It’s early of 2016, I’m not doing all that well in my course essays and know I need to pull a decent grade out of somewhere.
My lecturer has made plenty of comments insinuating he was a ‘woke feminist’.
I have spent countless hours watching YouTube videos about third wave feminism. Predominantly videos deconstructing and dismissing the ideology nonetheless I feel comfortable using it as a lens. We have to do an essay about Thelma and Louise, a film I really dislike. I decide the best way to get a decent mark without putting any effort in is to use this YouTube knowledge. It turns out I was right!
Unfortunately I could not find my final submitted draft but trust me when I say it was only marginally better than the first. This drivel was marked as a a 72 (Low first) despite it being in my opinion significantly weaker than my other essays which scored worse.
What’s the point in sharing this you may be asking?
I suppose my point is that shoddy work is marked more generously when it coincides with the academic’s world view and conversely work that doesn’t will be marked more harshly. But my question for you is should anything be done about this? Can anything be done about this? Or should students just play what’s in front of them and game the system? I’m not sure.
Regardless here is the first draft that I wrote. Enjoy!
Who or what is the antagonist in Thelma and Louise?
Critical opinion was mixed when Thelma and Louise was released. The majority opinion was that Thelma and Louise was a welcome addition to the buddy road movie genre which by having its two joint protagonists be women allowed a fresh take on well-trodden ground. This fresh take was a portrayal of working class feminist liberation from the confines of patriarchy. The minority view point however was that best portrayed by the New York Daily News columnist Richard Johnson who wrote that the film ‘justifies armed robbery, manslaughter and chronic drunken driving as exercises in conscious raising.’ (1991) His interpretation seemingly being that as Thelma and Louise’s liberation was driven by the same tools of toxic masculinity that they were trying to escape from it rather defeats the point. For him Thelma and Louise are to some extent unwittingly co-opted into the system they are rebelling against. This can be seen in how they become more stereotypically masculine throughout the film as they steal men’s hats and sunglasses albeit that this is not present in the script. Thelma even steals J.D’s armed robbery patter word for word. But there are reasons given for this within the text. It appears that this is an expression of their personalities which happen to be more stereotypically masculine. Khouri makes this explicit in her screenplay when Thelma says ‘I guess I went a little crazy’. To which Louise replies ‘ No… you’ve always been crazy. This is just the first chance you’ve had to really express yourself.’(111) The story then is not necessarily what they do, but their freedom to do it. For the purpose of this essay I will give Callie Khouri’s screenplay the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. I will do this by analysing Thelma and Louise with the same feminist lens that Khouri wrote it with.
Ostensibly the antagonist in Thelma and Louise is the police force. But Khouri makes it clear that Thelma and Louise are responding to the whole system. Following the inciting incident, where Louise shoots Harlan dead, the rest of the narrative is driven by Thelma and Louise’s futile attempt to escape from capture. They become outlaws because Louise cannot trust the police force owing to her previous negative experience with how they dealt with her rape. When Thelma encourages Louise to go to the police and tell them exactly what happened Louise dismisses her with the lines ‘Who’s gonna believe that? We just don’t live in that kind of world.’ (19) Khouri has Louise go from the particular, mistrust of the police force, to the general, that kind of world. The police are presented as a fundamental part of patriarchy. The antagonist is not one man or one structure but the whole system. Rebelling against one part of the system brings the whole weight of it toppling down on our protagonists. It is inaccurate to pick out any of the men Thelma and Louise encounter as the antagonist. This is because the part represents the whole. Each man represents an element of the system of oppression. Khouri addresses public response to the inciting incident she states
‘Outlaw movies have always been a catharsis for men, but denied to women. I was extremely frustrated with the literal interpretation of Thelma & Louise. Doesn’t anyone read anymore or understand metaphor? I thought when Louise shot that guy there’d be dead silence in the theatre. That scene was written carefully: it was an attempted rape, and I wanted to make what she did wrong. And yet people cheered. I was stunned. (2001)
Freedom for Thelma and Louise is derived from being on the run, breaking away from the system however temporarily it might be. They are finally free from the gender roles and constraints they have placed on them by the men in their lives. Catharsis is not gained for Louise through killing Harlan. This is shown through the line Khouri has Louise whisper to herself following the shooting ‘You watch your mouth buddy.’ (17) She has yet to exorcise the ghost of her rapist. Otherwise she would be able to drive through Texas. The killing is a consequence of that lack of exorcism. An audience celebrating that moment for Khouri is missing the point. Nothing has been gained yet. A nasty guy is dead so what? It is the failed and flawed system they are fighting and which they are now compelled to reject owing to Louise’s lack of self-control. Harlan is almost inconsequential as he is not actually the antagonist. He is just another bad guy. Yet it is his casual killing that provoked the negative response I touched on in the introduction. Joan Smith wrote that the film is ‘a masculine revenge fantasy in which the gender of the leading characters has been switched.’ (1991) For Khouri this is the only reason for the backlash she says
‘Bad guys get killed in every goddamn movie that gets made and that guy was the bad guy and he got killed. It was only because a woman did it that there was any controversy at all. If a guy had come out and saved their asses and shot that guy and said, “Run, quick,” do you think there would have been a fucking moment of controversy?’ (2001)
This critical response confirms for Khouri the existence of the antagonist she is writing against. The negative feedback only comes because women are not allowed to demonstrate typically masculine behaviour without fear of reprisal even within fiction!
The catharsis and liberation for Thelma and Louise is derived from their complete rejection of gender roles, their role as the subordinate woman, the unwelcome place in society that they don’t enjoy. Yet as they have entirely different natures, how they are constrained by the antagonist is slightly different. Khouri demonstrates the difference immediately through how she presents the two visually, Thelma has a wild personality which is demonstrated in how she packs haphazardly. Louise is far more restrained and has a more orderly packing regime. Thelma is constrained by men specifically Darryl to the point of infantilisation which leaves her knowing little of the world and unable to be the ‘wild woman’ she does not quite realise she is. (48). This is spelt out immediately by Louise when she asks Thelma ‘You mean you haven’t asked him yet? For Christ sake, Thelma, is he your husband or your father.’ (1) This line is then called back by Callie Khouri to hammer home just how the antagonist is oppressing Thelma when Thelma says ‘Darryl, please….you’re my husband not my father Darryl.’ (37) For Thelma simply getting out of the house without Darryl’s permission is a start in her journey of liberation this is seen in the exchange between Louise and Thelma in the Silver Bullet where Louise states ‘I’m used to seeing you more sedate.’ and Thelma replies ‘Well, I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate.’ This works on two levels. Firstly there’s the element of dramatic irony for we know the non-stop action to come. Secondly it shows what Thelma is desperately seeking which is the agency to make her own decisions and her own mistakes so that she can grow up in all sorts of ways. One example would be her finding out from J.D. that she can ‘have a sexual experience that isn’t completely disgusting.’ (63) Khouri shows that Thelma has finally reached that point of being a grown up with agency in the scene where Khouri flips the perspective that the two had following Harlan’s death. Thelma says in response to Louise now thinking that perhaps they should have gone to the police ‘That guy was hurtin’ me. And if you hadn’t come out when you did, he’d a hurt me a lot worse. And probably nothin’ woulda happened to him.’ As far as Thelma is concerned ‘At least now I’m havin’ fun.’ Thelma is ‘not sorry the son of a bitch is dead.’ She is ‘only sorry that it was you that did it not me.’ (96) Thelma has finally realised who the antagonist is and how she has been let down throughout her life. This switch of perspectives is further demonstrated when Thelma cuts short the phone call between Hal and Louise. She has realised there is no salvation to be found within the system, however sympathetic Hal might be, and that trying to find one will only ‘blow it’ (98).
Louise isn’t constrained by men so much as continually let down by them. Even though on the surface she wants to connect with men it is extremely difficult owing to her past experiences. She attempts to separate herself from these entirely by avoiding Texas as well as trying her best to stop Jimmy coming to her. Jimmy is shown relatively positively by Khouri through his actions, however Khouri reveals that his nature is perhaps less benign through dialogue. Louise says ‘Don’t be fooled, he’s no different than any other guy. He knows how to chase and that’s it. Once he’s caught you, he don’t know what to do. So he runs away.’ (49) Jimmy also infantilises Louise for no clear reason he asks her ‘Now, my little coconut, what seems to be the trouble here? Tell Daddy everything.’ (53) Although he does not appear to mean any harm from this we can see that he must not see them as being equal. Jimmy seemingly cannot imagine Louise having any problems that he could not solve. Through this we can then see the other level which the antagonist has. There is the clearly chauvinist masculinity shown best by Harlan, Darryl and the trucker who wish to control women and see them as objects for their own benefit. This is obviously wrong and to be negated which is why the cartoonish torment and mockery of the lorry driver who has been omnipresent throughout the trip is not as grating as it might have been had he been a rounded character. But then there is the more subtle sexism of low expectations that Hal and Jimmy exhibit. If you do not hold women to the same standard as men then you must see them as inferior. Hal demonstrates this most obviously at the end of the screenplay when he says ‘Hey! Don’t let them shoot those girls. This is too much. They got guns pointed at them!’ (113) to which Max replies ‘ The women are armed, Hal. This is standard. Now you stay calm here.’ (114) Note Hal’s use of girls and Max’s use of women. This is not to avoid repetition! It is another clever way of Khouri showing Hal’s unconscious sexism.
Some people argue that in not having Thelma and Louise escape to Mexico the antagonist wins. Khouri explains that it is a symbolic victory ‘you didn’t see a literal death… They flew away, out of this world and into the mass unconscious. Women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world….They will be brought down if they stay here.’ (1996) The reason the antagonist in Thelma and Louise is a concept rather than any specific person is because as Lipsitz writes ‘For 129 glorious minutes, two women were the stars of their own lives, and their lives did not revolve around men.’ To whittle it down to one particular man is to miss the point as not a single one matters in their own right but only in how they relate to Thelma and Louise. Ridley Scott understood this perfectly which is why he made the decision to minimise Hal’s role at the end so that it is purely about Thelma and Louise’s rejection of the antagonist. A perpetual break away from the antagonist is only possible through this ending hence it working so well.
Word Count: 1972
Lipsitz, Raina. ‘‘Thelma & Louise’: The Last Great Film About Women.’’ The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 2011. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.
Morris, Mark. “Girls Just Want to Have Guns.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2001. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.
Page, Clarence “`Thelma & Louise`: A Reel-life Tale Of Women And Power.” Tribunedigital-chicagotribune. 1991. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.
Khouri, Callie. Thelma and Louise. 1990. Print.
Khouri, Callie. Thelma and Louise and Something to Talk About (Screenplays), ‘Introduction: An Interview with Callie Khourie’, Jodie Burke, Grove Press, NYC, USA, 1996. Print.
How would you have graded this essay? It’s basically me saying ”It’s the patriarchy, stupid” again and again despite me not actually thinking there is one in the western world.