Whenever there’s a conversation about women in film, this movie always seems to turn up (well, it and Lara Croft but that’s another conversation for another day). I’ve finally gotten around to watching it, and I have to say, it was simultaneously more and less depressing than I’d expected.
To me, this is a movie about the impossibility of living as a woman in a patriarchy. Which is, y’know, depressing. But even though it doesn’t end well for them, this is also a movie about two women giving a big fuck you to the patriarchy. Which is awesome!
I’m sure this is an observation that’s been made a bazillion times before, but now I’m going to observe it again. Starting with some key assumptions that really drive the patriarchy aspect home:
First, the fact that obviously they can’t tell the police. I mean, Thelma was clearly being raped, and Louise was clearly coming to her rescue, and even if it wasn’t self-defense (since he was leaving– though since he was also still shouting threats, they might have had a case) it probably could have been taken down to accidental manslaughter or temporary insanity — if people believed that he had been raping Thelma. Which, obviously, they wouldn’t. She was flirting with him. She’d been drinking. She probably wanted the attention. Even if she’d reported it, the police would have done nothing. Or said nice things and then never looked at her rape kit. It’s called victim–blaming. (Jesus, those links took me all of fifteen minutes to find…and there are even more here.)
So, nobody’s going to take Thelma’s rape seriously. Obviously.
What makes this movie so awesome is that instead of shutting up and taking it, these two women run. They don’t apologize, they don’t try to explain– they just drive off.
And the deeper in trouble they get, the more they transgress, the more alive they feel. Just listen to them!
Thelma: I don’t ever remember feeling this awake.
Louise: You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.
Thelma: Something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back. I mean I just couldn’t live.
Louise: I know. I know what you mean.
Thelma: Louise, no matter what happens, I’m glad I came with you.
They have fun. They see some truly beautiful parts of the country. They drink and they smoke and they talk about whatever they want, including stuff that has nothing to do with men (this movie passes the Bechdel Test times a million). Thelma gets laid “properly,” Louise is proud, and no fire and brimstone rains down to punish her for enjoying sex. It looks like they’re outrunning the patriarchy. I mean, there’s no greater moment than when that have that idiot truck driver, and they are totally calling him out on his misogyny, and when he doesn’t get it– they blow up his truck! I nearly cheered!
Except, of course, that a woman can’t really break free, in a patriarchy. All their victories are destructive. They kill a man. They rob a store. They trap a policeman in his trunk. They blow up an asshole’s truck. And yeah, there’s a victory in doing things that patriarchy says you can’t do, and looking at each other and saying, “who knew we were so strong and brave and generally badass?” but in the end, they can’t change anything. The truck driver doesn’t learn his lesson. He just swears revenge– which he gets, because, hey, patriarchy! The police come and they’re on his side.
This is not a world that is kind to women. Thelma knows in an instant that her phone line is tapped because her husband answers sweetly.
State Trooper: [Sobbing] Please! I have a wife and kids.
Thelma: Oh really, well, you’re lucky. You be sweet to them, especially your wife. My husband wasn’t sweet to me. Look how I turned out.
Look how they turned out. In their desperation, they learned that they were strong, that they could do things. But look how they turned out.
They made a truly amazing run of it, but you can’t outrun the patriarchy. It does not provide any good choices. But their suicide– choosing a glorious, defiant death over the slow soul-killing death of trial and jail and blame and society’s tiny boxes– their choice to just go, to just keep going is probably not a “good choice,” but it is triumphant.
Which made this movie simultaneously more and less depressing than I expected– but mostly less.