"I'm Not Gonna Hurt You":
Legal Penetrations in Thelma and Louise

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 - present), Spring 2002, Volume 1, Issue 1

David Russell
Pennsylvania State University, York

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 American citizenship.

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" (56).

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 change:

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 223)

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 father/nation.

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 mode.

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" (105).

3. Carol 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Lillian 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).

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. "National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life."                Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex and Nationality in the                Modern Text. Ed. Hortense Spillers. New York: Routledge, 1991:                110-140.

——. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. Durham: Duke UP,1997.

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. Lacan: The Absolute Master. Stanford: Stanford UP,                1991.

Bowers, Michelle. "Thelma and Louise Debuts." Entertainment Weekly 23 May                1997: 74.

Briggs, Joe Bob. "Mantrack." Playboy 41(2) 1994: 35+.

Butler, Judith. "Sexual Inversions." Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault.                Ed. Susan J. Hekman. University Park, Pennsylvania: The                Pennsylvania State UP,1996: 59-75.

——. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection. Stanford: Stanford UP,                1997.

Carlson, Margaret. "Is This What Feminism is All About?" Time 24 June 1991:                57.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I. New York: Vintage                Books,1990.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New                York: HarperPerennial, 1992.

Grenier, Richard. "Killer Bimbos." Commentary September 1991: 50+.

Hart, Lynda. "'Til Death Do Us Part: Impossible Spaces in Thelma and Louise."                Journal of the History of Sexuality 4(3) 1994: 430-446.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Leo, John. "Toxic Feminism on the Big Screen." U.S. News and World Report                10 June 1991: 20.

MacKinnon, Catherine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge:                Harvard UP, 1989.

Putnam, Ann. "The Bearer of the Gaze in Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise."                Western American Literature 27(4) 1993: 291-302.

Robinson, Lillian S. "Out of the Mine and into the Canyon: Working-Class                Feminism, Yesterday and Today." The Hidden Foundation: Cinema                and the Question of Class. Eds. David E. James and Rick Berg.                Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996: 172-192.

Robins, J. Max. "How Teen Bandit 'Queens' Became Prime-Time Princesses."                TV Guide 48 (20) 2000: 75-76.

Schickel, Richard. "Gender Bender." Time 24 June 1991: 56.

Schwartz, Richard A. "The Tragic Vision of Thelma and Louise." Journal of                Evolutionary Psychology 17 (1996): 101-107.

Simon, John. "Movie of the Moment." National Review 8 July 1991: 50.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. and Martha Minow. "Outlaw Women: Thelma and                Louise." Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts. Ed. John Denvir.                Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996: 261-279.

Thelma and Louise. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Geena Davis and Susan                Sarandon.Warner Bros. 1991.

Turner, Bryan S. The Body and Society. New York: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1984.

Yingling, Thomas E. AIDS and the National Body. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

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