Thelma and Louise is a film about friendship and the constructed identities of two women whose actions are directly influenced by the male dominated world in which they live. The film takes viewers through the journey of self-discovery experienced by two women in extremely dire circumstances. By understanding the basic plotline and ensuing analyses using radical feminism and strain theory as frameworks for discussion, the actions of Thelma and Louise can be understood but not justified.
The film starts out by taking us into the mundane lives of the two protagonists. Louise is a waitress at a diner with an all-female wait staff and all-male management. Thelma is a stay-at-home wife who chooses to stay with a husband that mentally abuses her. Louise, the one with the stronger mentality and a solid relationship with her male counterpart, initiates a weekend vacation that quickly turns worse when they come across a man named Harlan at a pit stop at which they drink, flirt and dance. When Thelma dances with Harlan in an attempt to forget about her abusive husband, she begins to feel sick. Harlan takes her outside, assaults her and attempts to rape her. Louise, who we later find out is tormented by a past surreptitious rape, shoots and kills Harlan after the two of them begin to walk away from him. From that point on the two protagonists are on the run from the law. Throughout the film from this point forward the two women become much more daring in their actions and actively take on the roles of outlaws. They continuously express their repressed frustrations out on the various men they come across throughout the film in diverse ways. The women utilize their new status as outlaws as an excuse to seek revenge on men, creating an illusory and internalized perception that they are in control and wield all the power that men have held over them throughout their lives. This is fundamentally a film about the human psyche. Two under-educated women that have been psychologically and physically beaten down men throughout their lives ultimately commit suicide as a final stand against an oppressive, male-dominated society.
Did the protagonists justifiably commit the crimes, and did Thelma’s behavior towards Harlan justify what almost happened to her? Radical feminist theory, or extreme feminism, is a useful framework that will be considered here when questioning whether or not Thelma’s behavior towards Harlan was justified. Radical feminism does not directly justify actions but presupposes an ideology that is actively against men. Author Mary Daly states that radical feminism is meant to help in the discovery and creation of women in a world outside of the vast patriarchy in which we live (Daly 1978, p. 7). For the radical feminist, women must construct their identities in spite of patriarchal ideology that assumes men are accidental ‘victims’ of themselves and whom must actually be saved through ‘female self-sacrifice’ (Daly 1978, p. 8.). Radical feminists such as Daly contend that it is a mistake to see men as victims that must be saved from ‘demonic possession’, or the ‘demons’ of society that justify their actions. Additionally, rape is about power and dominance and not about sexual pleasure. Harlan’s demon, in the eyes of radical feminists, was his need to exercise and ‘tame’ the loose female woman. For the radical feminist, women themselves should not fall victim to any man’s will in their journey of self-discovery that should be taken outside of and in spite of patriarchal ideologies.
Therefore, using radical feminism as a framework of thought, Thelma’s behavior towards Harlan was unjustified. Thelma was seeking to find satisfaction by taking advantage of the male gaze. She was seeking liberation from her repressed stereotypical contained-housewife gender role by seeking acceptance from a man rather than from herself.
Although the women made extremely poor decisions throughout their journey of feminine self-discovery, it is clear that they were also victimized in a society that does not favor women. Drawing upon strain and subculture theory as a framework for discussion, it can be said that Thelma and Louise were victims of a patriarchal society when it comes to opportunity while also committing an unjustifiable crime.
Strain theory acknowledges that not all autonomous actors in Western society have the same means of achieving upward mobility (Belknap 2006, p. 37). While women constitute the most impoverished group of people in Western society, they commit far less crime than their male counterparts. However, strain theorists also recognize the disturbing link that patriarchal ideology embodies when considering promiscuity as an inextricable link between female criminality and sexuality while disregarding the same sexual conduct and links of promiscuity in men (Belknap 2006 p. 38). Additionally, strain theory focuses on individuals negative relationships with others that prevent them from achieving personal and desired goals (Agnew 1992). While it is obvious that Thelma is in a strained relationship with her husband, it is Louise that pulls the trigger and murders Harlan. Louise, having been raped in the past, does not seem necessarily limited in her goals and actions because of this isolated event. However, Thelma is clearly limited in her goals and actions due to her negative relationship with her husband.
That being said, strain theory does not directly ‘create’ victims but it recognizes tension and pressure not just on a societal level but also on an individual level. Therefore, Thelma is the victim of a situation in which strain theorists would agree causes her to seek male attention and to ultimately put herself in a position of danger, but it is Louise who is the criminal who acts on pent-up frustration that social control theorists would agree is directly related to her sub-par role as a woman. Therefore, the women are victims of a society that disfavors women but they are also criminals that committed unnecessary crimes in order to seek psychological fulfillment.
If the roles were reversed and Thelma and Louise were two men acting out in frustration due to inferior roles in society while also in unhappy and abusive marriages, my reactions would be quite similar. According to one particular critique on ‘victim feminism’, feminist rhetoric can turn stable women into victimized, hysterical victims that are actually living in a progressive and more-or-less egalitarian society (Cole 1999, p. 73). Feminism, and even radical feminism, does not have to necessarily victimize women. Feminism in its best forms should empower not only women but also those that feel weak in a society or in a personal situation that disfavors them. If the roles were reverse, the male Thelma would still be a victim in a loveless marriage that sought attention from the opposite sex that directly put him in a dangerous situation. Additionally, if the roles were reversed, male Louise’s actions, although understandable, were unjustified since the crime was not in self-defense.
Feminism and criminological theories contain broad and abstract concepts that consider implied patriarchy and hegemony when evaluating the lack of justice for women who commit crimes and undergo legal prosecution. Feminism, with its many strains and stances concerning the position and the desirable actions of women in society, can be good in theory but damaging when used as a framework for justifying crime. When victims-turned-criminals kill and endanger the lives of people, their actions, although at times understandable, cannot be justified. Feminism in theory is supposed to uplift the oppressed and inspire action in spite of as well as against gender norms of superiority and inferiority. This is not what occurs for the characters in Thelma and Louise and would not be the case whether or not they were male or female.
Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency*.Criminology, 30(1), 47-88.
Belknap, J. (2006). The invisible woman: Gender, crime, and justice (3rd ed., pp. 1-59).Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Cole, A. M. (1999). "There are no victims in this class": On female suffering and anti-"victim feminism" NWSA Journal, 11(1), 72-96.
Daly, M. (1978). Gyn/ecology: The metaethics of radical feminism. Boston: Beacon Press.