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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On the way, they stop at a roadhouse for a drink. One of its resident lounge lizards mistakes Thelma's naive flirtatiousness for a come-on, follows her to the parking lot and almost succeeds in raping her. Louise rescues her at gunpoint. Then, just as you are figuring that this is an unaccountably dark passage in an otherwise sunny film, Louise kills the would-be rapist. In cold blood. With malice aforethought, however briefly considered.

It is a remarkable mood swing, one of the few authentically daring narrative coups in the cautious recent history of American film. And it is by no means a carelessly considered one. "It was a goal to make that resonate throughout the film," according to Davis. It does, and it has a transforming effect on Thelma & Louise. It lifts it beyond the reach of gags like columnist Ellen Goodman's characterization of it as "a PMS movie, plain and simple." More important, it lifts it beyond the effective range of ideologically oriented criticism. "The violence I liked, in a way," says Sarandon, "because it is not premeditated. It is primal, and it doesn't solve anything."

It is also blessedly unexplained. In the aftermath of the killing, we do learn that something dreadful happened to Louise years ago. Obviously it was some kind of sexual assault, but she never reveals its exact nature. This, of course, runs counter to the conventions of popular culture. If this were the TV-rape-movie-of-the-month, a hysterical revelation of the exact nature of the abuse -- especially if it were, say, gang rape or years of incest -- would be obligatory in order to balance the moral scales.

Such an explanation would have quelled much of the "male bashing" criticism leveled at Thelma & Louise. But it would also have cheapened the movie in some measure, suggesting that some kinds of sexual violence grant their victims murderous entitlements while others do not. By leaving Louise's mystery intact, the film implies that all forms of sexual exploitation, great or small, are consequential and damaging.

Within the moral scheme of the movie, writer Khouri's choice of this particular crime as the motive for the women's "crime spree," instead of, say, grand theft -- auto, has other advantages as well. For one thing, it ironically restores Thelma and Louise to equality with men -- at least in one realm of action. Says Martha Nussbaum, a philosophy professor at Brown and an expert on women in antiquity: "I think the modern idea that women are gentle and sweet is parochial. Just look at Medea." The Greeks, Nussbaum suggests, understood that crimes are committed by those with the least access to power, which then, as now, included women. "As the ancients said, 'No force in nature is stronger than a woman wronged.' "

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