‘Thelma and Louise’ and the feminisation of the road

Whether represented as the voyage of Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy, or the countercultural mavericks of Kerouac’s On the Road, journey narratives have long been a vehicle for cultural critique and individual transformation. Road movies are an evolution of such literary forebears. The genre sets the liberation of the open road against the “oppression of hegemonic norms” and through an historic absence of females, traditionally promotes a “male escapist fantasy linking masculinity and technology” (Cohan et al. 1997, p.2). Ridley Scott’s 1991 feminist road film, Thelma and Louise, subverted such phallocentric representations. By examining two distinct elements of the film’s genre iconography – the highway and camerawork – I will argue that Thelma and Louise offers a feminist perspective in an attempt to transform the classical archetype into a feminist narrative that emphasises female agency.

In Thelma and Louise, the two women violate the culturally coded masculinity of the highway by enacting their female agency. For Lederman (2002), highways symbolise moving beyond the familiar, as well as crossing borders, making them a central feature of the genre’s mise en scène (p.14). When Thelma, a malcontent housewife, and Louise, a weathered waitress, decide to leave their men and go away on a fishing trip, they leave the safety of conformity for the uncertainty of rebellion. One senses that at least Thelma recognises this junction: she brings Daryll’s gun, suggesting that she realises the danger of the highway, particularly for females. When Louise asks her why she brought the weapon, Thelma responds, “the psycho killers,” a fear she previously revealed when packing the car, and a sign that she understands that “for women who travel alone, the stakes are modified” (Dargis 1993, p.87).

As the women traverse the open road, each transgression is paralleled by a literal and metaphysical change. This is symbolised in Thelma and Louise’s clothing, which is “saturated with meaning” (Dargis 1993, p.90). They may drive out of town in virginal white dresses, but by the end of the film they have tossed their lipstick and bras to adopt the hats, cut-off sleeves and flashy sunglasses of outlaws. With power and freedom comes behavioural and aesthetic mimicry of the codified male – they ride the open road, shoot the bad guy, stage a robbery, and dodge police, while their men stay at home domesticated (Daryl) or craving domestication (Jimmy). But this dramatic transformation can’t be read as an asinine gender swap. Just like Ripley in Aliens (1987), it is an example of femininity being reconstructed on screen. By altering the filmic image of femaleness, Scott stresses the body’s “constructed character as costume” (Collins et al. 2012, p.127) and reminds audiences that gender identity isn’t something we possess, it’s something we perform. By showing the unique threat that women face on the unfamiliar road and how Thelma and Louise evolve to conquer it, the film rewrites the traditional manliness of the highway.

Thelma and Louise also subtly offers a feminist perspective through its soundtrack. The most iconic of road movie iconography, the genre uses music to express the thrill of driving as well as accompany the heroes and the viewer on the journey. Healey (1995) stresses that in Thelma and Louise songs and lyrics are stressed to heighten emotion, include the viewer more intimately in the film, and supplement on-screen action (p.104). In the film, the songs are used as an extension of the scene’s setting – often as part of the diegetic sound through a car radio or jukebox. Scott and music director Hans Zimmer use the soundtrack to offer a female perspective in contrast to the blaring rock ‘n’ roll synonymous with the genre’s chauvinist past.

Take, for example, “Little Honey”, a song by Kelly Willis playing in the background of the first scene while Louise moves about the diner. It is about a woman attempting to “get something clear” about her man’s lack of fidelity and portrays a female in an imbalanced position relative to her man. This mirrors the position of both women – Louise is locked in a standoff with Jimmy over developing their relationship and Thelma is in a dismal marriage with her tyrannical, unfaithful, husband Daryll. Thelma makes the lyrics, “you’re comin’ home tomorrow to an empty room” literal by going away without telling Daryll. Fittingly, in their phone call, she refers to him twice as “hon,” a shortening of “honey”. A correlation is drawn between the metaphorical woman of Willis’ song and the perspectives of Thelma and Louise in the film.

No place is the connection between cinematic image and soundtrack more evident than the scene when Louise leaves Thelma with Harlan and Charlie Sexton’s “Badlands” plays. In cinematic parlance “badlands” denotes the brutal violence of Terence Malick’s 1973 film of the same name. Badlands are hopeless realms (both physical and psychological) where chaos and disorder reign, a lawless state where “one false step and you’ll be cut down”. The song’s garbled chorus and forceful guitar foreshadow the danger that Thelma is about to face as Harlan attempts to rape her in the parking lot. It is Louise that cuts down the misogynist Harlan, repudiating the male figure of Charlie Sexton’s song. In Thelma and Louise that show the agency and delve into the badlands.

I have argued that Thelma and Louise is a film that re-interprets codified norms of the road movie genre to offer a feminist narrative. An innovative way that his is achieved, rather than through a tame and asinine gender swap, is through encoding femininity into the traditionally masculine genre iconography – the highway and soundtrack in particular. The highway comes with unique danger for females, which the women evolve to conquer, symbolised through their cosmetic and physical changes. The soundtrack not only accompanies narrative events, it aligns with the women and functions to foreshadow elements of the plot. Before Thelma and Louise, the road was reserved for swaggering outlaws like Easy Rider’s Wyatt and Billy, but through offering a feminist perspective, the film showed audiences that it can be a place for a waitress and a housewife too.

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