Posted by Susan Doll on April 17, 2017
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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