Monday, November 14, 2011

The Thelma and Louise Conspiracy

At the risk of being asked to turn in my woman card - I have something to confess.   I have never liked the movie Thelma and Louise.  I know that as a liberal this probably comes as a shock but I've always felt like the movie was a cop out and the fact that this movie has become a feminist icon really baffles and bothers me.  I saw it first in my twenties and left feeling angry and frustrated.  I wanted to see if after 20 years some of those feelings had subsided.  So I decided to watch it again. 

I wanted to find out why so many women loved this movie - so much so that if you dared to voice your opinion about not liking it, you were told basically - "You have to love it - men can't know we're not all on the same page with this."  I mean I've literally been surrounded at parties and brow beaten by feminists who would make me out to be a simpleton who was basically parroting my husband's opinion.  In their eyes, descent is not an option.   

There were a few things in the movie I could identify with.  Like Thelma, I was in an abusive relationship in college with a man who treated me like a child and who belittled me every chance he got.   It didn't start out that way.   At first, he seemed charming -  offering to do anything for me - being too helpful too fast.  That's how these guys worm their way in.  They want you to give up control so they can take over.  Then he started to isolate me - to come between my friends and family so that he became my world.   I remember being at a frat party with him one night and he was being so overbearing that my younger sister said "My God, why don't you just pee a circle around her."  I made the mistake of laughing and was berated the whole way home.   He was my first real boyfriend and I had no experience on what a normal relationship was.    You start to lose your compass of who you are.  To keep the peace, I had to call in on a regular basis to reassure him that I was not out having sex with every guy I saw.   You even take responsibility for the things you have absolutely nothing to do with.   He once called me up on a Saturday and yelled at me because it was raining and he couldn't go fishing.   I sat there on the phone apologizing somehow convinced I had caused the thunder storm.   Maybe on a physic level I had - I was having crying jags in a regular basis and that rain storm was nothing compared to the tears that I had shed over this man. Yet I still went back over and over again because he had convinced me that I couldn't do better.

So at the point when Thelma breaks away, I cheered her on.   She was finally doing what she wanted to do rather than bowing to the wishes of her husband.   That sense of freedom eventually gets Thelma into trouble as she meets  a man named Harlen in a bar who goes from charming to a monster in a nano second.   He starts  to rape her in the parking lot when Louise comes to the rescue holding a 38.  It looks like they'll go on their way when Harlen stupidly tells very pissed off woman with a loaded gun in her hand to "Suck my dick."   Louise turns and shoots him in the heart killing him instantly.    Okay, so that part of the movie was actually satisfying and I'm thinking the movie might have more to say for itself.   

But as it goes on, the plot for me begins to unravel.  During their quest to flee to Mexico because of the murder - they meet a young handsome drifter named J.R. played by Brad Pitt with whom Thelma is very smitten - the same Thelma who was almost raped by another charming stranger less than 24 hours beforehand.    Later,  J.R. shows up and seduces Thelma.  You see them making passionate love - just a day after she was almost sodomized in a honky tonk parking lot.    Worse, she leaves him alone in the room and he steals Louise's life savings and any hope for a decent future.  Many feminists defend the movie at this point because Thelma and Louise are completely victimized -  but frankly you can't claim victim status when you created the mess which is what Thelma did.  

What really hurts and offends me about Thelma's night with J.R.  is that it sends a message to women who have been sexually assaulted that "Hey ladies, you can get over rape pretty fast -  that feeling of violation, of violence, of pure fear, helplessness and having something that precious ripped from you - you'll forget all about it if the next guy you sleep with is as good looking as Brad Pitt.   Thelma did it and you can too!"   It trivializes rape in such a profound way that it's hard to believe that a woman wrote the script.   Here's the reality  - one in four women will be a victim of sexual abuse in their lifetime.   That number includes me.  I was assaulted in college after I had too much to drink.  Someone I thought was a friend - that I trusted offered to drive me home.    Afterwards, I did what the U.S. Department of Justice says that 70% of the women in the same situation do - I didn't report it because approximately 5% of the time, a man who rapes ends up in prison - 95% of the time he does not.   Why go through all the pain of reliving what happened and having the other side try to make it out as something you wanted if the chances of your attacker going to jail are very slim?  It's a truth that victims of this sort of crime understand all too well and that the people that tout Thelma and Louise as the greatest film about women don't.  In a group of four women discussing this film - one of them might have been sexually abused at some point in their lives.  It's not something you get over easily and you sure as hell aren't jumping into bed 24 hours later with a handsome stranger.  It takes time to build that trust again even in you're in a long term relationship and not feel as if your core has been violated - like you're not worthy of being loved.   I can't speak for all the women who have been through this, but please understand some of us have very good reasons for not wanting jump the Grand Canyon with Thelma and Louise. 

Probably the saddest words in the English language are the refrain - "But he says he loves me."   Even though I've been in an abusive relationship and sexually assaulted the good that has come out of it is that I can size up a similar situation almost immediately.  Women who are being abused have a telltale sign when they are with their abusers.  When you engage the couple in conversation and ask the woman a question - she will do a split second eye flick to see if it's okay to answer because saying the wrong thing could get her physically or emotionally smacked down later.  I've seen it in celebrity interviews and know right away what's going on.   I pray that I never see it in my daughter or her friends, but if I do, I know how to talk to them.  I was lucky enough to get myself out of that bad relationship and I survived being raped.  I didn't have to go on a crime spree to be the woman I am today - I did it on my own terms without having to drive off a cliff. 

I know that many women say that Thelma and Louise changed their lives.   I think that if it gave you the courage to stand up for yourself and get out of a very bad situation, then I congratulate you.   But please don't castigate another woman for not seeing this movie as a feminist milestone.   In fact, I would suggest an alternative to Thelma and Louise that has some of the same elements but a vastly different outcome - Waitress.   In this movie Kerri Russell plays a woman who is in an abusive relationship.  She is also looking to escape her life only to find out that she's pregnant.  She falls in love with her handsome OB-GYN and things get complicated.  She too has her life savings to escape from her husband only to have him find it and then she has to make an excuse about using it to buy things for the baby.   It takes the kindness of an old curmudgeon to help her see her own worth and stand up to her husband and her lover and send them both packing.  In the end, she has her own business and walks hand in hand with her two year old daughter down the road of life - a healthy road that Thelma and Louise chose not to take.


  1. What a tough revelation! Your viewpoint is refreshing and very right on for the mess that the movie made of liberating women to make really bad choices.

  2. Kelley,
    Your analysis is right on the money. High five, my sistah!

  3. Debra:
    I really appreciate your input - high five right back at ya!