Subject of Study: Thelma and Louise, film produced by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Khouri.
It’s not even arguable that the 20th century was an era of misery. Producing 2 world wars, famines, a series of presidential assassinations, economic depression… I could go on forever. But one more unforgettable 1900s event was the feminist movement: 50% of the world population raging for equal rights, which were not easily granted. Luckily, it’d seem that we, humans, throughout evolution have gained the aptitude to make something good out of our own tragedy. We always document our worst events and moments through memorable cinema. Ridley Scott’s production of Callie Khouri’s work is an excellent example of this.
Thelma and Louise, is an intense drama narrative starring Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis. A powerful plot in which a female character murders a masculine villain character in order to defend her friend from rape, a concept which is shown to be a very male-centred trait in the film.
I’ve found the narrative to be very symbolic-heavy, which fits in as a perfect example of Saussuer and Barthes’ semiotics theory. This has a great effect on the audience as a whole via neatly delivering subliminal messages in which they can react to. For example, one who watches the media text will be able to identify that the gun is a source and the symbol of power instinctively, without being directly told about it. The same way one lion can identify the Alpha male in the herd, without asking.
Going back to the subject of the essay: One may interpret the media text to be challenging Laura Mulvey’s ideas on Male Gaze, as it’s very clear that Thelma and Louise, the female characters are successfully taking lead in the drama, rather than being lead by a masculine figure, for example, the way Thelma literally tells Darryl to “Go BLEEP” himself, as if she is acknowledging that he has an authority that she no longer submits to. Personally, I believe that this interpretation is false to some extent as I will be explaining:
First of all, I personally believe that Mulvey’s theory is poorly based; this is because it paid no consideration to social advancement. I must bear in mind that Mulvey’s first article was published in 1975 (According to semi-reliable online source), a time in which feminism was a very active movement, as well as being a time when cinema was just about flourishing. It wasn’t until 1991 that Ridley Scott came along with Thelma & Louise, so it’s quite difficult to relate the two of them. I do not deny that the Thelma and Louise character are shown to challenge Mulvey’s theory; I’m just saying that it wasn’t the intended purpose, despite that they do show patriarchal challenge.
Sociological arguments, like Mulvey’s, in my opinion cannot apply for a long period of time, as a psychological theory such as Freud’s would. This is because societies evolve and change a lot faster than the individual nature.
The male dominance in the narrative is shown throughout. From the very beginning, R. Scott tends to be very careful about the placement of women in the scenes of production. 2 minutes into the film, and we can already see a differential class of women in the setting: All workers in the restaurant are like Louise, working class females, except the managerial post, which is occupied by a man. This delivers a subconscious message that shocks the audience and puts them into the state of mind of being oppressed.
Only 40 seconds afterwards, Louise shows signs of male-resistance as she smokes despite mentioning earlier, “Smoking ruins your sex drive”, only as if she’s physically harming herself for the cause of being independent from male-nature.
I was personally intrigued by the way Thelma paid no attention to the gun in the drawer at 7:14, and even more by the way she held it afterwards. As I’ve included earlier, the media text is very symbolic-heavy, and I may assume as that the gun is a phallic reference; that in a way “Holding the gun” gives a state of empowerment to whoever holds it. This is a slightly crude concept, but it does tie in with latter events, such as the most intense scene in the film, the rape scene.
I believe that the rape scene was used as a trigger for the rampage. 4 minutes earlier of it, at 00:15:00, I quote “By Monday, he’ll be kissing the ground you walk on”, as to show that the two characters (at this point) are still seeking approval from the male kind.
As Puckett crudely approaches Thelma, she articulates “I wanna go back inside”, as if she’s referring to her comfort zone. Although men were shown to be very unaffectionate of women so far, this was the very first time, they were shown to be hostile, and as Thelma (At this point) was the weaker character, she didn’t quite know how to handle the situation, so her conscience spoke on her behalf. Louise later on comes in, and takes control. This is at 00:21:40, a very vulgar phallic reference is made assuming that the gun is a signifier of a phallic ‘thing’. I wish I could put this in a more polite context, but it’d seem that Louise replied to Puckett’s request for her to “Suck his BLEEP” was via shooting him, which suggests that Louise is gaining masculine peculiarity, which she is using to physically build a wall between herself and the male kind. This strongly opposes Laura Mulvey’s hypothesis as the women are not only taking control, but they’re also taking everything else with it. Men become powerless.
The 4th ninth of the film (From 00:39:40 to 1:22:00), is particularly the prime time of Louise and Thelma’s rampage. The highest point of their mountain of power. At first, Brad Pitt is introduced to the plot, bringing with him a new type of men as a category: his politeness showed great submission to Louise’s feminist conceptions, yet he doesn’t take long to acknowledge Thelma’s soft spot, and use it as a weak point of entry. And the other significant point of interest in this section of the text is Jimmy’s proposal to Louise. Even though Louise seemed like a fortress earlier, she quickly softens for Jimmy, who seemed to have a place in her heart. Jimmy proposes using what I thought was an unorthodox choice of words, “Try it on”, suggesting that Louise is inclined to decline his request. This was shortly assured by Ridley’s choice to focus the camera on Louise’s hand, holding Jimmy’s ring, fiddling with it, whilst having about 7 other rings (Lucky number) already settled in her fingers. I think this is quite significant because it reminds the audience how strong Louise is and has become, via re-establishing a point of setback comparison, so they can see what Louise would’ve been like if she was a standard woman of that certain situation, with her soft spot for Jimmy, which is soon diminished with the focus on the rings. I’m not sure however if this message is way too subtle for the ordinary audience to digest.
Before I go on to my next argument, I must note that whilst watching Ridley Scott’s production, I understood how that everything symbolises something else, but I’ve only come to realise that this applies to the human characters as well: just assume Callie Khouri intended for Thelma to stand for the typical woman of that time and location, while Louise stood for what Thelma wanted to be. Louise stood for the feminist conscience living in Thelma’s head. Louise was without a man, she was strong, she was independent; everything Thelma wanted to be. We can also see this in the very beginning of the text, when Thelma does an impression of Louise, smoking like her, and talking like her in the car.
Now what if, Thelma was the woman, and Louise was a signifier of the feminism in the plot, we’d start to notice that there’s a negative correlation between each character’s presence and allocation of power. We’d see that when Thelma’s weak, Louise is there to provide comfort, and vice versa, just like in 00:22:00 & 1:42:00. We, as audience, would come to the conclusion that Louise’s and Thelma’s tragedy (arguably, a tragedy) is a more global and inclusive issue, and then we’d start to understand the great relation between this specific media text and Mulvey’s ideas on Male Gaze.
In conclusion, I suppose I must admit that my ideas on the answer to this essay question are not the same as those I had when I started it. I now see a clear connection between Mulvey’s concept and Riddley’s tragedy. I still wouldn’t say that Riddley quite intended on opposing Mulvey’s ideas personally, but he incidentally did. I would call it an unintended collision of thought.