"Thelma & Louise Live"
Fifteen years after its initial release, Thelma & Louise (1991) remains culturally resonant and politically potent. A bumper sticker still in circulation in 2006 proclaims, "Thelma & Louise Live," asserting that the characters survive in cultural memory despite their textual demise and, further, that the film remains a dynamic intertext, generating new meanings as new viewers encounter it in new contexts. As this anthology argues, the film is profoundly polyphonic, both textually and contextually, offering viewers ways of crossing gender and identity, of gaining insight into the interrelations of gender and violence. Thelma & Louise's legacies are multiple and complex, extending into production, promotion, reception, and also "real-world" discourse on women, men, violence, and power.
Although the characters may not have survived their final flight, Thelma & Louise lives on in unusual places. Extracinematically, Thelma & Louise has been used as a statement of female empowerment and self-assertion and also as a warning of the perceived dangers of female access to violence. In 2001, two female fans of professional football at a Baltimore Ravens NFL game wore purple jerseys with "Thelma" and "Louise" embroidered on their backs. The large majority of fans at the game were male, many of whom wore jerseys with the names of favorite players, such as linebacker Ray Lewis, renowned for his violent tackles on the field of play and notorious for his acquittal from charges that he murdered three men after a Super Bowl party. Professional football exemplifies the American tendency to normalize masculine violence into sport, legal permissiveness, and invisible systems of control of gendered bodies. Thus, within the context of football as symbolic and literal arena of male violence, the two female fans' choice of "Thelma" and "Louise" resonates with political meaning, as well as personal significance. These women used the film to assert identification with strong female characters who accessed violence as a tool for survival within a patriarchal society. In this world of normalized male violence, the original release of Thelma & Louise was extremely controversial, asserting that violent agency was not exclusively a male privilege. By representing women as both victims and agents of violence, Thelma & Louise broke radical new ground in mainstream American representation, profoundly threatening masculinist critics who objected to its breach of the norm of violence as male privilege.
"I Can See Clearly Now"
Thelma & Louise also lives on through scholarship and research. By late 1991, both Film Quarterly and Cineaste published scholarly fora featuring short reflections on the film's meaning and significance, including articles by Carol Clover, Marsha Kinder, and Elayne Rapping, among others. In 1993, Film Theory Goes to the Movies, an anthology of theoretically inflected criticism of contemporary film, featured essays on Thelma & Louise by Cathy Griggers and Sharon Willis. In 2000, the British Film Institute published Marita Sturken's monograph on Thelma & Louise as an edition of its "Film Classics" series. Outside of film studies, in Critical Studies in Mass Communication (1999), Brenda Cooper published a study of gendered reception of Thelma & Louise in which she employed the methodology of relevance theory. In 2001, Tiina Vares published a study of women's reception of Thelma & Louise in Feminist Media Studies. Thelma & Louise has received significant, but hardly exhaustive, scholarly attention.
This volume seeks to complement existing scholarship on Thelma & Louise, to break new ground in understandings of the film, and to pioneer productive new critical and theoretical approaches in film studies. The contributors approach the film from different locations, employing diverse methodologies to understand the film and its impact. The chapters are linked by a shared concern with the film's social meanings, meaning sought through attention to gender as performance and to audience response to performance of the relations between gender, identity, and power. The essays in this anthology propose to see Thelma & Louise clearly, in new ways.
In the first chapter, I argue that Thelma & Louise provided female and male viewers with possibilities of seeing film in new ways. Through analysis of the film's production, promotion, and reception, I contend that Thelma & Louise provided textual opportunities for both male and female viewers to engage female experiences of gendered violence from within a series of contexts. By examining the responses of historical viewers to Thelma & Louise, I suggest that film reception itself is fluid and complex and that viewers have opportunities to learn about gendered experience through identification and connection, to see familiar experience from new perspectives, to learn and to change.
Some viewers found Thelma & Louise challenging because of its mixture of tones. Vicki Sturtevant examines Thelma & Louise through the lens of comedy theory, seeking to understand the film's radical combination of laughter and violence. Sturtevant argues that the film's emphasis on female laughter provided women viewers with opportunities to experience release from social containment while simultaneously threatening some male viewers with its potential to disrupt patriarchal containment. Whereas Sturtevant employs performance theory to understand the comedic elements of Thelma & Louise, Susan Knobloch seeks to theorize performance in the film through careful attention to acting as a specific cinematic discourse. Through close analysis of ways in which actors signify via physical action, Knobloch argues that Thelma and Louise, as performed by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, demonstrate the possibilities of multivoiced, multibodied "composite subjects." Knobloch argues that, at the level of performance, Thelma & Louise articulates new opportunities for fluid identities within, if not across, gender.
Thelma & Louise appealed to many viewers because of its exuberant, commentative sound track and its recasting of generic expectations. Sharing Knobloch's attention to the details of film signification, Claudia Gorbman analyzes sound and music in Thelma & Louise. Gorbman argues that Thelma & Louise featured a hybrid score combining Hans Zimmer's instrumental score with eighteen pop songs, resulting in a complex intertextual soundscape that profoundly shaped the film's possible meanings. Through a series of case studies analyzing the use of specific pop songs in the film, including Marianne Faithful's version of "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan" and Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now," Gorbman proposes that the film's hybrid score invites viewers to engage in more active readings, enabling complex possibilities for identification on both aural and visual registers.
When MGM/UA released Thelma & Louise in 1991, the studio produced promotional trailers that alternately marketed the film as a road movie, a buddy movie, a female friendship film/melodrama, a comedy, and an action movie. David Slocum engages the film's complex generic status, focusing upon its dual status as a road movie and a lovers-on-the-run movie. Slocum produces a social history of the road film, arguing that the genre's consistent social concerns have been with violence, containment, critique of dominant orders, and the possibilities and limits of freedom. Slocum links Thelma & Louise to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), both road and run films featuring outlaw "couples." Slocum reads Thelma & Louise's cultural politics at the beginning of the 1990s against Bonnie and Clyde's cultural politics at the end of the 1960s, understanding Thelma & Louise as counter to Reagan-era entertainment by restaging a version of 1960s critical liberalism.
While helping the careers of Sarandon and Davis, Thelma & Louise introduced audiences to another star, Brad Pitt. Cindy Fuchs examines the meaning of the making of Brad Pitt, first by Thelma & Louise and later by the accumulation of his film roles and extracinematic exploits. Fuchs uses her analysis of the formation of Pitt's star image to explore a historical shift in thinking about masculinity, changing structures of sexualization and objectification, and female agency and volition.
In addition to the six essays, this anthology includes a new interview with screenwriter Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award for writing Thelma & Louise, her first screenplay. In this interview, Khouri discusses the film's production, addressing director Ridley Scott's choices in adapting her screenplay. She talks about the intertextual influences that shaped her creative process and about the film's reception and afterlife. As a screenwriter and director, Khouri shares important insights about the gender politics of film production in Los Angeles and about the film's relations to feminism.
In a final section, this volume includes three commentaries written about Thelma & Louise in 1991. Writing in U.S. News & World Report, John Leo offered the strongest attack on the film, condemning Thelma & Louise as "toxic feminism on the big screen" (June 10, 1991). Free from the reviewer's responsibility to engage the film's specificity, Leo instead represented those most threatened by the film, men and (some) women who understood violent agency as a male prerogative. Leo's commentary fed the controversy over the film, and, in response, Time Magazine published a cover story, entitled "Why Thelma and Louise Strike a Nerve" (June 24, 1991). In a piece entitled "Gender Bender," Richard Schickel reviews journalistic response to the film during its first month of release, offering a valuable summary of aspects of the film's initial reception. In the same issue, Margaret Carlson critiques the film for fatalism, while also appreciating the film's virtues. Carlson articulates another important response to the film, ambivalence by female viewers about the ending. From within the heat of a raging controversy, these critics and commentators may not have seen the film as clearly as scholars working from the remove of a decade and a half. Nevertheless, these articles provide evidence of the strong and significant response to Thelma & Louise at its time of release and testify to the film's importance. This anthology seeks to understand the social meanings of that response, helping the film to live on through scholarship, teaching, and spirited discussion.