I thought it was going to be a funny movie, a comedy, well suited to a spring afternoon. The newspaper ads didn't give me much to go on and the trailers showed some high energy chase scenes. In other movies Susan Sarandon's sharp female intellect and core of self assurance have encouraged me. So off we went to watch Thelma and Louise, "the summer's first must see movie." Frankly, the longer I watched the less I laughed and the more disturbed I was. All through what had been planned as a festive dinner I muttered, "I didn't want that to happen." In the subsequent weeks the story of Thelma and Louise, two female friends on the lam, has continued to disturb me.
This movie is very unlike either Bull Durham or White Palace. I realized this in a conversation with colleagues who had not yet seen Thelma and Louise. One remarked that he and his wife planned to see it that weekend. Then he admitted that he was glad for the warning my reaction gave him because he can't quite get in the groove about the right reaction to movies. A case in point: he was prepared to listen to his wife dismantle An Officer and a Gentleman as sexist propaganda only to discover that she liked it. She explained that it was a "fairy tale," and thus I suppose outside the standards we apply to ordinary life. In contrast to Thelma and Louise, Susan Sarandon's two earlier movies seem to fall into that genre.
Small town baseball gives Bull Durham a concrete setting as well as a mythical quality. Its plots are both mundane and the stuff of dreams. Susan Sarandon's character isn't one found in most fairy tales. Annie is both princess and fairy godmother with some of the traits of male characters. Smart, sexy, self-aware, self-assured: she is her own woman making up her own religion and her own romantic plot. In the course of the season she discovers that she has misjudged the year's contenders for the role of the prince. When Crash, the sensitive, aging catcher, returns from his search for another team, he and the smart princess appear to be heading into a more realistic happy ever after. The story took me in, despite my non-interest in baseball, because it is a love story about adults, in which an independent, whole woman gets a happy ending.
So is White Palace, both a story about a strong, quirky woman and a fairy tale in which love conquerors all. Here Sarandon's working poor character shows some resemblance to Cinderella, but when her younger, wealthy, Jewish prince brings her a Dust-buster, she throws him (and it) out. Again the strange integrity of Sarandon's character's self-awareness and self-assurance draws the man. He follows her to New York; their unrestrained romantic reunion takes place during lunch-hour rush in the diner where she works. They too seem headed into happy ever after with a view of the garbage cans. These are fairy tales that don't require self-betrayal. They give grown up women hope that they can be smart, sexy, strong selves and also find love.
This is not the story of Thelma and Louise. Despite my wanting it to, love doesn't prevail for Louise (Susan Sarandon) or for Thelma (Geena Davis) who had even less of a chance. Since the movie is not a fairy tale or a comedy, probably it isn't really much about love at all. I think, rather, that it is about freedom, the illusion of freedom, and the opposite of freedom. And what it shows about these two women's lack of freedom is so disturbing precisely because it is neither a fairy tale nor a comedy nor an ideological piece of anti-sexist propaganda. It is simply an accurate, if somewhat exaggerated, portrayal of what could happen to two rather ordinary women who set out on a fishing trip for a few days of good times. The movie is not about happy ever after, it is about now.
Watching Louise and Thelma plan their weekend escape via phone we also get a vivid look at what this trip is an escape from. Neither of them appears to have much in the way of freedom. Louise, a work-weary waitress, knows herself better and at the outset is the more able to negotiate in a world that is indifferent at the best. Thelma, a bored wife, needs her friend's encouragement to imagine her own initiative. The lives both women were leading before they headed off for the hills demonstrate something of the price women pay for men's freedom.
Louise has learned to turn off emotion, to expect little, not to rely upon others, and to distrust men. Although what happened to her in Texas is never revealed to Thelma or to us, we suspect that the incident contributed to her distance and wariness. Her musician lover keeps a wandering, erratic schedule according to his jobs and desires. Apparently their relationship depends upon Louise not making demands, upon her willingness to regard detachment as the price of safety. She is not a captive, but she isn't free. This relationship suggests that Louise is rather an exile or a refugee. There is no mysterious past in Thelma's situation. She married young and either atrophied or never developed past the young girl who married this jerk of a husband. His pleasures are blatant ones: selling lots of carpet, playing pin-ball, drinking beer, watching the game. There isn't much room in the relationship for Thelma's desires or even for considering what she might want beyond a frozen candy bar. Her role is to do as she is told and to not make trouble. She is a captive, for whom these few days away are an adventure, an escape.
That escape is not into freedom, however. The simple pleasure of a weekend in the mountains is transformed into a high-speed, cross-country chase. Out of town, Thelma pleads for a good time, a few drinks in a road house. Lacking Louise's worldly wisdom she innocently celebrates her escape, dancing and drinking with a local man. When he leads her into the parking lot she realizes that his desires are the only ones he cares about. Just in time Louise's voice, backed up by a gun, breaks though the night But Harlan isn't willing to let the two women walk away without reasserting his manly status by taunting them. His last words break through Louise's reserve, releasing anger enough to pull the trigger and kill the man. What began as a getaway vacation becomes a real flight from danger. Yes, the photography is grand—sweeping views of southwestern landscape seen from blue highways. Sure, watching that scenery go by with the roof down and the radio on looks like freedom. The women are freed from the constraints placed on them by specific men in particular relationships and they embrace the freedom to express themselves in new ways. But the freedom is an illusion because this is not a joy ride, it is deadly flight doomed to failure. The ways women pay for men's freedom continue to entrap the friends. Each act of self assertion is a revolt against the way things still are: Thelma's naive flirtation, Louise's gunshot, their decision to run rather than go to the police. All along the road the revolt continues. The price of Thelma's discovery of sexual ecstasy with a hitchhiker is their cash. Her successful use of her new skill in armed robbery to replace it gives her a rush of accomplishment, but it also alerts the police to their location and compounds the charges against them. Given the opportunity to risk marriage, Louise clings to her self-reliance and puts her hope in running away, still an exile and now a fugitive.
Much has been made of similarities between Thelma and Louise and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both are about friends running, certainly. But the fact that Thelma and Louise are women makes a dramatic difference in their experience and that of the viewer. Our national mythology has a place for male outlaw heroes. The town I live in takes care to call its fall festival the Defeat of Jesse James Days, but none of the children want to dress up like the bank clerk who died in the foiled robbery, for whom the town's citizenship award is named. They all want to mimic the James Boys and the Younger Gang. Like Butch and Sundance, Jesse James' flaunting of social convention stands for wild freedom from constraints and open opportunity to express one's self. Men are allowed to do this; after all, boys will be boys. They are expected to do this. Women are not allowed to.
Women's revolt is judged unwomanly as well as illegal. It challenges fundamental expectations about society and people's roles in it. The oddity of these two women's outlaw behavior in masculine forms is what gives the film a layer of comedy. Claudia Schmidt and friends once performed a gender reversal radio play of the great Northfield raid; its humor had the same basis. As Thelma and Louise drive they stop putting on their faces and let their hair down. They are able to slip free of some social expectations as well as from specific relationships, but they can't really escape from being women. Despite recent reforms, our legal system and cultural norms do not recognize women's captivity within them. The one person who knows what happened to Louise in Texas, the sheriff, has a glimmer of understanding. But he is unable to break through Louise's reserve or to convince the assembled authority of the law enforcement men in their uniforms. Every effort the women make to free themselves— from walking into the road house, to firing the gun, to blowing up that trucker's rig (the one perfectly satisfying moment in the movie)— only ties them more tightly into the net which finally traps them.
The last frames do not depict an act of freedom because there was only one option, the option available to prisoners. Although this still isn't the ending I would like, I'm convinced that it was the one the whole film required. In those final seconds, the women's few days of escape from not-freedom was unveiled as only an illusion of freedom and the men's freedom which was their model was also revealed to be an illusion. Freedom from constraint and for self-expression is highly regarded in our culture. The pursuit of this misconception drives many of us, personally and collectively, to the edge of a deep cavern. And the cost others pay for our illusion is captivity or exile. Thelma and Louise may be an accurate portrayal of our society, but I think that there is more truth about freedom in the two fairy tales about love. Although they may be wrong about details and limited by their focus on romance, Bull Durham and White Palace at least hint that real freedom is to be found in relationships. It is freedom with, rather than from or for. Developing an authentic self requires both the constraints imposed by love and the liberty that grows out of it. These constraints produce neither captivity nor exile, so they need not incite revolt or prompt escape. To the contrary, the constraints of this love are made easy by the liberty of love while the constraints which bind us together give direction and purpose to the freedom. Some readers will have recognized that Christ is the model for this freedom also called Christian liberty. Having seen and been profoundly disturbed by this summer's must-see movie, I am all the more convinced that Christian liberty is among the must-retrieve teachings of the church. It offers us true freedom, the sure escape from both not-freedom and the illusion of freedom that our pursuit of freedom from constraint for the purpose of self-expression cannot