Thelma & Louise Reviews
Tragedy first, then farce. According to Socrates, binary oppositions, such as comedy and tragedy are organized in a hierarchal manner that is socially determined (Plato). Tragedy, for the longest time, was seen as superior to comedy. Greek plays illustrated tragedy as a means to explore serious moral issues about heroes and their flaw in a way that comedy was not able to produce. However, the superiority of tragedy can now be considered an ancien régime, an old system displaced by its opposite. Sigmund Freud regards humor as an expression of thoughts that society represses and shunts (Freud). Films such as Thelma & Louise (1991) use comedy to start new dialogues about repressed issues in society and propose alternative narratives to society's dominant state.
Ridley Scott's 1991 film Thelma & Louise uses comedy to tell the story of a developing friendship between two female characters. Thelma Dickinson, a submissive housewife, joins, without her husband's approval, her friend Louise Sarandon, an independent diner waitress, on what starts out as a peaceful road trip that turns into an escape from the law as the plot progresses. The film introduces discussions about politics pertaining to the female body and the role women play in society through an overall comedic and light-hearted ambiance.
During their road trip, the pair stop at a nightclub where they meet Harlan, a man who strikes an interest in the pair, which Thelma appears to reciprocate and decides to join Harlan for a dance. As the night progresses, Harlan hauls Thelma to a parking lot where he eventually rapes her after she - very explicitly - refuses to engage in any sexual activities with him saying, "Stop it! Goddamnit, I mean it!" When Louise for the witnesses Harlan's crime, she shoots him after repeatedly asking him to stop and explaining the harm caused by his actions, "just for the future, when a woman's crying like that, she's not having any fun!" In a state of panic, as the characters try to escape the crime that they have just committed, Thelma suggests that they turn to the police and explain the situation to the law keepers, to which Louise's response was, "only about a hundred people saw you cheek to goddamn cheek with him all night, Thelma! Who's gonna believe that?! We just don't live in that kind of world" (19:20). This encounter challenges society's dominant rape culture, which puts the blame on victims of rape rather than the perpetuators claiming that victims are often "asking for it," thorough the way they dress or act.
There, begins the duo's escape trip from the law, which provides them with opportunities to reclaim the power that has been stripped away from them by a patriarchal society. This escape is supported by various visual metaphors in the movie that feature the road that the women travel representing their metaphorical escape from society's constraints. Many shots in the movie emphasize the distance that the two travel showing them through wide and crane shots that examine the magnitude of the distance they had traveled (figure 1). As well as shots that show the road through reflective surfaces, such as the rear view mirror on the car that the two ride on, alluding to the past of constraint that the two have left behind (figure 2).
Not only do the women gain the power of determining their own fate, but they also gain power over their bodies and what happens to them, a "biopower," which allows them to take charge of their own bodies after freeing them from the limitations that are placed on them by society. Michel Foucault describes the constraints that society builds as the society's "regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true" (Foucault 1991) Anything that deviates from society's disciplinary truth gives the deviant a form of power against politics. For women, much of that power centers on their bodies, which have been sexualized and objectified to demean their worth. In Thelma & Louise, biopower is expressed through the character's increasing authority over controlling their actions. In the beginning of the movie, Thelma is seen hesitating to eat a bar of chocolate, which she repeatedly takes a bite of then puts back on the fridge signifying her powerlessness over her body and its desires (figure 3). As she sets out on her journey with her friend, Thelma gradually reclaims ownership of her body, as she comically purchases many tiny liquor bottles slowly giving one tiny bottle after the other to the cash register employee leading him to ask, "Ma'am, are you sure you wouldn't rather have the large economy size?" (37:17). Thelma also exercises her biopower when she has sex with J.D., a young attractive man whom she meets along the road. Thelma enjoys her sexual encounter with J.D. after being sexually unsatisfied by her husband for most of her life, "for once in my life I have a sexual experience that isn't completely disgusting" (1:08:14).
The women's biopower is also cinematically explored seeing as they are always shot from angles that emphasize their faces or shows their entire body (figure 4) refraining from any focused shots, which highlight specific parts of their body limiting them to their sexual nature imposed by the male gaze. Marilyn Fabe claims about the degrading representation in films, "the camera can play a role in disavowing the woman's lack by isolating parts of the woman's body in close-up shots, focusing on just her hands, her legs, her feet, or her breasts-all of which, like the fetish objects which adorn her body, stand in for the missing penis" (Fabe 213). Ridley Scott's alternative portrayal of the strong female characters demands full consideration of both their bodies and their personalities. He, along with the film's screenwriter Callie Khouri, uses the movie's final scene to further assert women's resistance to the patriarchy through biopower. In the final scene, the one that stuck with audiences decades after the movie's release, shows the two women kissing, and driving their car over a cliff (2:04:58). The film offers no prior reference to the women's homosexuality, rather, it widely explores aspects of their heterosexuality, thus when they finally share a kiss at the end of the movie, it is reinforced as an act of defiance to the patriarchal heteronormative society as opposed to an act of passion.
Although tragedy has long been favored as a the appropriate form of art to reflect truths about life and the important issues that it brings forth, comedy can be just as effective in producing alternative-perspective narratives that challenge dominating cultures. Thelma & Louise is an example of a film that challenges the dominant culture through its lighthearted depiction of the power that lies within women's bodies and its ability to be used in the face of degrading constraints.