie, the woman has been portrayed as a person who can take care of herself; for example, Louise shoots a man who tries to rape Thelma. This shows how women can defend themselves without necessarily needing help from men. Therefore, as a result, in this film, female protagonists take over the gaze, redefining the gender through the active gaze. The mirror is used as a symbol to demonstrate how protagonists realize their strength through gazing in the mirror. Louise discards her lipstick after looking at her image in the mirror and Thelma reveling after staring at JD in the car’s side mirror.

Another way that the movie has portrayed women as the gaze and active is when Louise and Thelma take a vacation without informing their partners. Thelma prepares food for her husband and leaves him a note saying that she will be backing home on Monday. This first scene is about Louise working in a busy restaurant while they cater to the needs of her authoritative husband. When Louise asked Thelma to accompany her to the road trip, Thelma said that she has to ask her husband first, and Louise told her that Darryl is her husband, not her father. This, therefore, implies that both Louise and Thelma are concern about their husbands’ opinions. According to Glenn Man, the actions of these women at the beginning of the film are bold, yet they do not show independence as they bind them to the female’s position in the marriage system (Rhoter, 1991).

These two characters embark on their journey and disengage themselves from the patriarchal authority. They then land in another incident where a womanizer, Harlan, nearly rape Thelma. Louise intervenes and shoots Harlan to save Thelma. Harlan’s death is the punishment for several times when women are denied justice. Law reinforcers are often stereotyped into macho men. Rape represents the many sexual harassment acts that women deal with. The film also portrays how the media represents rape. Such narratives reinforce the ideology of homogeny masculinity. Rape is described as a solution rather than a reason for the victimization of women. In this film, rape is about the power of the male gender rather than the experiences that women go through. In this film, Thelma and Louise’s friendship represents sisterhood, unlike in traditional Hollywood representation, which portrays women as enemies who, in most cases, fighting over a man. The conventional Hollywood cinema depicts the male gaze through enmity among women protagonists. Typically, women are not represented as friends but enemies and competitors when it comes to relationships with men or at the place of work. This reduces patriarchal definition and putting men as subjects. Women take care of each other throughout the film. For example, when Louise shoots Harlan, in the rescue of Thelma and when Thelma takes care of Louise after J.D steal their money. The protagonists exchange roles as caretakers as well as protector.

This film, however, sends a message that the two protagonists did not fully achieve freedom from how society portrays women. At the end of the film, they did not achieve much. Their feminism is not met. They were trapped in their own lives, which were initially controlled by the patriarchal society. The two are being pursued by police officers for the murder of a drunk and armed robbery; therefore, there is no happy conclusion since they have to spend their lives running. According to Carlson, the characters are overly stereotypical and make wrong choices in their journey (Lichtenstein, 1993). Their roles change in the end and become manlier instead of embracing their feminine nature. This is shown in the way they treat and speak to one another after Louise’s life savings were stolen by her new boyfriend; Thelma becomes bolder and insists that instead of spending their whole life in jail, they would rather keep driving west.

In conclusion, the film first represents a woman as submissive and subject to a man. This is evident where Thelma has to get permission from Darryl for everything she has to do. As the film progresses, women gain the freedom to make their own choices. With this, therefore, the film represents women as active, and it gives them the ability to make their own independent choices and desires contrary to the old Hollywood representation of female characters. The male characters in the film are given authority and represent the traditional gender positioning of cinema. Darryl is overconfident and assertive; Jimmy is incapable of commitment; Harlan is sexually violent. In general, the film challenges the traditional gender position of a woman, and it is revolutionary with respect to conventional gender roles.


Lichtenstein, Therese. “Thelma & Louise: Trouble in Paradise.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry, vol 10, no. 3, 1993, pp. 487-491.Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/07351699309533826.

Lewis, Mark.Rachel Rose Laura Mulvey. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. (1975).

Rohter, L. (1991, June 5). The thirds woman of “Thelma and Louise.” The New York Times, p. C21.

“Thelma And Louise-How Women Are Portrayed And How They Change | EN340 Thelma & Louise”. Commons.Marymount.Edu, 2020,www.

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