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Die Rebel Die: Thelma & Louise and the Failure of the Female-Buddy-Road Movie. By Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University. The Buddy-Road Picture.

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Die Rebel Die:

Thelma & Louise and the Failure of the Female-Buddy-Road Movie

By Artemus Ward

Department of Political Science

Northern Illinois University

the buddy road picture
The Buddy-Road Picture
  • Thelma and Louise is an example of Hollywoodland’s repackaging of successful genres of the past with a new twist of a female lead.
  • Why? Because a group of talented actresses began gaining box-office appeal in the post-code 1970s and into the 1980s.
  • They were perceived as either overtly political or “strong women” and reflective roles were created for them. Among these women were actors who eventually would take on roles as female lawyers: Jill Clayburgh, Glenn Close, Debra Winger, Ellen Barkin, Cher, Jessica Lange, Barbara Hershey, Susan Sarandon, Michele Pfeiffer, etc.
  • But the male-dominated industry was reluctant to allow female directors, producers, and actors the autonomy to develop their own projects. Therefore, Hollywoodland began repackaging successful genres with women instead of me.
  • Thelma and Louise is the classic “buddy picture” like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Instead of Robert Redford and Paul Newman you get comparable female stars of the day Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. But the movie is standard “buddy picture” fare.
  • When you take to the highways, you then have a “road picture.” Classic road pictures include: Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Midnight Run, and Rain Man.
  • Therefore, Thelma and Louise is nothing more than a buddy-road picture with female protagonists.
the business
The Business
  • First-time screenwriter Callie Khouri’s script was a hot property in Hollywoodland and its evolution to the screen demonstrates the chaotic nature of the business.
  • Khouri was working in LA in the 1980s for a commercials production company as a receptionist before taking a position with them as a music video production assistant—low-level, low-paying jobs to be sure. While working at the office, she began work on what would eventually become Thelma & Louise (1991), writing the script in longhand at home and then retyping it at work.
  • Callie Khouri wanted Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand in the lead roles.
  • Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn planned to work together and this was one of the projects they considered but ultimately passed on it in favor of Death Becomes Her (1992) with Bruce Willis.
  • Cher was offered and turned down the lead role as Louise.
  • Melanie Griffith was offered and turned down the role of Thelma.
  • Then Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer were on board as the leads but preproduction delays left them unavailable.
  • Actors who were considered, tested, or offered the part of J.D. the hitchhiker that eventually went to Brad Pitt in his first screen performance: Billy Baldwin (considered), George Clooney (tested 5 times), Johnny Depp (turned down),
  • In the end, Khouri won the Academy Award for best screenplay. In her acceptance speech she said, "Those of you who wanted a happy ending to Thelma & Louise, this is it.“
  • She went on to write the Julia Roberts, Dennis Quaid film Something to Talk About (1995) and began directing her own screenplays with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) and the upcoming Mad Money (2008) about three female employees of the Federal Reserve who plot to steal money that is about to be destroyed. The picture stars Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, and Katie Holmes.
the noble outlaw
The Noble Outlaw
  • Usually associated with the American West and personal freedom: Jesse James, Robin Hood, etc.
  • White-male lawbreaking is somehow virtuous and heightens their manhood—particularly when they practice unlawful, yet just, revenge.
  • In the 1980s, celebrated “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz, fed up with being harassed on public transit, shot at four young black men who were trying to take his money. One was seriously injured and the only thing the jury found Goetz guilty of was carrying an unlicensed handgun. He was regarded as a hero by many. Why?
  • Because they, like Goetz, were fed-up with NYC’s high-crime rate and saw the four young black males as criminal scum.
  • What if Goetz had been black and the four kids white? What if Goetz had been rich and the four kids poor?
  • What if Goetz had been a woman?
  • Can women break the law and be lionized for it?
  • Are “outlaw women” simply deviants?
outlaw behavior
Outlaw Behavior
  • Louise shoots and kills a roadhouse cowboy who tries to rape Thelma.
  • Thelma and Louise blow up the rig of a lecherous trucker.
  • Thelma robs a convenience store.
  • Thelma and Louise lock a police officer in the trunk of his squad car.
  • How should we react to this behavior. Should we cheer? Applaud?
  • Does it matter that Thelma and Louise are working-class? What if they were upper-class? What if they were black? Would you react differently?
law and morality
Law and Morality
  • The entire film is a running dialogue on law and morality.
  • Most of the exchanges between Thelma and Louise are about law and morality.
  • Why do they continually break the law when they are engaged in a prolonged philosophical conversation about their behavior?
  • Indeed, why do they ultimately commit the immoral act of suicide?
classy outlaws
Classy Outlaws
  • Why did middle-class women identify with Thelma and Louise—working-class outlaws?
  • It’s easy to admire outlaws form a class you perceive as lower than your own. You can have your cake and eat it too: a middle-class woman’s partial identification with a working-class female outlaw could enable her to imagine taking unlawful revenge against a man while not having to endure the thought that she is really and outlaw type, or confront the strong possibility that there really are no legal resources on which she could draw.
man haters
  • Is this an anti-male film? Is it hostile toward men?
  • In an interview, Geena Davis said: “Men who feel threatened by this movie are identifying with the wrong characters. It’s not a movie about setting the record straight. This is a movie about people claiming responsibility for their own lives. This is a film about freedom. Anyone should be able to identify with it.”
  • Screenwriter Callie Khouri: “I think it is hostile toward idiots.”
  • Men who “got” this point were from the middle-and-upper classes. They did not mind the revenge taken by the women in the picture because they were able to disassociate themselves from the roadhouse cowboy and the trucker, for example, as they were obviously working-class, white trash.
  • Had middle and upper class white males been harmed, their feelings would be markedly changed.
die rebel die
Die Rebel Die
  • What does the film’s ending suggest?
  • Is it a positive message that promotes notions of women’s liberation and freedom from patriarchy?
  • Is it that women can be vigilante outlaws as well as any man can—taking the law into their own hands to see “justice” done?
  • Or is it that the world has no place for women rebels. Men cannot allow women who do not conform to law, hierarchy, and patriarchy to live. Female outlaws, therefore, must die.
  • Therefore, Thelma and Louise really is a very limited “outlaw” picture.
  • While men are threatened, they are all from the lower classes.
  • Thelma and Louise are uneducated, lower-class, and therefore non-threatening women.
  • Thelma and Louise do not undertake a planned, structured vigilantism. It’s merely a brief bought of non-threatening naughtiness that simply gets out of hand.
  • While Thelma and Louise seem to get away with their illegal behavior for a time, eventually the hierarchy wins out and they get their just deserts: death.
  • The popularity of Thelma and Louise among middle-class women exposes class-based hypocrisy when it comes to law and justice. Audiences cheer them on while having no intention of ever doing it themselves.
  • Outlaw behavior is either noble or not depending on the audience’s perception about the relationship among the people involved: sex, race, and class differences matter.
  • While outlaw men are trumpeted as heroes, outlaw women so threaten existing relations that they have no place in society and therefore must die—and they know it.
  • Ebert, Roger, “Thelma & Louise,”, January 1, 1991.
  • Internet Movie Database,
  • Spelman, Elizabeth V. and Martha Minow, “Outlaw Women,” in John Denvir, ed., Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996) Ch. 13.