Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture
(1900 - present), Spring 2002, Volume 1, Issue 1
"I'm Not Gonna Hurt You":
Legal Penetrations in Thelma and Louise
Pennsylvania State University, York
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A decade after making their first appearance
in American movie theaters, Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan
Sarandon) continue to cause trouble. Indeed, their names have
entered popular culture as shorthand for women engaged in overt
criminality. For example, Houston-area police
invoked Thelma and Louise as the role models for four young women,
all from well-to-do families, who had committed a series of crimes
and had taken to calling themselves "queens of armed robbery."
1 In some sense, this appropriation represents
the latest in a series of efforts to limit the meaning of Thelma
and Louise and their "outlawry." But in refusing to
"act like ladies," Thelma and Louise challenge the whole
regime of gender as well as the national order predicated upon
it. As Judith Butler has argued, "sex" works as a regulatory
category, and only the "properly sexed," the "coherent,"
get recognized as "legitimate" subjects: "In this
sense, the category of sex constitutes and regulates what will
and will not be an intelligible and recognizable human existence,
what will and will not be a citizen capable of rights or speech,
an individual protected by law against violence or injury"
("Sexual Inversions" 74). The anxiety evinced by the
film's critics and allegorized by the film's male characters,
nearly all of whom seek to apprehend and punish these women, shows
that a woman's "duty" to her country is to decline personal
autonomy and become a site for male privilege and pleasure. Thelma
and Louise's "crime," thus, is their effort to generate
a new signifying practice and, in the process, expand and reconfigure
Critics of the film, in decrying what they
perceived as gratuitous violence, took great pains to connect
such excesses to the politics of gender. John Leo of U. S.
News and World Report called the film's feminism "toxic"
(20). Richard Grenier's review in Commentary was titled
"Killer Bimbos" (50). Writing for National Review,
John Simon grouped Thelma and Louise with films like Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, and Sugarland
Express as "glorification[s] of [apologies] for violence;
they pander to piggery, masculine or feminine" (50). Even
Time columnist Margaret Carlson argued that the film was
a setback for feminism: "As a bulletin from the front line
in the battle of the sexes, Thelma and Louise sends the
message that little ground has been won" (57). All of these
critics focus on the violence performed by Thelma and Louise and
ignore, or at least understate, its underlying causes. That it
is women behaving in such a way only seems to add to the horror.
Noting that eventually Thelma and Louise take both pride and pleasure
in their "gun-slinging outlawry," Time film critic
Richard Schickel (who reviewed the film positively) suggested,
"This is something nice girls—nice people, nice movies—are
not supposed to own up to, let alone speak of humorously"
The gist of a great deal of such criticism
is that left unpunished, Thelma and Louise represent a significant
social threat. For example, in the February 1994 issue of Playboy,
faux movie critic Joe Bob Briggs ridiculed
the film for its stereotypical portrayal of men and called it
"nothing more nor less than a great exploitation movie,"
and he concludes, "I have seen the future, and it has a lot
of lesbians in it" (147). 2 Briggs's essay,
given its venue and the clearly limited scope of its thinking,
could easily be dismissed as inane, yet his argument enacts the
very kind of violence upon Thelma and Louise which the various
men in the film do. The fact that Louise will not oblige Harlan
(Timothy Carhart) and perform oral sex marks her as a "lesbian."
The rigidity and myopia of Briggs's categorization puts in clear
relief the "crime" they commit—they refuse to be the
passive, penetrable bodies that "the law" demands they
and all women must be.
On one level, however, Briggs's analysis
rings true. Thelma and Louise is "a great exploitation
film," and it gestures toward the horror films that were
its forbearers. For example, the two women plan to go to an isolated
cabin for a vacation, a clear reference to the venue of many slasher
films. To emphasize this point, Thelma justifies bringing her
gun as a defense against any "psycho-killers" they might
encounter. The bar where they stop and where Thelma has her ill-fated
encounter with Harlan is called The Silver Bullet. Perhaps the
least horrific element in this opening sequence is the "monster"
Louise kills, but as Carol Clover has noted, the advent of
feminism has markedly changed the dynamic of the subgenre of the
rape-revenge film: "It is perhaps no accident that the 'masculinization'
of the rape victim is accompanied by a 'normalization' of the
rapist (that is, the decline of the rapist-as-psychopathic-creep
and the rise of the rapist-as-standard-guy)" (Clover 59).
3 As the waitress at The Silver Bullet later
tells Detective Slocumb (Harvey Keitel), Harlan was well known
as a womanizer. Thus, the audience is left to understand Harlan's
actions toward Thelma as "normal" operating procedure
and, hence, Louise's action as that of what Clover calls the "Final
Girl," the last character in a horror film (usually a woman)
who can and does stop the monster. Yet, for the scenario of the
"Final Girl" to work, audiences must identify the "monster"
as monstrous, something critics like Briggs clearly don't, or
won't, do. Clover calls the Final Girl "an agreed upon fiction"
that signals a transformation of the slasher genre. "If Psycho,
like other classic horror films, solves the femininity problem
by obliterating the female and replacing her with representatives
of the masculine order (mostly but not inevitably males),"
Clover argues, "the modern slasher solves it by regendering
the woman" (Clover 59). Thus, in Clover's formulation, the
Final Girl works to reverse classic gender stereotypes by positing
the heroic in the feminine.
However, Harlan, and later, the tanker truck
driver, don't produce the same kind of dread as Michael Myers
or Jason or Leatherface, at least not in a male audience. In fact,
Briggs places Thelma and Louise with the "monsters,"
facetiously remarking that "[Leatherface] had the moral advantage
of being crazy" (147). By moving the "horror" into
the register of gender relations, Thelma and Louise provokes
gender identity reification, not cross-gender identification.
Thelma and Louise thus become criminals, not heroes, and their
criminality can be redressed only by the reinstitution of "appropriate"
gender borders. In exposing the horror of the law of gender, Thelma
and Louise demands that the audience encounter violence stripped
of the veneer of the fantastic.
Thus, Briggs's crude categorization is also
violent because it rejects possibilities for identity not accounted
for (and thereby regulated by) the norm of heterosexuality. Briggs
"knows" a "lesbian"—a woman who doesn't act
like a woman. This failure to act "appropriately" is
precisely Thelma's "crime" against Harlan. "I'm
not gonna hurt you," he remarks somewhat incongruously when
the two have gone to the parking lot for air. "I just want
to kiss you." Thelma's resistance produces physical violence.
Harlan slaps Thelma in the face and repeats his previous promise,
now even more incongruous: "I said I'm not gonna hurt you."
When Thelma slaps back, Harlan assaults her. Thelma's "lesbianism"
requires punishment. Harlan rejects any possible understanding
of Thelma that would deny his privilege, and he maintains his
"reading" even when Louise intervenes, telling her that
he and Thelma (now bleeding and crying) were simply "having
a little fun."
So begins the mission of Thelma and Louise.
Rather than submit to such a reading practice and the limits it
imposes, these characters attempt a series of semiotic corrections
through violence. Louise rejects Harlan's definition of fun: "In
the future, when a woman's crying like that, she isn't having
any fun." Despite Louise holding a gun on him, Harlan denies
her claim. Only men, Harlan seems to believe, can determine representational
legitimacy. Louise's murder of Harlan is her appropriation of
representational violence. "You watch your mouth, buddy,"
Louise admonishes after she has shot him. As critic Ann Putnam
suggests, Louise uses violence "to obliterate the awesome
silencing power of proprietary language" (295).
Still, Louise recognizes that her transgression
will provoke a swift response from the state. She rejects Thelma's
suggestion to turn themselves in because, under the auspices of
the law, Harlan's crime was no crime at all:
Thelma: Shouldn't we go to the cops? I mean, I think
we ought to tell the police.
Louise: Tell them what, Thelma? Just what do you think
we should tell them?
Thelma: I don't know-just tell them what happened.
Louise: Which part?
Thelma: All of it-that, that he was raping me.
Louise: Just that about a hundred goddamn people saw
you dancing cheek to cheek with him all night. Who's gonna believe
that? We don't live in that kind of world, Thelma.
Later, when Thelma asks, "So this is
all my fault, is it?" Louise's silence speaks the position
the law encourages her to have—blame the victim. Just as inflexible
gender taxonomies designate "appropriate" and "inappropriate"
subjects, the law posits a representational schema that permits
a similar differentiation. Thelma's impeachable credibility, impeachable
because of her "inappropriate" conduct,
makes Harlan's crime not a crime, at least not in a prosecutable
way. Louise's crime is the only one, legally speaking, available
for investigation and punishment. As Thelma remarks, in what might
be thought of as a summary of one of the film's main themes, "The
law is some tricky shit." 4
Despite Thelma's insistence on bringing in
the law, Louise resists, choosing instead to become an outlaw
and head for Mexico. Louise's refusal to submit to the law creates
a fissure that the law enforcers of the film seek to redress.
This "outlawry" opens a space for a subversive representational
practice, one in which categorizations of all sorts get deconstructed,
but no "norm" is substituted in or privileged. As Elizabeth
V. Spelman and Martha Minow have suggested in their analysis of
the film, "The price of being protected by the law in court
is to surrender control over the telling of your story. Its rich,
complicated, and confusing textures are not digestible by the
legal record" (275). The film, thus, becomes the alternative
to the "legal record," and Thelma and Louise opt to
tell their own stories. But these stories are not neat, linear
narratives in which every mystery is solved and a happy ending
is assured. Instead, these stories are the initial steps toward
a signifying practice grounded in "incoherency" and
possibility, not taxonomies of gender that are a fait accompli.
The violence in the film can and should be
seen not as merely gratuitous but as the necessary first step
for being heard and acknowledged. Richard Schickel quotes Barbara
Bunker, psychology professor at SUNY-Buffalo, as claiming that
violent assertiveness is "basically unrestrained expressiveness"
(Schickel 56). Thelma and Louise themselves recognize the unexpectedly
creative power of violence. After initially escaping the massive
police pursuit near the Grand Canyon, Thelma jokingly reflects,
"I guess I went a little crazy." Louise responds, "You've
always been a little crazy. This is just the first chance you've
ever had to really express yourself." Thelma's "craziness"
starkly contrasts with her initial appearance when, after yelling
to her husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) that she would answer
the phone, she is admonished to keep her voice down. She converses
with Louise in a barely audible whisper for fear Darryl will overhear
and deny her permission to go on vacation. Thelma begins the film
as the quintessential "nice girl," a role that entails
her being victimizable, "sane," quiet.
Yet Thelma and Louise's embracing of outlawry
and its requisite "craziness" signifies more than mere
bloodlust. In their excess, Thelma and Louise enact what Lauren
Berlant has deemed "diva citizenship," an effort to
display the limits of traditional American personhood and to seek
Diva Citizenship occurs when a person stages
a dramatic coup in a public sphere in which she does not have
privilege. Flashing up and startling the public, she puts the
dominant story into suspended animation; as though recording an
estranging voice-over to a film we have all already seen, she
renarrates the dominant history as one that the abjected people
have once lived sotto voce, but no more; and she challenges her
audience to identify with the enormity of the suffering she has
narrated and the courage she has had to produce, calling on people
to change the social and institutional practices of citizenship
to which they currently consent. (Berlant, The Queen of America
Thelma and Louise inhabit those roles traditionally
occupied by men in order to shock, but in the shock comes the
recognition of the limits of sexual and national representation.
Thelma's new expressiveness combats her previous sotto voce status.
The ultimate project of Thelma and Louise is nothing less than
the destruction of the taxonomies that sustain the law of the
In fact, critics like Joe Bob Briggs recognize
all too well the ramifications of such an endeavor, so they respond
as a kind of police force themselves, identifying the "enemy,"
so it can be attacked and destroyed. Lynda Hart anticipates critics
like Briggs when she writes, "When the two women in the representation
work with rather than against each other, the potentiality for
their aggression connoting lesbianism is almost unavoidable."
Actions that if performed by Robert Redford and Paul Newman would
seem "normal" don't wear as well when performed by Geena
Davis and Susan Sarandon. This incongruity, Hart asserts, puzzles
audiences: "The anxiety these films generate will be in proportion
to the incoherencies in the narrative that permit some glimmer
of this recognition" (442).
The "lesbian future" which horrifies
Briggs would mean the denial of the primacy of the phallus and,
of course, the "laws" premised on such a primacy. The
film models this very same male horror Detective Slocumb, his
compatriot from the FBI, and Darryl watch a videotape of Thelma's
armed robbery of a convenience store. Each looks on in befuddlement
and, not surprisingly, mutters a version of the name of the Father
("My God!" "Jesus Christ!" "My Lord!").
From this point on, Thelma and Louise go from being a mere curiosity
to being dangerous felons, and the law goes into ultimate attack
Thus, through their "incoherent"
behavior, Thelma and Louise challenge the state. But their rebellion
also challenges the seemingly coherent category of gender by denying
the psychoanalytical truism of woman as "lack" and penetrability
as normative. Under such a regime, women can be subject to the
law—that is, take their "proper" place in the heterosexual
matrix-only by acquiring a substitute: "No matter how much
'felt experience' of her uterus and vagina the little girl has
. . . , the fact remains that she cannot see it and is reduced
to imagining it (that is, to imagining herself, like Klossowski's
Diana), with the help of the boy's erect phallus" (Borch-Jacobsen
216). Put another way, only by being penetrated can women "imagine
themselves." Refusing penetration as a necessary component
for producing their "correct" subjectivity puts women
at odds with "the law."
Refusing penetration also confounds male
privilege and necessitates a reassertion of "the law"
and a return to normalcy. "At best [women] may obey Law itself,
the law of the same, which requires that the little girl abandon
her relation to the origin and her primal fantasy so that henceforth
she can be inscribed into those of men which will become the 'origin'
of her desire," Luce Irigaray argues, critiquing Freudian/Lacanian
discourse. "In other words, woman's only relation to origin
is one dictated by man's. She is crazy, disoriented, lost, if
she fails to join in this first male desire" (Irigaray 33).
Having rejected "the law" and refused to confess, Thelma
and Louise broach the possibility of "illegal" trajectories
of desire. In their actions, they propose a new signifying practice,
indeed, a new signifying economy, that rejects "lack"
and the necessity of female penetration. These actions mark them
as "crazy, disoriented, lost," a fact they celebrate,
but the men in the film fear and use as a justification for their
pursuit. Thus, the setting for the final scenes of the film must
be understood as the staging of this new practice—the Grand Canyon,
a "hole," an absence, a "lack" that so many
come to "see."
Once they fully embrace the possibilities
of their outlawhood, Thelma and Louise consistently reject the
primacy of the phallus. For example, critics have generally recognized
their destruction of the tanker truck as an attack on a giant
penis. But that violence is merely the culmination of an attack
that begins in language. Having already asked if they were "ready
for a big dick," the trucker makes the opening gambit in
a game that he has apparently played many times before. Yet Thelma
and Louise refuse to play by "the rules." Instead, they
chastise him for his "bad manners" and purposely misread
his various obscene gestures. Louise asks, "And all that
. . . pointing to your lap—I mean, what is that supposed to mean
exactly? I mean, does it mean, 'Pull over, I want to show you
what a big fat slob I am'?" In the same way that Harlan refused
to read his treatment of Thelma as an assault, Louise refuses
to acknowledge the phallic superiority of the truck driver. She
reads lack where the trucker saw power. Utterly befuddled by his
reception, the trucker articulates the idea that by now so many
men in the movie (and in the theaters) have of Thelma and Louise:
"You women are crazy!" Far from denying it, Louise gleefully
asserts, "Got that right!"
At the same time that Thelma and Louise confound
phallocentric law, they also make themselves impenetrable. In
her encounter with J. D. (Brad Pitt), Thelma learns the pitfalls
of penetrability. Their sexual intimacy gives J. D. the opportunity
to steal Louise's getaway money. Moreover, once captured, J. D.
tells Slocumb about Thelma and Louise's escape plans. "You've
just gotta stop talking to people," Louise admonishes Thelma.
"You've got to stop being open."
Perhaps because of the mysterious events
in Texas, Louise understands better than Thelma the benefits of
being impenetrable. At the beginning of the film, she waits on
two young women who are smoking. "You girls are kinda young
to be smoking, don't you think?" she asks. Then she adds,
"Ruins your sex drive." In the very next scene, Louise
herself lights up a cigarette and calls not her boyfriend but
Thelma, the woman she intends to leave town with. As Louise later
tells a male co-worker, "[Thelma's] running away with me."
When her boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) arrives in Oklahoma
City with the money for her and Thelma's getaway, their encounter
in the hotel room doesn't involve sex (at least not on screen).
Later, when Detective Slocumb urges Louise to turn herself in
or risk death, Louise responds with a curious litany: "You
know, certain words and phrases just keep drifting through my
mind, things like incarceration, cavity search, death by electrocution,
life imprisonment." The conflation of penetration with "incarceration"
and "death" underscores what Louise sees as the ultimate
result of submitting to the law.
As Louise conveys to Thelma, impenetrability
requires silence. In fact, Louise refuses to discuss a great deal
with Thelma, the police, and, by default, the audience, beginning
with the mysterious events in Texas. Lynda Hart suggests that
by "resisting divulging her secret, Louise becomes 'the criminal,'
and it is thus just as much what she refuses to say as what she
has done that criminalizes her" (Hart
434). Louise resists making herself "knowable." She
offers no mea culpa for the death of Harlan, and she provides
no insight that might make her "criminality" understandable.
In failing to confess, Louise confounds the "truth"
seekers who wish to verify the law and her place in it. 5
The "craziness," "incoherence,"
and "impenetrability" that mark Thelma and Louise as
"bad" women also mark them as "bad" citizens.
With the notable exception of Slocumb, all of the law enforcement
officers in the film see the two women as dangerous criminals.
As the army of police encircles Thelma and Louise at the end of
the film, the officer in charge demands that they throw down their
weapons and turn off the engine of the car. "Any failure
to obey that command will be considered an act of aggression against
us," he asserts. Of course, the whole film has been an act
of disobedience (coded as "aggression") against the
law. In pleading with his FBI colleague for leniency, Slocumb
sees the snipers at the ready and asks, "How many times do
these women have to be f——- over?" The question itself
evokes the penetrative logic of psychoanalytic discourse and highlights
the fact that the state maintains the same stance. At the end,
the "law" is in the same position as Harlan at The Silver
Bullet—ready to "f—-" these women and feeling perfectly
justified in doing so. Slocumb's realization comes too late to
help Thelma and Louise, but his running toward them, away from
his law enforcement colleagues, is a powerful rejection of what
the law symbolizes throughout the film.
The over-the-top nature of the law's reaction
demonstrates the anxiety provoked by female outlawry. "All
of this for us," Thelma marvels as she watches the pursuit.
"The unrestrained body is a statement or a language about
unrestrained morality," historian Bryan S. Turner theorizes.
"To control women's bodies is to control their personalities,
and represents an act of authority over the body in the interests
of public order organized around male values of what is rational"
(197). Thelma and Louise exceed the parameters of acceptable citizenship,
and the state must respond by restoring "order." Left
"unrestrained," the two would embody an alternative
practice of citizenship that would challenge not just the law
but the very definition of "freedom."
Their "unrestrained bodies" also
threaten the core of constitutional personhood. By determining
for themselves how their bodies will signify, Thelma and Louise
also control how (and if) their bodies will be seen at all. The
success of their outlawry relies on their ability to stay out
of sight. Critic Lauren Berlant argues power inheres in abstraction:
"The white, male body is the relay to legitimization, but
even more than that, the power to suppress that body, to cover
its tracks and its traces, is the sign of real authority, according
to constitutional fashion" ("National Brands/National
Body" 113). Berlant suggests that those members of the populace
unable to suppress their bodies, women and people of color in
particular, become targets for repression because of their very
embodiment. White men, by contrast, enjoy the privilege of abstraction.
Thus, Thelma and Louise can be assaulted because their
bodies deny them full citizenship and bespeak an inherent vulnerability.
The murder of Harlan shocks the system by removing the veneer
of abstraction for white males and positing in its place vulnerability,
"lack." This counterpenetration demands a resignification
of national embodiment and, as a result, of just who counts as
a "citizen" as well. 6
One method Thelma and Louise employ to further
problematize the distinctions of the "law" (male/female,
citizen/criminal, etc.) is a constant re-dressing. They remake
themselves through creative borrowing and transvestic trade with
men, in the process showing the creative possibilities of interchangeable,
capacious subjectivities. "Something's crossed over in me,
and I can't go back," Thelma proclaims when she fears Louise
might abandon her. "I mean, I just couldn't live."
Rejecting their old "restrained"
selves, both women divest themselves of the signifiers of that
lawful personhood. For instance, as she waits while Thelma robs
the convenience store, Louise begins to apply some lipstick but,
after seeing some townswomen looking at her, she tosses it out
of the car. Later, she trades her jewelry to an elderly man at
a roadside stop for his cowboy hat. Prior to locking the overly
officious highway patrolman in the trunk of his squad car, Louise
exchanges her sunglasses for his while Thelma holds him at gunpoint.
Like Louise, Thelma "re-dresses"
as well, though her borrowing focuses less on clothing and more
on identity options. For example, early in the film, Thelma takes
one of Louise's cigarettes and, looking at
herself in the side mirror, says, "I'm Louise." Even
at this early stage, Thelma recognizes the inadequacy of her "place"
as Darryl's wife. Later, after J. D. has made off with their money,
Thelma adopts the script he has given her and robs the convenience
store. 7 Thelma's surprising ability as an outlaw
(at one point, she brags to Louise, "I believe I have a knack
for this shit!") also highlights the "crossing over"
into a previously male domain.
Marjorie Garber has argued that transvestism
functions as a "third" which disrupts binaries and causes
"category crisis." In this way, transvestism must be
seen, in Garber's judgment, as "a space of possibility structuring
and confounding culture: the disruptive element that intervenes,
not just a category crisis of male and female, but the crisis
of category itself" (Garber 17). Such a disruption has implications
for various "laws" outlining normative behaviors:
By "category crisis" I mean a failure of definitional
distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits
of border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category
to another: black/white, Jew/Christian, noble/bourgeois, master/servant,
master/slave. The binarism male/female, one apparent ground
of distinction (in contemporary eyes, at least) between "this"
and "that," "him" and "me," is
itself put in question or under erasure in transvestism, and
a transvestite figure, or a transvestite mode, will always function
as a sign of overdetermination—a mechanism of displacement
from one blurred boundary to another. (Garber 17)
For Garber, popular culture is too quick
to recoup the transvestite figure and assign him/her to a specific
gender category. But the presence of "a transvestite mode"
does not merely signify a crisis in the category of gender. Rather,
it highlights other crises, crises that can be elided by focusing
on the seemingly aberrant nature of the transvestite (read as
"criminal" in certain contexts).
Thelma and Louise, in some sense,
enacts a "transvestite mode" throughout. Susan Sarandon
and Geena Davis "play" the roles that Robert Redford
and Paul Newman (or any other "buddy" or road picture
pairing) had previously occupied. Thus, the film does concern
itself with a crisis in gender taxonomy. However, it also plays
through the crisis of American citizenship. Thelma and Louise
try to escape the border of the nation, but they would not have
to cross that border were the parameters of citizenship more capacious
and welcoming of multiple subject positions. The one piece of
clothing Thelma takes from a man is the baseball cap of the tanker
truck driver. After destroying the tanker, Thelma scoops up a
dirty baseball cap with a dingy American flag on it. In her own
project of resignification, Thelma appropriates the national symbol
from a man and makes it her own. For a brief moment, the outlaw
is America. Significantly, though, when the law moves in on the
two women, their new hats blow off in a gust of wind from the
FBI helicopter. Thus, law reestablishes "order."
Shortly before their capture, Thelma confides
to Louise, "I feel awake, wide awake. Everything looks different.
You feel like that, too, like you've got something to look forward
to?" This last question is ironic given that only a few minutes
later they are trapped. Yet, their decision to "keep going,"
to drive off the cliff, is a triumph of sorts. In a gesture toward
the work of theorists like Butler, Lauren Berlant concedes that
various performative strategies have the effect of re-privileging
the body of the "other," yet she also asserts, "But
sometimes a person doesn't want to seek the dignity of an always-already-violated
body, and wants to cast hers off, either for nothingness, or in
a trade for some other, better model" ("National Brands/National
Bodies" 114). Thelma and Louise initially opt for the "better
model" of outlawhood, and, in doing so, they confuse and
terrify the men they encounter. When the law closes in on them,
however, they refuse to assume their prescribed identities. Having
already confessed that they "can't live" the old way,
they accept "nothingness" rather than apprehension.
In the new economy of desire that Thelma and Louise have glimpsed
and tried to live, the canyon into which they leap is the beginning,
not the end of their narrative. As Butler herself has argued,
"Perhaps only by risking the incoherence of identity is connection
possible" (The Psychic Life of Power 149). By denying
the law its final triumph and through their gestures of love toward
one another, Thelma and Louise become patriots in a new revolution,
that of activating and celebrating various identity positions
outside the law. Signification without representation becomes
a tyranny worth fighting against.
Putting into perspective the controversy
created by her film, screenwriter Callie Khouri noted in a 1997
interview that "a lot of people are very sensitive and like
their violence in a very particular way: male on male or male
on female" (Bowers 74). The "crime" committed by
Thelma and Louise results from the reversal of that trajectory
of violence. Thelma and Louise challenge the contours of citizenship
and gender with their outlawry, but they also show that the fiction
of nation and the unity that fiction implies rely upon violence
against women, particularly a reliance on their penetrability.
These "criminals" also show that the law will code as
deviant that which it cannot comprehend. The production of such
"criminality" thus becomes one of the chief methods
by which the nation affirms itself, its borders, and its "rightful"
subjects. In refusing to go away, Thelma and Louise hold out an
alternative national and sexual signifying practice that could
truly be called "democratic."
1. For a discussion
of the media frenzy surrounding these young women, see Max J.
Robins. Ironically, on the page following this story is a picture
of pop star Britney Spears, bare midriffed. A short summary of
an upcoming MTV special featuring Spears begins, "Talk about
a body in motion." The juxtaposition, though perhaps coincidental,
nonetheless demonstrates "appropriate" and "inappropriate"
uses for the young female body.
2. A more
"legitimate" academic critic that argues the same basic
point is Richard A. Schwartz. He argues that the film resembles
Shakespearean tragedies like Hamlet in that "the film's tragic
power stems from the interplay between our desires for the protagonists'
success and well being and our intensifying expectations that
the preservation of law and order will require their demise"
(102-3). Schwartz later asserts that the police officers in the
film are "generally positive figures who act professionally"
and that viewers (whom Schwartz refers to as "we") "never
question the appropriateness of their pursuing the fugitives"
J. Clover herself acknowledges the connection between Thelma and
Louise and such critically despised rape-revenge films as I
Spit on Your Grave, but she also perceives Thelma and Louise
as "a very, very safe film" because of the presence
of Slocumb, a male character the audience can identify with. Though
Slocumb seems to understand the plight of the women better than
any other member of law enforcement, he also doggedly pursues
both and, in fact, is instrumental in their capture by keeping
Louise on the phone long enough to be traced. As I will argue,
the film itself contradicts Clover's conflation of "safety"
with "the law" throughout, and Slocumb's sympathy with
Thelma and Louise does not stop him from doing his job in the
way, for example, that "Dirty" Harry Callahan refuses
to arrest the woman exacting revenge on her and her sister's rapists
in Sudden Impact.
4. In Toward a Feminist Theory
of the State, Catherine MacKinnon points out that with questions
of rape, women are often faced with such representational dilemmas:
"From women's point of view, rape is not prohibited; it is
regulated. Even women who know they have been raped do not believe
that the legal system will see it the way they do. Often they
are not wrong" (179). This "regulation" produces
the mindset that women's bodies are not their own but rather a
form of community property. The law produces a representational
practice that allows the female body to signify only in ways that
elide male criminality, except in the most extreme of cases.
In Volume I of The History of Sexuality, Michel
Foucault argues that the act of confessing in western culture
has become imbued with the aura of truth-telling, particularly
when it comes to questions of sex. Confession, thus, leads to
"freedom." Indeed Detective Slocumb promises Louise
that if she will simply confess, he will do everything in his
power to "help" her and Thelma. Oddly, though, Slocumb
does not seem to need Louise's confession. He "knows"
what has happened, and he even tells Louise that he knows what
happened to her in Texas. Slocumb thus seeks a confession not
for the "truth" but for his prosecution. Foucault suggests
that confession always serves to confirm power: "[T]he agency
of domination does not reside in the one who speaks (for it is
he who is constrained), but in the one who listens and says nothing;
not in the one who knows and answers, but in the one who questions
and is not supposed to know. And this discourse of truth finally
takes effect, not in the one who receives it, but in the one from
whom it is wrested" (62). Louise sagely realizes that confession
will not lead to freedom but rather to a reinscription in the
mechanisms of power.
Working from Berlant's ideas as well as the writings of
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas E. Yingling adds people with AIDS
to the category of those whose bodies preclude them from full
citizenship. Agreeing with Berlant's assessment of bodily abstraction
as political empowerment, Yingling points out that commodified
male bodies such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone
show that the body itself is easily overcome in the service of
sustaining an idealized masculinity: "Wounds do not identify
the body as a surface inscribed by history; rather, they serve
as a measure of triumph, an index of the distance traveled in
transcendence. The male body suffers in these texts, but 'real
men' rise above it" (29). Thus, Louise's murder of Harlan
upsets the possibility of such idealization. Not only can Harlan
not transcend his body, but he fails to utilize Thelma's body
for the pleasure that the law claims he is entitled to. By allowing
himself to be penetrated (by a woman, no less), Harlan evinces
a malaise of citizenship that the law cannot countenance.
S. Robinson suggests that Thelma adopts J. D.'s persona. Robinson
notes that after robbing the convenience store, Thelma's bodily
demeanor changes dramatically: "Her movements (and almost
her body itself) become more streamlined, more controlled and
inner-directed. She is not only boyish, she is like the particular
boy who showed her how—and who, ironically enough, in giving
her what Louise calls the first 'proper lay' of her life, would
conventionally be supposed to have 'made her a woman'" (188).
Thelma's bodily comportment reflects her new "impenetrable"
self, but Robinson also points out that using J. D. as a model
presages an eventual fall for Thelma. When J. D. is captured by
the police, he is "feminized": "The only person
who has less real power than the smart-mouthed working class boy
is, in fact, almost any working-class girl or woman" (188).
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