On the Road Again with Thelma & Louise (1991)

THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

To view Thelma & Louise click here.

I recently showed Thelma & Louise in one of my film history courses. I had never shown the film in a class before, and I had not seen it for over a decade. Most of the students had never seen it, though they knew the basic story. Referenced for over 25 years in talk-show monologues, sitcoms and The Simpsons (1989-2017), Thelma & Louise has become an iconic tale of female frustration and dissatisfaction with the patriarchal status quo. In a way, that identity does the film a disservice, reducing it to a feminist rant. But, Thelma & Louise, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck, is so much more. I had forgotten just how well crafted and entertaining it was until I re-viewed it with my students, who smiled, laughed, and sat on the edge of their seats as the characters’ misadventures escalated.

The two title characters are a housewife and a waitress who set out on a brief vacation. A pit stop at a roadhouse proves disastrous when Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots a would-be rapist who just couldn’t keep his mouth shut. The pair decide to run away not only from the crime but also from their less-than-satisfying lives. Thelma (Geena Davis) is drowning in her traditional role as a housewife, while Louise works a dead-end job as a waitress, waiting for her boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen), to settle down.

THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

While I don’t wish to downplay or dismiss the story’s female-centric message about escaping the inequities of living in a man’s world, my purpose in showing Thelma & Louise was not the theme per se but the way the visual design  echoed that theme. Their journey from entrapment to freedom is reflected in the costuming, makeup and set design. Because Thelma and Louise were living a normal live until they committed a series of crimes, it is logical to think that their journey began with freedom and moved toward potential confinement, or prison. But, in terms of gender roles, the opposite is true. They escape the confines of domesticity to be independent from society’s expectations for women.

Director Ridley Scott is known for creating  an immersive visual style in his films, but Thelma & Louise looks more like the everyday world than Scott’s usual fare of science fiction or historical epics. And yet, don’t let the verisimilitude fool you. There is a strategy to the use of costume, makeup and set design in Thelma & Louise that is just as significant as those in Scott’s more visually adventurous films.

The opening sequence intercuts between Thelma and Louise as they chat on the phone, talking about their upcoming trip. Each appears in a kitchen of sorts—a traditional space associated with women. Louise is hard at work at a cramped, busy diner serving her customers; Thelma is at home in her messy kitchen serving her ungrateful husband, Darryl (Christopher McDonald). The two look confined by and squeezed into their respective spaces. In addition, the sequence  shows that the two friends have opposite personalities: Louise is in control and responsible, while Thelma is sloppy, child-like and accustomed to being told what to do.

THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

As the two pack for their trip, their opposing personalities are reinforced. Louise, with her long hair tightly pinned back, is dressed in a wrinkle-free blouse tucked evenly into her jeans. Her bright red lips accentuate her perfectly applied makeup. She packs her neatly folded shirts into a small suitcase. Thelma, with her curly hair flying around her face, throws anything she can into a suitcase too large for a brief trip. When Louise picks her up in her distinctive turquoise Ford Thunderbird, Thelma wears a frilly, gauzy white dress and tosses several bags and unnecessary items into the back of the car.

As the two go on the lam (or, on the “lamb” as one of my students wrote) after the shooting, their costumes begin to reflect changes in their characters. The two friends become more alike, taking on each other’s better traits. Louise lets her hair down and loosens up, while Thelma loses the frilly dresses and takes more control of their situation. As their journey continues, Louise tosses away her red lipstick and puts on a ribbed, sleeveless t-shirt known in slang terms as a wife-beater. Thelma sports denim jeans combined with a black T-shirt. Near the end, Louise trades her rings and jewelry for a beat-up cowboy hat, and Thelma steals a dirty baseball cap from a trucker. Their costuming becomes more masculine, not because the women are masculine but because they are shedding their traditional gender roles.

At first, Thelma and Louise stay in motels and eat at restaurants, which seem to be extensions of their domestic spaces—especially when shared with men. When Jimmy catches up with the women in Oklahoma, he and Louise share a room while Thelma shares her room with the devilishly handsome J.D., played by a young, irresistible Brad Pitt. (George Clooney was up for the role of J.D., but Pitt seemed born to play the part.) Jimmy finally proposes to Louise, but it is too late. As he tries to talk her into marriage, she is backed into the dark corner of the room, trapped as much by the relationship as she is by her situation.

THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

By the end of the film, Thelma and Louise reach the wide, open spaces of the Wild West in their Thunderbird. Though pursued by the law, they feel free from the constraints of mainstream society, like true American outlaws. Scott equates Thelma and Louise with the mythic outlaws of the Old West. In a beautiful scene shot at sunrise in Monument Valley—a locale made iconic in countless John Ford Westerns—Louise stops the car to commune with the open space and relish the freedom it signifies.

THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

In contrast, the male characters move into smaller and smaller spaces as the story progresses. In the beginning, Darryl goes outside the house to work; Jimmy drives his 18-wheeler; the detective on the case is shown investigating in the parking lot of the roadhouse. The men eventually set up headquarters inside Darryl’s house, virtually trapped in the dark, messy living room, watching a melodrama as they wait for Thelma to call. A gender reversal in every detail.

Ultimately,l Thelma & Louise appealed to many women viewers not for its politics but because it showcased the friendship between two ordinary women. Thelma and Louise are not teenagers, masculine-looking superheroes, or incarnations of male fantasies, which are the typical depictions of females in contemporary films. In interviews, Geena Davis has remarked on the number of fans who love the movie because of its depiction of a female friendship they could relate to. Inspired in part by these remarks, the actress founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2007, which studies the image of women—or lack thereof—in Hollywood movies.

Last year was the 25th anniversary of the release of Thelma & Louise, which prompted articles, re-issues and a Fathom-TCM screening. The attention encouraged me to include it in one of my courses, resulting in its introduction to a new generation of viewers.

Susan Doll

15 Responses On the Road Again with Thelma & Louise (1991)
Posted By Doug : April 17, 2017 9:33 am

We each have our different world view-in my world view, women are equal and as capable as any man in succeeding (or failing) by their own abilities.
I reject the idea of ‘the patriarchal status quo’. To me, “female-centric message about escaping the inequities of living in a man’s world” is a false narrative here in the Western world.
Women ARE treated as objects, third or no class citizens, unjustly inequal…in Islamic countries. The horrors which are perpetrated against women in those countries unspeakable. Meaning that any woman who ‘speaks up’ against the patriarchy in Saudi Arabia, for example, will be silenced.
But here? Where women can become college professors, doctors or whatever they choose to be? This is a good society, a healthy society. This isn’t a man’s world. This is OUR world.
personal note-I’ve worked under female supervisors, good and bad, for the past 15 years at my job. I work in an office with a predominately female staff, and no one is ‘held back’ or ‘inequal’ because of gender.

Posted By Ela : April 17, 2017 9:55 am

This is a great analysis. I have always loved this movie but had never thought about the role of the costumes, makeup, and setting in reflecting the theme of entrapment to freedom. Thank you for making that connection.

We do still live in a society here in the US where women are treated as objects. And this film addresses the issue without being preachy. Need more films like this one!

Posted By Keishen : April 17, 2017 10:25 am

I wish we lived in a world where we don’t even need to discuss putting women in more leading roles being just WOMEN (not superheroes, teens, etc.) it would just be a normal thing. Plenty of movies starring men AND women.

It’s funny, in Hollywood’s recent attempt to make better female protagonists, I actually think they’re getting worse. The recent trailer for Transformers 5 (ugh) made me realize this. They’re trying too hard to make female characters over-powerful and making them “wanting to show that girls can do what boys can” be their only identity. They’re not real people. They’re advertisements and propaganda. There’s really only two steps to writing a strong, female character: Write a character. Cast a female. Done. Obviously, if the film is about female-specific issues, then you’d most definitely cast a female, but I’m speaking generally.

Posted By Lisa W. : April 17, 2017 11:53 am

The insights here are spot on in terms of how the filmmaker used costuming and makeup and scenery to show the progression of the characters to tell the story. This is a forum to discuss film. I follow these posts because I learn something new EVERY time. I may not agree with every single insight, but that does not make the filmmaker or the writer’s interpretation of the film wrong or that it needs to align to my or your particular “world view”.
I had seen Thelma & Louise when it first hit the theater and found it refreshing to see women who seemed to be living every-day lives travel a path that took them far outside of the norm and enjoyed that contrast and that feeling of freedom, never registering all the devices used to illustrate their transformation. Thanks for the well-written post—makes me want to re-watch the film now to look for the details you’ve pointed us to.

Posted By Lauren : April 17, 2017 1:21 pm

First saw Thelma & Louise as part of a Women in Film class in college. So complex and rewarding, and also entertaining. So many men don’t understand how women are continually put in “boxes”, expected to look and act a certain way and cater to men. As you so eloquently wrote, these two start out like this and eventually make their own rules (including how they’ll go). Great post!

Posted By Ken Adlam : April 17, 2017 2:34 pm

A great discussion of an underrated film…Sarandon and Davis should have gotten a joint-Oscar (no disrespect to Jodie Foster intended). Thank you for the thoughtful discussion of the technical aspects of the film and their relation to the whole. I recall when the film came out that a female friend congratulated me on having liked it so much that she declared me a true friend of feminism… only to later tell me that I was a sexist pig because “Field of Dreams” was one of my favorite films. ah!, the inconsistency of rabid ideology…”Thelma and Louise” certainly deserves better than to be seen as simply a treatise on sexism! Great Post!

Posted By Nancy : April 17, 2017 2:37 pm

Thelma & Louise is a terrific film that was artfully written, wonderfully cast, and exquisitely shot. Thanks for this insightful reminder that such good work holds up over time and can serve as bar for other films to reach.

A note to Doug: While I am glad you are so supportive of women in all roles, your response rings hollow. Unless you are a woman raised in this society, you cannot possibly know what women–across geographic, age, and ethnic lines–experience on a daily basis. Whether a young adult just starting their career or someone who has achieved higher rungs on the professional ladder, most women can readily tell you that we are subjected to sexism in a variety of ways every day of our lives. It is woven so deeply into the fabric of the system that it can be difficult to see, even for some who experience it.
Case in point: A man reads a review written by a women who makes the accurate statement that this film contains a “female-centric message about escaping the inequities of living in a man’s world” and he feels very comfortable to say that sexism doesn’t exist because he doesn’t see it.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. However, as long as you continue to think sexism no longer exists, you are part of the problem. If you are truly as supportive as you claim, please begin reading about what women experience and start listening to women who can help inform and expand your perspective. Here’s a short article to get you started: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/linked-in-gender-bias-survey_us_581cb952e4b0d9ce6fbb7c1e .

Posted By Doug : April 17, 2017 4:14 pm

Answering Nancy: “Doug…your response rings hollow. Unless you are a woman raised in this society, you cannot possibly know what women–across geographic, age, and ethnic lines–experience on a daily basis.”
Luckily I’m not limited by your assumptions about what I can or cannot know. I can only assure you that my world view works for me, and as an empathetic human being I can imperfectly understand what other people/genders ‘go through’. Same as you.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : April 17, 2017 8:07 pm

Doug: You may not be limited by Nancy’s assumptions about what you can or cannot know, but you are limited by believing that because your world view works for you that it bears any resemblance to the actual world.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 17, 2017 8:21 pm

We are all not going to agree about the theme of this film, and I appreciate the diversity of points of view. It’s not about agreeing with each other, and no one is going to change anyone else’s mind, but I would like us all to be kind to one another. Life is just too short.

Posted By George : April 17, 2017 9:02 pm

I think the makers of THELMA AND LOUISE wanted it to provoke discussions. And 26 years later, it’s still doing just that!

Posted By Susan Doll : April 17, 2017 11:20 pm

George: Perfect comment.

Posted By Jennifer Townsend : April 18, 2017 1:00 am

Are you aware of a documentary about Thelma & Louise that is having its World Premiere on April 30th? It will be screened at the “Cinema at the Edge” film festival in Santa Monica, CA. To order tickets to ‘Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise’ go to http://www.cinemaattheedge.com/

Learn about the film at http://www.CatchingSightOf.com
Go to the ‘Sharings’ tab to share your comments about Thelma & Louise.

Susan, thank you for keeping the spirit of Thelma & Louise alive!

Posted By SeeingI : June 22, 2017 4:19 pm

I loved this film but haven’t seen it in many years – I will definitely check it out again soon. Thanks for the canny guide to the film’s visual blueprint. It will be a pleasure to revisit one of Sarandon’s best roles and the career high point of the criminally underrated Geena Davis. Another eyeful of Brad Pitt’s incandescent debut will not be unappreciated either.

Its biggest contribution to my life overall was to introduce me to the great Marianne Faithfull, whose “Ballad of Lucy Jordan” appears on the soundtrack. She soon became one of my all time favorite artists.

Posted By George : June 22, 2017 5:29 pm

I sometimes wonder if THELMA AND LOUISE was Ridley Scott’s attempt to make amends for his previous film, the corrosively macho BLACK RAIN.

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