Is This What Feminism Is All About?

By playing out a male fantasy, Thelma & Louise shows Hollywood is still a man's world

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So few movies place women at their center that when one does it is held up to the light and turned every which way for clues about the state of the gender. This may be more freight than Thelma & Louise can carry. But not since | Fatal Attraction has a movie provoked such table-pounding discussions between men and women. Along partisan lines, men attack the movie as a male-bashing feminist screed, in which they are portrayed as leering, overbearing, violent swine who deserve what they get, from a bullet in the heart to being stuffed in a trunk. Women cheer the movie because it finally turns the tables on Hollywood, which has been too busy making movies about bimbos, prostitutes, vipers and bitches and glamourizing the misogynists who kill them to make a movie like Thelma & Louise.

Yet for all the pleasure the film gives women moviegoers who want to see the worst of the opposite sex get what's coming to them, it can hardly be called a woman's movie or one with a feminist sensibility. As a bulletin from the front in the battle of the sexes, Thelma & Louise sends the message that little ground has been won. For these two women, feminism never happened. Thelma and Louise are so trapped that the only way for them to get away for more than two days is to go on the lam. They become free but only wildly, self-destructively so -- free to drive off the ends of the earth.

They are also free to behave like -- well, men. For all the talk that Thelma & Louise is the first major female buddy movie, it is more like a male buddy movie with two women plunked down in the starring roles. The heroines are irresistibly likable: the gentle, bewildered Thelma, married to a smug, low- rent, philandering salesman who wears more gold jewelry than she does, and for whom, when she takes off, she leaves dinner on a child's partitioned plate in the microwave; and Louise, the world-weary, wised-up waitress who has waited too long for her lounge-singer boyfriend to marry her. But rather than finding their way with their female natures intact or even being able to reach out to the one decent man who could help them, they become like any other shoot-first-and-talk-later action heroes.

Thelma and Louise act out a male fantasy of life on the road, avoiding intimacy with loud music, Wild Turkey, fast driving -- and a gun in the pants. The movie has almost as many chase scenes per reel as Smokey and the Bandit. The characters don't confide in each other as real-life women would. When Thelma asks what happened in Louise's secret past in Texas that makes her murderous, Louise refuses to talk and warns her not to ask about it. She turns driving from Oklahoma to Mexico without going through the Lone Star State into one of the movie's running jokes.

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