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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Or, perhaps, a woman who has had a taste of revenge and would like to gulp down more of it. Believing that no one is likely to accept their account of what happened in the parking lot, Thelma and Louise decide they have no choice but to make a run for the Mexican border. This long concluding passage of the film, rich in irony and ambiguities, is fueled dramatically by a slow, steady shift in their relationship. As Sarandon notes, Louise suffers "great remorse" about the murder. "It doesn't change the world, and in the long run it doesn't serve to her advantage." Indeed, fear of her act's consequences slowly undoes her former take-charge capability. She gradually cedes leadership of their little expedition to Thelma -- possibly because she sees that it can end only in tragedy, while Thelma can't see anything because she is having the time of her life.

It is Thelma who spots a really cute hitchhiker by the side of the road and decides she just has to have him. With him she has great sex for the first time in her life. To him -- he's a convenience-store bandit -- she loses all the getaway money that Louise had scraped together from her life savings. But what might have seemed yet another rape, this time of a more symbolic kind, turns out to be a fair exchange. The hitchhiker, using Thelma's hair dryer as a gun substitute, teaches her the tricks of his dubious trade; soon she is doing hold-ups. It is Thelma too who gets the drop on a cop who stops the two women for speeding, orders him into the trunk of his squad car, and gently warns him to be sweet to his wife, adding, "My husband wasn't sweet to me, and look how I turned out."

Literalists criticize Thelma's erotic awakening because, they say, it could not happen so soon after the trauma of near rape. Doubtless that would be true in circumstances less special than the ones the movie sets up. The point it's insisting on is that a sudden access of freedom is eroticizing as well as empowering.

By the same token, some representatives of the world's largest minority, the humor-impaired, regard the women's response to an oil-tank trucker with whom + they keep playing fender tag as excessive. Every time they encounter him, the guy proves by word, smirk and obscene gesture that he's a chauvinist dinosaur. When he inquires if they're "ready to get serious," they reply encouragingly. What he doesn't know, of course, is that they're thinking metaphorically, with a little help from director Scott, with whose surrealistic reinvention of the West -- one-third desert, one-third industrial wasteland, one-third unzoned strip development -- this oil-truck rig fits right in. In Scott's eyes, and his heroines', it is a gigantic penis. And, yes, they are ready for that. Ready to blow it to smithereens with their little guns.

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