Shed not for her the bitter tear,
Nor give the heart to vain regret;
Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.
(from the headstone of Belle Starr, died February 3, 1899)1
When but a child, I remember my mother’s pointing to a mountain on the outskirts of Tulsa, confiding, “Up on that hill is where the outlaw Belle Starr used to hide out. They could never find her up there.” Though the name of the mountain long since escapes me, the image of the female desperado, aloof and outwitting her would-be captors remains etched in my mind as vivid as the mountain on which Belle Starr hid. I understood that the ambiguous “they” was the law, the men who could never ferret out this “Bandit Queen of the Indian Territory.”2 Today’s filmmakers, most notably, Callie Khouri, renowned for the greatest of “chick-flicks,” Thelma and Louise, capitalize on the female imagination’s fascination with the “woman outlaw.“ Just as Belle Starr, “a good girl gone wrong,” eschewed stereotypical roles for women, particularly those centered around the home and women’s traditional roles, Thelma and Louise3also escape into the hills. Preferring lives of criminality as opposed to domesticity, the two characters speed onto the screen, taking to the highways and breaking all unwritten rules for women—all the while, a popular female voice in the background croons, “I Don’t Wanna Play House.” These “chick” protagonists add dimension to—as well as redefine—what it means to be a woman and outside the law. Even before words such as “gender boundaries“ sprinkled from the pages of feminists and socio-linguists, the outlaw Belle Starr already had violated acceptable codes of behavior for late nineteenth-century American women.
In both the real and the fictive worlds (Belle’s and Thelma and Louise’s), “desperate women” challenge and subvert patriarchy, most obviously through its own cherished symbol, the phallus. “Using the master’s tools,”4 so to speak, Thelma and Louise rebel against authority, destroying, defying, and appropriating patriarchy’s symbols. In their wake, they leave males impotent, powerless. By inverting stereotypical images of males and females, Khouri presents male characters who become “feminized” (behaving like female stereotypes). Emotions wrenched, Khouri’s male characters plead, cry, and wait for females to come home—or even to phone.
Though Khouri’s “chicks” never consciously court a life as “outlaws” (nor had Belle, for that matter), circumstances, nevertheless, pit them against the law, a system to which they refer as “some tricky shit.“ Just as Belle achieved notoriety as a “lover, a horse thief, and a bandit queen,” riding with the James gang and cavorting with Cole Younger at their secret rendezvous5—the film’s counterparts, Thelma and Louise, traverse the same plains, the Great Southwest. Reputed to be “a crack shot and desperate woman,” Belle Starr’s notoriety pivoted around her opposition to the law: a Fort Smith, Arkansas newspaper lambasted her for having “raided, caroused and participated in every form of outlawry prevalent in the nation.”6 Her myth wildly exaggerated, Belle, subsequently, was dubbed “The Female Jesse James.”7 Further developing a reputation as a kind of monster: a bootlegger,8 a renegade and “desperado,”9 an “old hag,”10 “a nutty old whore,”11 a “tiger,”12 and an “Amazon,”13 Belle’s thirst was not thought satiated unless she could “do her share of the killing.”14 So, too, do Khouri’s female outlaws gain a similar status as “monsters,“ dangerous and disturbed “bitches from hell,“ the film tells us. In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar suggest that women in the nineteenth century who failed to fulfill the patriarchal prescription of “angel in the house“ often became associated with the angel’s moral opposite, the “monster“ or “witch.”15 Interestingly, the American media has likened Thelma and Louise to “Medea,” both a witch and a monster, most definitely an enemy of patriarchy.16
Male stereotypes, indeed, emerge as the targets of the film’s monster-like heroines. According to Pat Dowell, in “The Impotence of Women,” the film constitutes a concerted effort at “male bashing,” fulfilling “a male formula with female forms.”17 Along these lines, Margaret Carlson suggests that the film’s protagonists do little more than “act out a male fantasy”:
Along partisan lines, men attack the movie as a male-basing feminist screed [sic], in which they are portrayed as leering, overbearing, violent swine who deserve what they get, from a bullet in the heart to being stuffed in a trunk.18
Ultimately, this “chick flick” goes beyond a “male-bashing,” buddy movie. By inverting male formulas and by underscoring woman’s need for autonomy, Thelma and Louise exposes the inequities and dangers of patriarchy. Additionally, it confirms women’s experience and becomes the story of “Everywoman,” every woman who has been molested, threatened, or undermined by patriarchal authority. In the faces of Thelma and Louise, women see their own: reflections of women harassed on the open highway by truckers or threatened with rape, but hesitant to report it for fear of not being believed. These “looks” are those of women who have internalized guilt for having transgressed patriarchy’s invisible laws. Mostly, Thelma and Louise is about exorcism of guilt and about liberation. Ultimately, too, it is a film about female autonomy.
What Thelma and Louise offers female audiences, beyond just a belly-hearty laugh, with its comic stereotypes of males—obnoxious truckers, con men, selfish husbands and neglectful boyfriends, condescending police officers—even the father figure who fears for the “girl’s“ safety—is a subversive message—a memoir of fighting back. Engaging women vicariously in the enjoyment of female rebellion, the film presents images of females not just as stereotypes whose “options as malcontents in a male world are quickly exhausted,” as Roy Grundmann alleges in “Hollywood Sets the Terms of the Debate,”19 but as individuals who emerge from stereotypical cocoons to actively empower themselves.
Not only do Thelma and Louise break patriarchy’s written laws—as had the “Bandit Queen“ before them—but also they violate its unwritten codes, which prescribe passivity and immobility for women, prescriptions ultimately dictating “waiting.” Thelma and Louise inverts this paradigm of “waiting on,“ or “waiting for“ a man. It depicts female characters who exchange passivity for activity—even their suicide is active, no heads in the oven, overdoes of pills, or drownings.
Just as Belle Starr spurned the legal system and challenged societal institutions—the laws, the courts, and even marriage as an institution—so, too, do Thelma and Louise oppose patriarchal authority. Belle violated her marriage vows by refusing to wait on a man. While her husband was in prison, she reportedly fraternized with a known desperado, Blue Duck, a Cherokee outlaw later arrested for murdering a farmer.20 Indeed, Belle married numerous times, always attaching herself to noted renegades and desperados: “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw,“ she proclaimed.21
Like Belle, Thelma and Louise refuse to follow patriarchal prescriptions which dictate “waiting for” and “waiting on a man”—cooking for him, serving him—and “waiting” for a man—waiting for him to come home, somehow to “validate” their existence. In part, Thelma and Louise’s rebellion implies a refusal “to wait.” Indeed, male and female characters metaphorically exchange places as males wait for females.
At the film’s outset, Thelma (Geena Davis), obviously a repressed housewife, waits on her stereotypical and, undoubtedly, philandering husband, Darryl (Christopher McDonald): she cooks his meals, takes his orders, and routinely waits for him to come home. Darryl, a carpet store manager, who gloats over the fact that he has a managerial position and his wife does not, constantly demeans Thelma, “walking on” her as though she were one of his carpets. Worse yet, Thelma, at first glance, seems accustomed to her spouse’s verbal pounding. Beginning with her rebellion against her authoritarian and tyrannical husband—and patriarchal head of the household—Thelma escapes on a vacation with Louise without Darryl’s “permission.” Her getaway destination, a remote cabin in the mountains, ironically, becomes available as a result of the ensuing divorce of Louise’s boss (another dissolution of marriage).
Louise (Susan Sarandon) also waits, “[wait]ressing” at a diner, and waits as well for phone calls from her absent, neglectful boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen), a man who shies away from commitments. Louise, whose daily sustenance literally demands that she “wait” on others (her job waiting tables), longs for escape from this daily drudgery. Both female characters at the beginning of the film “wait on” and “wait for” significant male figures.
Discarding the traditional “feminine” roles of homemaker and of waitress and venturing towards the freedom of the mountains, the film’s heroines get back, ultimately, to nature and to their own “natures.” They fly down the highway in their 1966 green Thunderbird, an Indian symbol of storms and a sign of male sexuality,22 the wind ripples through their hair and for the first time, they feel “awake,” alive. As they soar into the annals of movie history, they violate social hegemony, subverting patriarchy along their way. Thelma proclaims, “I always wanted to travel—just never got any opportunity.”
The scene of the couple’s first crime, straight out of the Old West, is the Silver Bullet saloon in Arkansas. There, Thelma is attacked and battered by a would-be rapist, Harlan Puckett (Timothy Carhart) after having “danced all night” with him. When Louise, who harbors some past secret of sexual abuse, arrives on the scene, “armed and dangerous” (toting Thelma’s gun), she rescues Thelma from further victimization. Claiming that they were just “having fun,” Harlan seems remorseless, even at gunpoint, and taunts the retreating women with, “Suck my cock”—to which Louise, unhesitatingly, responds, ejaculating a volley from the phallic .38 straight into Harlan’s heart. The pistol, previously given Thelma for “protection” by Darryl and left untouched for years in a drawer, ironically, now serves its purpose. Thus, the female character appropriates the symbolic phallus, historically “owned” and wielded by man. Metaphorically then, she turns the phallus on itself—the phallic pistol destroys the “walking phallus,” one Harlan Puckett.
Not only do Thelma and Louise learn to handle a gun, as did their predecessor Belle Starr,23 but also like Belle, they harbor other “fugitives from justice.“ They invert a common stereotype of male sexual aggressiveness when they pick up a sexy young hitchhiker, J. D. (Brad Pitt). Adopting the sobriquet of “The Great and Powerful Oz,” J. D., with pride, brags, “I’m a robber,” thereby impressing Thelma who thinks him a “real outlaw.” Similar to the Wizard of Oz, who is all talk, J. D. is not to be believed—he soon absconds with the women’s bankroll, thus denying them “getaway“ money, their “future,“ as Louise calls the stash. With J. D., Thelma enjoys sex for the first time and learns the essentials of robbing. Roles are humorously reversed, however, when the young drifter simulates his exploits as a robber—in mock heroic fashion—significantly, brandishing his weapon, a phallic shaped hair dryer (ironically, also associated with woman’s attempt to beautify and to feminize herself). Roy Grundmann finds troubling Thelma’s later robbery (using the phallic pistol) of a small town market:
Thelma’s bodega bust shows that even when she does act, it is not on her own, it’s merely an imitation of the male model. When she robs the store she is only a stand-in for her ex-lover. She acts according to his instructions.24
Grundmann, perhaps, fails to recognize the complex ramifications of Thelma’s act. In imitating J. D.’s hold-up bravado, Thelma perfects the young con artist’s “gentlemanly” skills (appropriation of male language), and unlike the drifter, whose weapon is merely a woman’s hair dryer (“blowing hot hair”), Thelma’s gun is real. With her appropriation of the phallus, man’s symbolic power, Thelma becomes the real thing—an outlaw—not a counterfeit or imitation. Having robbed the store of its cash and liquor and jumping into the Thunderbird, as adeptly as an Indian warrior might bolt onto his galloping pony—loot in tow—Thelma gloatingly crows that she has found her “calling,” the “Call of the Wild.”
Answering her “calling” inspires self-assurance in Thelma while, simultaneously, “disempowering” man. Furthermore, her acquisition of power seems directly (and inversely) proportional to J. D.’s loss of it—thus, empowering her and “feminizing” him—he appears less effectual, somehow smaller. Having heard later that J. D.—the Brad Pitt character—has betrayed the destination of the runaways (Mexico), Louise refers to the hitchhiker as a “little shit . . . a thievin’ little shit.” After Arkansas State Policeman, Hal Slochum, arrests J. D., he slaps him across the head repeatedly with his own cowboy hat, a treatment indicating that the symbolic patriarch perceives J. D. to be less than manly.
Thelma again will appropriate the phallic pistol (previously used to destroy man), taking it from the State Patrolman (the embodiment of patriarchal authority) who stops the female fugitives for speeding as they are attempting to flee the country. Further, Thelma orders Louise to destroy the officer’s communications, the police radio (patriarchal network), thereby immobilizing, at least temporarily, the forces that pursue them.
Notably, Belle Starr also spurned patriarchal authority, thwarting the legal system on numerous occasions. Not only did she defy the sheriff and other lawmen who, periodically, were charged with hunting her down and bringing her to justice, but also she made a mockery of the judicial system, having more than once eluded Ft. Smith’s Judge Parker, the “Hanging Judge,” who was foiled numerous times by Belle and only once succeeded in sending her to jail.25 Just as Thelma and Louise relish catching their arresting officer, figuratively, “with his pants down”—Louise appropriates his belt “for amo”—Belle publicly embarrassed the otherwise shrewd judge by challenging his court decisions, even having some overturned.26 Thus, the real life outlaw and the fictive pair fluster and confuse patriarchal authorities intent upon their capture and incarceration.
Belle and Thelma and Louise both “lose themselves” and “find” themselves in the tranquil serenity of deserted country roads, plains, and mountains. As their flight progresses, Khouri’s female outlaws shed their traditional feminine garb—as Belle Starr had done before them—tossing away their bras, throwing away their lipsticks and eyeliners, taking off wedding and engagement rings (symbols of the marriage institution), and donning men’s clothes and hats (a cowboy hat and trucker’s cap with an emblem of the American flag upon it). Indeed, the women replace the artificial, the make-up, etc., with the practical—the men’s hats, after all, do serve a purpose. Appropriating the officer’s sunglasses and tossing him, in return, her old ones—Thelma’s act suggests the acquisition of vision for woman.27 It implies both “seeing ourselves as others see us”—for the policeman will see now through Thelma’s “eyes,” another symbolic “feminizing“ of man—as well as an “acquiring” of a new perspective. When the patrolman beseeches Thelma to spare him, weeping and pleading that he has “a wife and kids,” Thelma humorously retorts, “Well, then. You better treat her right. My husband didn’t treat me right and look what happened to me!” Subsequently, just as the officer had issued a series of commands to the two women, including confiscating their car keys (symbolically, limiting their mobility and power), Thelma now countermands with the same demand for keys, taking them from the officer, locking him in his own trunk, and throwing away the key (effectively immobilizing him). Because cars have special symbolic value connected with male sexuality, this act of seizing the “key” (appropriation) to male power, and then discarding it, implies a symbolic obviating of the phallus.
With “unladylike” fervor, the desperados continue to disassociate themselves from images of femininity. Dangling sexy cigarettes (another phallic symbol) from their lips (more “unladylike” behavior) and wiping sweat from underarm pits with rags (like day laborers), Thelma and Louise wreak havoc on the nation’s highways, eschewing all reminders of the stereotypical roles they once played. Feeling confident, her spirit awakened, Thelma proclaims, “I feel alive for the first time.” Both protagonists become transformed by their experience and dream of autonomous lives in Mexico: they will adopt new identities, change their names (naming themselves), and get jobs.
Shooting holes in police cars and in rapists is not the only type of destruction of patriarchy’s symbols in which these female engage. They retaliate against the trucks (more phallic symbols) flanking them, which claim ownership of the roads and squeeze out smaller vehicles like their own without remorse (lack of contrition again associated with the phallus). Repeatedly, the little T-bird nervously jets in and out of lines of traffic, always it seems, sandwiched between huge trucks, whose drivers swear obscenities at the two females.
Having repeatedly been harassed on the road by a particularly obnoxious truck driver, whose rig (the symbolic equivalent of a “long dong silver”) boasts mud flaps of two nude women “frozen“ in silver relief, Thelma and Louise decide to “get serious“ by engaging in a rendezvous with their harasser. With a pose unmistakably similar to the silver emblems of naked women on the trucker’s mud flaps, the female outlaws await the arrival of “The Storm Trooper of Love” (as he calls himself) from atop their cushioned car seats. With warlike resistance befitting a forced occupation of the female body by a “Storm Trooper,” who wrongfully equates “love” with “read[iness] for a big dick” (another image of rape), the two women seem, indeed, “ready to get serious.” Unlike the women on the mud flaps, framed in rubber and immobile, Thelma and Louise appear anything but frozen in their anger. Demanding an apology, the fearsome duo mobilize to obliterate the symbolic phallus and to limit the mobility of a truck driver—first, by shooting out his tires, and second, by blowing up his huge phallic rig, the emblem of his pride and masculinity. Figuratively emasculated (therefore, “feminized”) and heralding insults at his attackers, the insolent and befuddled trucker brandishes epithets at the renegades, calling them “Bitches from Hell” and shouting after them that they “will have to pay. . . .”
As though the females forms on the mud flaps had come to life, tired of being a dirtied spectacle for gawking motorists, the two heroines, no longer in frozen form (and ecstatic with revenge), seek retribution for both present and past wrongs. Circling the trucker in their Thunderbird, like marauding Indians on the warpath, these female renegades sling some mud of their own, leaving the disconcerted trucker squirming in the dirt, daft and defeated. In a final victorious bellow before escaping in a trail of smoke, they swoop down to claim the trucker’s cap from the ground, a victory token. Now symbolically “wearing the hats,” Thelma and Louise exult in their newly claimed power.
Appropriating men’s hats, learning to shoot and to drive like experts, and crossing states as well as gender boundaries, the heroines of Thelma and Louise, ultimately, arrive at their final crossroad. Unlike their historical predecessor, Belle Starr, who was murdered—shot by an assailant28—Thelma and Louise are irrevocably surrounded by other types of “storming troopers” (reminiscent of both the would-be rapist and the trucker), whose objective is to take them “dead or alive.” The magical, green Thunderbird is relentlessly pursued by an even bigger bird, the “whirlybird” of the law. Even though the two “fugitives from justice” miraculously have arisen triumphant on several occasions—and, symbolically, have emerged victorious as women—the manpower used to capture them (hundreds of state police and the FBI), at last, seems overwhelming. Like the rabbit, which darts before their vehicle in the film’s final moments, Thelma and Louise seem small amidst the dusty streaks of police giving chase. Unlike the rabbit, however, who falls prey to the swooping hawk or the thundering car, Khouri’s heroines have freedom to determine their own fates, a choice of living or of dying. Most problematic to feminists, of course, is the final suicide of the film’s heroines. How can self-destruction, in any way, be positive? To answer this question, one need only consider Margaret Higonnet’s theories about female suicide in “Speaking Silences: Women’s Suicide”:
Women’s voluntary deaths are even more difficult to read than men’s because women’s very autonomy is in question and their intentions are therefore opaque.29
In regards to the issue of autonomy in Thelma and Louise, Grundmann underscores its importance, stating that “In male buddy outlaw films, neither the autonomy of the heroes nor the appropriateness of their actions is ever questioned.”30 Critical to our understanding of Thelma and Louise’s suicide is the issue of autonomy. For Khouri’s protagonists, “choice” (undeniably linked to autonomy) is the operative word. “Jimmy is not an option,“ Louise acknowledges—but suicide, apparently, is. Though arguing that suicide secures autonomy would be to overstate the case, nonetheless, it does represent a move towards autonomy. Death is not chosen for the film’s heroines; they choose it. Indeed, their nemesis (who joins the cadre of patriarchal forces converging upon the desperados), the fatherly Arkansas State Policeman, Hal Slochum (Harvey Keitel), would have them live (and repeatedly urges their surrender). Patriarchy would have them live. Thelma, however, confides in Louise, “I just couldn’t live. I can’t go back. Somethin’ in me’s crossed over.” In “The Many Faces of Thelma and Louise/Bacchantes at Large,” Albert Johnson contends that Khouri’s protagonists “recognize that they can no longer tolerate a deepshit status in a man-made American universe”31 In Khouri’s “chick-flick,” the protagonists choose suicide, preferable to a walking death—spending life in prison, making guest appearances on Oprahor Geraldo, or even returning to their former lives. Undeniably, Thelma and Louise’s suicide signifies escape, but it is not just that. As the green thunderbird careens into the heavens, fusing with the blue of the sky, the audience glimpses a photograph of the two friends—a picture of women “framed.” Symbolically, it lifts into the air, releasing Thelma and Louise from patriarchal imprisonment and blowing them into freedom.
1 This ode marks the grave of the “Bandit Queen”—”a good girl gone wrong,” the caption reads. Paul Trachtman, The Old West: The Gunfighters (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1974), 163.
2 Trachtman, The Old West, 69.
3 The film’s protagonists share its title, Thelma and Louise, an MGM/UA release, written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott.
4 A phrase referring to patriarchal skills and methods used by feminists to combat patriarchal oppression. See Kramarae and Treichler, 260. In this context the pun on “tool” seems particularly apt as “tool” is also a slang term for penis.
5 Arrell Morgan Gibson, Oklahoma: A History of Five Centuries. 2nd ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981), 134.
6 James D. Horan, The Authentic Wild West: The Outlaws (New York: Crown, 1977), 130.
7 Glenn Shirley, Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), 7.
8 Horan, The Authentic Wild West, 130.
9 Shirley, Belle Starr and Her Times, 13.
10 Trachtman, The Old West, 155.
11 Shirley, Belle Starr and Her Times, 5.
12 Shirley, Belle Starr and Her Times, 153.
13 Shirley, Belle Starr and Her Times, 17.
14 Horan, The Authentic Wild West, 130.
15 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 19.
16 Qtd. in Richard Schickel, “Gender Bender: A White-Hot Debate Rages over Whether Thelma & Louise Celebrates Liberated Females, Male Bashers—or Outlaws,” Time, 24 June 1991, 54.
17 Pat Dowell, “The Impotence of Women,” Cineaste 28, no. 4 (1992): 28.
18 Margaret Carlson, “Is This What Feminism Is All About? By Playing Out the Male Fantasy, Thelma and Louise Shows Hollywood Is Still a Man’s World,” Time, 24 June 1991, 57.
19 Roy Grundmann, “Hollywood Sets the Terms of the Debate,” Cineaste 28, no.4 (1992): 36.
20 Trachtman, The Old West, 162.
21 Trachtman, The Old West, 155.
22 Mythologically, the thunderbird has been associated with storms and fertility. As a make of car, however, it suggests other symbolic value as well. Mariamne H. Whatley argues that the phallus, the “sign of male power, is predominantly the car,” and she associates owning or driving a car to a male’s transformation from adolescence to manhood (114).
23 Belle declared that her best friends were outlaws and those dodging the law always had a place to stay at her home (Trachtman 155). One may also be reminded of the great scene from Henrik Ibsen’s play, Hedda Gabler, in which Judge Brack takes a pistol from Hedda’s hand after sarcastically asking her what she is “trying to hit,” as though woman were not capable of aiming and hitting a target.
24 Grundmann, “Hollywood Sets the Terms of the Debate,” 36.
25 Trachtman, The Old West, 155.
26 Trachtman, The Old West, 155.
27 Vision, looking at one’s eyes or through one’s eyes, represents an important motif in the film. Not only does enhanced vision figure significantly in this scene, but also it manifests itself when Thelma and Louise demand to see the eyes of the trucker who makes obscene gestures at them and when Louise inquires of Jimmy if he knows the color of her eyes.
28 Facts of Belle’s death have been obfuscated by time, but though various versions circulate, all sources report that she was shot by a male assailant.
29 Margaret Higonnet, “Speaking Silences: Women’s Suicide,” in The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 68.
30 Grundmann, “Hollywood Sets the Terms of the Debate,” 35.
31 Albert Johnson, “The Many Faces of Thelma & Louise,” Film Quarterly 45, no. 2 (Winter 1991/1992): 23.
Linda Rohrer Paige, Professor of English, teaches literature and women’s studies courses at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia. With special interests in women’s literature, southern literature, and film, she is co-editor of Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in Literary History and Criticism, University of Alabama Press (2002). Paige served as Editor of Studies in American Culture, from 2001–2004, and has published in various journals, including The Literature/Film Quarterly, Papers on Language & Literature, Studies in Short Fiction, and Journal of Popular Film and Television.