Gender Roles in Thelma and Louise (2022)

Thelma and Louise: Gender Roles

Thelma and Louise

centres around the friendship of two women and their adventures/ mishaps. The film opens as the two are preparing to leave on a weekend road trip to get away from their respective husband and boyfriend. However, an incident at a roadhouse a few hours later, in which a male customer, Harlan, assaults and attempts to rape Thelma, ends with Louise shooting and killing the man. The women panic and flee. Louise does not want to go to the police because she fears that they will not believe their story so she decides she will go to Mexico. She arranges for her boyfriend, Jimmy, to wire her life savings to her at a place on the way, but Jimmy shows up at the telegraph office because he wants to know what has happened. Thelma is unsure if she wants to go with Louise, but meanwhile she meets a young attractive hitchhiker with whom she spends the night at the same time Louise and Jimmy spend their last night together. However, the hitchhiker steals Louise's savings and Thelma not only decides to rob a store to finance the rest of the trip to Mexico, but also decides to go to Mexico with Louise. All of this is occurring concurrently with a police inquiry which initially seeks Thelma and Louise for questioning in the shooting but, after Thelma robs a store, the police search for them becomes intense. The police set up shop at Thelma's house with the permission of Thelma's bumbling husband and finally trace a phone call from the two to their location. The police amass in force and corner the two women: They must either surrender or shoot their way out. The two choose another option and the film ends with Thelma and Louise driving into the Grand Canyon, choosing death over surrender.

The friendship between Thelma and Louise is the consistent focus of the film and each woman seems to epitomize a certain 'stereotype' of the American female. Thelma is the 'traditional' female, somewhat reminiscent of the 1950's, reinforcing the media stereotype of women's dependence mentioned by Wood (238): She is a homemaker, excessively dependent on her husband, and somewhat infantile in that she often does not think about consequences or plan ahead. The audience learns in the first scenes that she felt she had to ask her husband's permission to go on a weekend trip with her friend Louise, but her timidity leads her to leave him a note instead. Louise, on the other hand, is single, supports herself as a waitress, and has a cautious, sometimes cynical attitude toward the world. Louise has more experience than Thelma in the sense that she is used to taking care of herself, thinking for herself, and thus seems to epitomize the more modern woman, possessing the stereotypical 'male' attributes of assertiveness and self-reliance (Wood, 81).

The two women act out these roles with each other in various scenes throughout the film, both verbally and non-verbally. Louise owns the car they are travelling in and does most of the driving while Thelma is the passive passenger. When Thelma asks Louise to stop at the fateful roadhouse, she takes on a whining, pleading tone and Louise concedes like a parent by saying "O.K., just for a minute." It is Louise who rescues Thelma in the parking lot and shoots Harlan. Immediately after the shooting, Louise has to babysit Thelma like a child while Louise repeats to her that she will figure out what to do. Also, later in the film, when Thelma guesses that Louise must have been raped in the past, Louise refuses to talk about it, repressing her feelings in typical 'male' fashion (Wood, 79). However, Thelma finally becomes more assertive after the drifter, J.D., steals their money and Thelma decides she must rob a store to secure funds. From that point until the end of the film, the two women interact more as equals, although Louise sometimes slips into the parent/male role as when she admonishes Thelma not to litter. Unlike an earlier scene when Louise decides alone that going to the police about the attempted rape would be useless, a key scene occurs later in the speeding car when the newly assertive Thelma decides together with Louise that they have done the right thing in running because the law would not have done anything to Harlan anyway. A little later, Thelma tells Louise "I guess I went a little crazy," referring to the robbery, etc., and Louise replies, "Well, it's the first chance you've had to really express yourself." Finally, to reinforce Thelma's new maturity, it is Thelma who tells Louise that they must keep going when they are surrounded by police in the desert; Thelma proposes that they drive off the cliff into the canyon and Louise agrees.

The relationship between Thelma And Louise has many of the qualities Tannen discussed in Chapter 9 (246) in which she claims that women's friendships generally tend to be based on a more intimate sharing of personal details and problems than are men's friendships. More importantly, the fact that Thelma's character changed and developed to become more like Louise's, and Louise remained largely the same, implied the positive feminist message that women who express independence and assertiveness in relation to men (and to each other) is more desirable. In the film, each character exorcises feelings about men that they were repressing. Thelma throws off her yoke of dependence on her husband when she sleeps with the hitchhiker, J.D., and Louise vents long pent-up feelings of anger regarding her own rape when she shoots Harlan. In fact, Louise's action of shooting Harlan supports Wood's claim that "...the feelings that accompany rape and sexual assault ... endure far beyond the act itself" (254). In all these ways, the friendship between Thelma and Louise contains both older and more recent views of gender expectations of American women, highlights the dynamics of a female friendship, and serves as a vehicle for them (and vicariously, the audience) to express anger toward various, and still common, damaging male behaviours such as treating women as sex objects, which can lead to rape, or as property, which is simply dehumanizing.

Another area of interest are the relationships of Thelma and Louise to the men in the film. A common complaint of male viewers of the film is that all the male characters are stereotypical, but I think this serves the story because by showing how the men relate to Thelma and Louise highlights some of the gender stereotypical ways men and women still treat each other.

Thelma's husband, Darryl, is intolerant, selfish, and narcissistic. Throughout the movie, he never realizes that his treatment of his wife contributes to her unhappiness and her subsequent rejection of him. A classic example of his attitude toward her occurs when she calls him shortly after Harlan's murder. She is trying to explain where she is etc., but he misses the explanation because he is watching a football game. He does not express any love or tenderness, but simply orders Thelma to come home. This also brings home Darryl's 'double- standard' attitude toward their marriage because the audience learns that Darryl was out most of the night before and felt no obligation to call or explain to Louise. Even the police sense that Thelma and Darryl's marriage is not a loving, close one. A funny, but telling, scene occurs between the police and Darryl that keys in to what men perceive women want, which can often be a source of miscommunication between the genders. In order to trace Thelma and Louise's location through a phone tap, the police advise Darryl to be uncharacteristically gentle with Thelma when she calls, "Sound like you're really glad to hear from her. Women love that shit." Of course, Thelma knows right away that something is wrong because Darryl is never nice.

Though Louise's boyfriend Jimmy is more sympathetic in that he seems loving and helps Louise without insisting on being in control or in the know about her situation, the audience learns he is shy of commitment, which is a source of pain for Louise. Apparently, Louise wants to go on this road trip with Thelma because he has recently been ignoring her. Of course, after the shooting when Louise is obviously in trouble, Jimmy's interest in her is renewed. Louise expresses her feelings about this often 'typical male' reluctance toward commitment when she tells Thelma, "Jimmy's like any other guy, he just loves the chase." Jimmy does come to Oklahoma City where he gives Louise the balance of her savings and spends a final night with her. This leads to an interesting dual 'relationship' scene where Louise and Jimmy are relating on a mature level in one hotel room, honestly discussing their feelings, while down the hall in another room, Thelma and J. D. are interacting more like children, jumping on the bed and playing schoolyard games though they also finally have sex. I enjoyed this scene for the contrasts it offered in showing the different levels of maturity and intimacy on which men and women interact.

The drifter, J.D., however, also uses and takes advantage of the two women. When he tells Thelma that he robs stores, he mouths a typically awful come-on line: "I may be an outlaw but you're the one stealin' my heart." His insincerity is made clear when the two women realize the next morning that he has stolen all their money. The other minor male characters are similar in their views of Thelma and Louise. Harlan, the man who attempts to rape Thelma, first greets Thelma and Louise at the roadhouse with the line, "What are two Kewpie Dolls like you doing in a place like this. He objectifies them right away with the term Kewpie Doll and Louise picks up on it and is rightly suspicious. When Louise rescues Thelma from his assault in the parking lot a few moments later, he says "We're just having a little fun," and Louise replies "You have a real f...-up idea of fun." This whole scene supports Wood's claim that one of the stereotypical themes of the media is to portray women as victims/sex objects and men as aggressors (243), and Louise's reply speaks for all women who demand that men treat them with respect. Finally, the truck driver who keeps making lewd gestures toward the two women exemplifies all the guys in any woman's life who ever whistled or catcalled, etc., to women they don't know. Finally, the policeman who stops Thelma and Louise is another comical male stereotype in that he is a big, macho guy with his gun and uniform, but when his gun is taken away he becomes a whimpering clown. In fact, even the sympathetic policeman who speaks to Louise on the phone and tries to avert the disaster at the end of the film, consistently refers to Thelma and Louise throughout not as women, but as 'girls.'

It is also worth pointing out at this point that even near the end of the film when the two women are becoming more comfortable asserting themselves with the men in the film, they are still excessively polite. They both use 'please ‘and 'thank you' and apologize at the same time they are locking the policeman in the trunk, robbing a store, or shooting at the lewd truck driver's big rig. As in Dr. Jenkins analysis of Shelley Long's character in Cheers (Deming & Jenkins, 55), but in reverse, Thelma and Louise are exhibiting non- stereotypical female behaviour while maintaining stereotypical elements of what Robin Lakeoff calls 'women's speech.'

This film is a mixed bag in that it both reflects and challenges gender stereotypes within the context of American films.

Thelma and Louise

was originally touted as the first female 'buddy' picture. True, the film challenges stereotypes because like in

Lethal Weapon

, the protagonists get to have an adventure that usually only men get to have in films, i.e., shooting guns, blowing things up, big car chases, etc. However, in

Lethal Weapon

and in every other recent and similar 'adventure' movie I can think of, the male protagonists are sanctioned by society. They are cops or government agents or whatever, and never have to pay any consequences for the destruction they cause. On the other hand, Thelma and Louise are outside the sanctioned power structure from the beginning and thus the ending is inevitable. In fact, they both realize that even though Louise may have been justified in shooting Harlan from their point of view, the laws regarding rape and assault are still weighted too much in the perpetrator's favor. In this respect, the film reinforces the continued powerlessness of women in our society.

There are also some other mixed messages given in the film. For instance, when the policemen and Darryl are viewing the videotape of Thelma robbing a store, their only respective comments are "Jesus Christ, ''Good God," and "My Lord." The concurrent looks on their faces make clear that 'nice girls' like Thelma and Louise don't do things like that and isn't it shocking? Yet, in the final scene, the caring policeman begs his colleague not to corner them and asks, "How many times do they have to be f... over?" which is an interesting acknowledgment that Thelma and Louise's predicament has come about largely through the injustice of a sexist society.

The ending, however, again reinforces stereotypes. Even the film

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

, where the two male protagonists were also 'outlaws' and die at the end, the male characters choose to fight whereas Thelma and Louise choose to commit suicide. Part of this may have been Hollywood's squeamishness at showing two leading ladies getting shot by an army of male policemen, but the alternative is equally discouraging. The men have already won so why fight back. I can understand that perhaps the two women felt, in a weird way, that death was the only way to preserve their freedom but it also sends a message to women that if you get in a situation like these women did or you challenge the system you might as well kill yourself and not try to fight back, all of which seems to reinforce Wood's claim that the media does not let an aggressive woman be a 'good' woman (237), i.e., they must pay in some way for their aggressiveness. Regardless of the reasoning for the end, the film is still ultimately a negative message about how women are still seen by men in our society and the limits of womens' power within that society.

Thelma and Louise contains both positive and negative messages with regard to gender. A main focus of the film is Thelma discovering a new assertiveness and this is celebrated. Many issues are brought out regarding common sources of anger that women share when relating to men in various situations. Also, women simply getting to have a traditional 'male' adventure as mentioned above is somewhat unique. However, men and women are still portrayed stereotypically throughout and thus the film sends contradictory messages. And the ending seems most troubling and negative, indicating mainstream Hollywood, like many other aspects of the major media, still has a long way to go in portraying characters and telling stories that are not rooted in and dependent upon gender stereotypes.

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