Gender Bender Over Thelma & Louise

A white-hot debate rages over whether Thelma & Louise celebrates liberated females, male bashers -- or outlaws

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Should we care? As Barbara Bunker, who teaches psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, very sensibly notes, "It's a dramatic piece, not a ((literal)) description of what's going on in our society. It seems to me that drama is supposed to make things larger than life so you get the point." Agrees Regina Barreca, who teaches English at the University of Connecticut and is the author of They Used to Call Me Snow White but I Drifted, a book about women and humor: "It has got to be seen not as a cultural representation but as a fairy tale." In other words, as a dream work, full of archetypes and exaggerations.

This does not mean that Thelma & Louise is or was ever meant to be a sweet dream, a comfortable, comforting movie like, say, City Slickers. "Screenplay idea," jotted Callie Khouri in her notebook one day in 1987: "Two women go on a crime spree." Khouri, whose first screenplay this is, had the notion that if a female couple were somehow forced by circumstances to take up the outlaw life, they would, under the suspenseful impress of life on the lam, undergo the same kind of bonding process -- sweet, funny, appealing -- that male protagonists customarily experience in this kind of movie. But she also seemed to sense that just because of its off-casting, it could have a jagged edginess that its models had long since lost.

Khouri's idea was, to borrow a term from old-time Hollywood writers, a nice little switcheroo -- logical, easy to explain and not too threatening in its originality. Moreover, the times were right for it. Everyone was complaining that there were too few good roles for women in American movies -- especially roles that permitted their characters to make their own decisions, control their own destiny. In fact, according to Mimi Polk, Thelma & Louise's producer, the movie did not "pitch well" to studio executives: "The script was full of subtlety that was lost in a two-sentence description." Polk feels, as well, that had she and her partner, Ridley Scott, proposed two male stars in the lead, they could have got a budget heftier than the $17.5 million they ultimately spent.

It is possible, of course, that the Suits were just as nervous about the story that Khouri developed as some of the film's latter-day critics have turned out to be. Hollywood is not, after all, the world capital of the new masculine sensibility.

Be that as it may, the movie, which Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) eventually decided to direct himself, starts out in a low, ingratiating gear. It looks like a "buddy romp," as Geena Davis, who plays Thelma, puts it. Thelma is married to a carpet salesman named Darryl, who represents everything stupid and stupefying about traditional masculinity, keeping Thelma in a state of near childish dependency. Her best pal, Louise (Susan Sarandon), lives with an oft traveling musician named Jimmy, who is nice enough but suffers from the other great modern male defect -- a maddening inability to make permanent commitments. Both women feel more than entitled to shed their mates for a long weekend at a friend's vacation retreat.

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