Thelma & Louise: Lessons in Cliff Diving (and Life)

June 3, 2011 | Danelle

My “Women in Film” class is wrapping up and the final movie we watched on Tuesday was Thelma and Louise with Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

The movie is a fantastic women’s film and if you have not seen it, I suggest you do. You are not only missing out on all the cultural references from the now considered classic pair of ladies, but also passing up the chance to see an inspiring example of female liberation.

The main characters – Thelma and Louise – are set up as women who seem to just be going through the motions of life, constantly settling for things. These include a steady job as a waitress and non-committal boyfriend for Louise and an unhappy sheltered marriage with an infantile, cheating husband for Thelma. Both clearly seek something outside of their mediocre lives, as they decide to leave town for a small fishing trip without telling their significant others.

Early in their road trip, the girls get dolled up and make a pit stop at a bar for a few drinks. Rarely getting out of the house, Thelma’s confidence soars as a man at the bar flirts with her. Louise, being the more cautious friend in the pair, tries to look out for the now tipsy Thelma, but things take a wrong turn. The man leads Thelma outside for fresh air and attempts to rape her.

He almost gets his chance until Louise digs out a gun Thelma had packed as an afterthought (and never used or wanted to use) and points it at him. He releases Thelma, but still provokes her, and at this point, the audience realizes that Louise’s rage goes much deeper than just defending her friend. The man says some choice words and Louise pulls the trigger, shooting him right in the heart.

This is the beginning of their freedom, as strange as that sounds.

Instead of going to the police – explaining that the reason for the man’s death was self-defense – they run. More is revealed about Louise’s past and she explains to Thelma that going to the police will not do anything because people will just assume Thelma was “asking for it” since she was dancing with the man earlier.

This is a sad way to think about rape, but at that time the Rape Shield Laws had just passed, which prevented the rape victim’s past sexual history being questioned, and it had only passed in a few states to boot. Thus, there were still culture assumptions and some legal assumptions about women’s behavior when it came to rape.

Thelma and Louise seem to get into more and more trouble (and more and more confident) the farther they drive towards the Mexican border. The state police officer – Hal – is sympathetic, knowing their story all too well and begging them to just come back. They refuse, and when they commit a few more crimes, their label as outlaws is set in stone.

The last scene is one of the most moving I have seen in awhile (yes, I was tearing up). When the police have surrounded them around the Grand Canyon, they decide to never settle again or give up. They turn the car around, and drive off the cliff holding each other’s hands. The scene freezes with them in soaring over the cliff and fades to white.

The question here is why did Thelma and Louise keep running?

The answer is more than just the cultural assumptions that went along with rape at the time – although that does play a large role. The most important point the movie makes is that women should never settle for anything. They should never settle for mediocrity, unhappiness, or oppression.  Naturally, Thelma and Louise took the concept of “not settling” to an extreme, but it was necessary to show their liberation. Once they decided to never settle, they became truly happy and free.

In a world today where women are constantly settling for things, I suggest they think of Thelma and Louise. The pair of friends took a leap of faith, and in the end, gained control of their lives for the first time. Refusing to settle for what is popular or what others want for you makes you free to pursue things you desire in life. That is what ultimately makes you free, not burning your bra case in point.

There is a lot to analyze with this movie, so if you have seen it, feel free to comment! Also, if you are interested, here is an article by gender and film theorist Glenn Man on the movie.

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