by Merle Hoffman
It is the two outlaw women giving the ultimate “fuck you” to the patriarchy
I never really wear the things: Political buttons, T-shirts with messages, designer labeled bags. I don’t like to advertise my politics or buying habits by turning myself into a walking message for someone else’s consumption — except when I conduct my own special social/ psychological experiments and decide to become a political catalyst. There was the time in 1980 when I got a button that read “Impeach Ronald Reagan.” Reagan had just been elected by a landslide, Carter left the White House in near disgrace, the hostages came home from Iran, the country was awash in an orgy of expectations, and I was wearing this “Impeach Reagan” button the day of his inauguration.
As a psychological test, the “Impeach Reagan” button delivered the expected results: From friends and sympathizers of the left there was agreement and approval; non-politicals thought it cute or just strange; supporters of the President had no sense of humor about it. But this year, with this button, things were not quite so predictable or consistent. The button was small with white letters on a dark blue background that proclaimed: “Thelma and Louise Live.”
A stewardess handing me my jacket before landing bends down and whispers “Fantastic button — right on;” a middle-aged clerk in a food store spots it and says: “They gave those bastards what they deserved;” my mother, who is renowned for sleeping through movies, loved “Thelma and Louise” and asks me if I can get her a button. Strong positive responses abound —knowing nods, winks, non-verbal “right ons” that cut across race, class, age and political affiliation. I am beginning to feel that something is definitely going on here.
The plot in brief: Thelma and Louise are women seemingly trapped in the morass of bourgeoise female suburban existence, who are suddenly catapulted into an extraordinary road adventure by the radical act of thwarting an attempted rape by killing the rapist. The film follows the unlikely heroines in their wild attempt to escape the law and shows us how, in that process, they find themselves and each other.
In a very real sense, “Thelma and Louise” is a morality play, one in which the characters are informed and driven by a sense of personalized justice rather than lawfully bound definitions of “right and wrong.” It has a kind of karmic cause and effect immediacy of response. You rape me or my friend — I kill you. You mess with my freedom — I leave you. You block my escape routes — I stop you. And, ultimately, you try to kill me, I kill myself because death is superior to your laws around me. This then is not really about women taking the “law” into their own hands; it is about redefining and actualizing “justice.”
Unfortunately, or necessarily, the film’s ending has the two women achieving their ultimate self-revelations by speeding off the cliffs of the Grand Canyon together in a green convertible, holding hands. They achieve their freedom, transcendence and fusion through a violent death that we do not witness. Our last view of Thelma and Louise has them suspended in flight, hair blowing against the wind, stopped in time and space.
Interestingly, the two film characters, their adventures and their ending have become both metaphors and lightning rods for different populations for different reasons.
The reactions of the mainstream press to the film have ranged from discussions of whether or not it portrays the existence of a feminism turned “toxic,” to sounding alarms over the film’s catalytic possibilities for general female revolt. Questions and a myriad of associations abound. Are Thelma and Louise really lovers? Is their coupling, unlike Bonnie and Clyde’s, a kind of mythological prototype of best friends, a female version of Damon and Pythias who would rather die together and for each other than make a date with the men — in this case the criminal justice system? Or, are the two women just another Hollywood creation whose ultimate value lies in their box office profitability?
The button, however, seems to proclaim a survival fantasy, as if by our collective wills we could rewind and reverse the tape, re-do the ending and freeze the frame where we want it so that, indeed, Thelma and Louise do not perish in the fiery crash and live to revenge themselves another day. The message is layered with symbols and symbolic meaning. It is the two outlaw women giving the ultimate “fuck you” to the patriarchy — the triumph of life over death, the oppressed over the oppressor, gender justice and Amazonian immortality. The button proclaims an essentially happy ending, and it is one that seems to strike resonant chords in the most unlikely of places.
“Thelma and Louise Live.” But for what? For whom? Do we really want them endlessly chasing across the western landscape shooting and drinking their way out of negative interactions with masturbating, murderous, misogynist men? Shall the film and the fantasy then function as a counter-revolutionary co-opting force that allows all of us so-called good girls to sit back and let Thelma and Louise take care of all our dirty business? To let them become our own avenging angels?
Are avenging angels needed? Considering the war zone that millions of American women live their lives in, a massive strategic military initiative may be more to the point. Actually, when viewed in this realistic context, Thelma and Louise killing one man for attempted rape, leaving another rather than marrying him, putting a cop in a car trunk and blowing up an oil truck is relatively mild stuff.
If we search out the “law” that pursued and ultimately destroyed Thelma and Louise for their “crimes” against patriarchy, it is often either nowhere to be found or in hiding when it comes to crimes against women. A reflection of the society that spawned it, the criminal justice system functions more often than not as a support and reinforcer of perpetrators rather than as a protector of victims. Indeed, the system in all of its complicated intricacies, assumptions, precedents and formalized rituals has been unable to either stem or quell the ever increasing tides of violence against women.
A study by the Justice Department found that while violent crime against men dropped about 20 percent from 1973 to 1987, violence against women has stayed constant with about 2.5 million women a year becoming victims of robbery, assault or rape. According to the study, which was recently made public, 25 percent of the violent crimes against women are committed by family members or men they have dated. (WINNews Vol. 17 #3 Summer)
A study of the National Crime Survey conducted between 1978 and 1982 found that an estimated 2.1 million women were victims of domestic violence at least once during an average 12 month period.
The National Woman Abuse Prevention Project reports that FBI statistics indicate 50 percent of female homicide victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. This translates into the fact that every day in this country four women are killed by batterers. In fact, murder is the second leading cause of death for young women.
For the women who are not murdered by their husbands or boyfriends, statistics report that up to three or four million experience severe beatings and batterings by their intimates.
This near-and-present danger for women is compounded by the fact that one in four college women is a victim of rape or attempted rape on campus, most often by someone known to the victim. Date rape actually accounts for 60 percent of all reported rapes with the majority of victims between 16 and 24 years of age. “Regular” or “violent” rapes (by strangers) occur every six minutes in this country, while according to FBI estimates only one of 10 rapes is ever reported. In 33 states, under certain circumstances, it is legal for a husband to rape his wife. (National Center of Women and Family Law, Aug. 1989)
If the names of all the women who are victims of all the crimes against their sex, from rape to battery, to murder, to abuse, to incest, to inadequate health care, to economic deprivation were put on a wall, the list would be far longer than the Vietnam War Memorial.
Although it was attempted rape that provoked the male killing in “Thelma and Louise,” in “real life” it is extremely rare, given the statistics on occurrence of rape and battery, that women ever fight back at all. Some studies have found that at least 40 percent of women who kill do so in self defense. (WIN News)
A California state prison study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their mates had been battered by them; 67 percent of these women indicated the homicide resulted from an attempt to protect themselves or their children. (National Woman Abuse Prevention Project, 1989)
While most of these women rot in prison with long sentences, it’s not uncommon for wife-killers to be acquitted on flimsy “provocation” defenses such as accusations in court that the dead woman nagged or committed adultery. Legally, these resemble post-mortem witch trials in which the victim, not the murderer is blamed.
One only has to look at the cases of Jean Harris, who killed her physician lover in a fit of drugged paranoia and rage, and Robert Chambers, the young “preppie” killer of Jennifer Levin. For Harris there was no mercy, not in the courts, not in the press, not in reality. She rots in jail — victim of two heart attacks—while Chambers received refuge and support from the Catholic church and press headlines that implied he killed Levin in self-defense; that he was a victim of “rough sex.”
But pieces of rage are coming to the surface. A radical feminist, Nikki Craft formed “Always Causing Legal Unrest” (ACLU), and joined hands with a small company, “Pushing Buttons” to produce a new line of what they term “feminist male-bashing buttons.” In their own type of social/psychological experiment, they say that “talking about killing men Thelma-and-Louise’ style, is protected under the First Amendment, isn’t it? It should be, shouldn’t it?” They describe their political action in terms of trying to see if they can “saturate the mainstream media with real man-hate,” as a response to the plethora of woman-hating images. In order to frame the debate where they think it belongs and focus on the consistent institutionalized and conditioned misogyny in the society, they produce buttons with messages like “How Dare You Assume I’m Not Violent?,” “I Think, Therefore I am Dangerous,” “When Justice is Gone — There’s Always Force,” “Patriarchy: 5,000 Years of S/M — Are We Bored Yet?,” “The Woman at Your Feet Today Will Be at Your Throat Tomorrow,” “Stop Sucking and Start Biting.”
After all, if Bret Ellis, author of An American Psycho, can speak about cutting and slicing vaginas and fucking women’s decapitated heads, be on the best seller list and be protected by the parameter of free speech, so can messages like “Men and Women Were Created Equal and Smith and Wesson Makes Damn Sure It Stays That Way.”
While experiments by their very nature and definition are not reality but attempts to elucidate aspects of reality through artificial situations, they can inform us. If there are seeds of female unrest and resistance, there is also the beginning of minimal institutional understanding. The New York Times reported that “following the lead set by the Governor of Ohio, William Schaefer of Maryland is commuting the prison sentences of eight women convicted of killing or assaulting men who battered them. Women’s rights groups, criminal justice groups and legislators in several states have begun seeking clemency for women now in prison for such killings. “Some of these stories are hard to believe — difficult, horrible stories,” said Governor Schaefer, adding that some of the women would probably have been killed themselves if they had not struck back.
However well-intentioned, these few cases are small flickers of light in a very dark tunnel. If a film merely depicting a fantasized version of a woman striking back against her attacker can be so threatening, the reality strikes a blow at the heart of not only the established power structure but of most women themselves.
Alone, isolated from each other, facing economic inequality, lack of support services for their lives and their children, continual assaults on multiple political fronts, women are in a consistently defensive posture—a posture requiring that most energies be used for personal survival as opposed to pro-active political strategies that can benefit their sex. Additionally, there are many voices in the media that continue to blame feminists for the problems that women face. Camille Paglia, Associate Professor of Humanities at Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, who has enraged feminists for her theories of classical biological determinism, becomes a media heroine for writing things like “Rape is a mode of natural aggression that can be controlled only by the social contract,” and “Modern feminism’s most naive formulation is its assertion that rape is a crime of violence but not of sex. Sex is power and all power is inherently aggressive. Society is woman’s protection against rape.” Meanwhile a young “feminist,” Susan Jane Gilman, in The New York Times’ “Voices of the New Generation” writes that “We need to improve the way we communicate. Today, universities are the hotbed for feminist discourse. Yet, much of this discourse is irrelevant to everyday life. If women are uncomfortable with the connotations of feminism, it is up to us to stop perpetuating the stereotypes.”
But feminism has no comer on stereotypes. Indeed if there are any at all, then power to coerce, control or dictate behavior is minimal compared to the stereotypes perpetrated and institutionalized by the system. Particularly the one in which the view and role of women is determined by their biological reality.
When we lift our heads from the “hotbeds of the universities” to the pillows of our bedrooms we find that women no longer have a constitutional right of reproductive freedom and that poor women can’t even hear the “A” word in federally funded clinics. We now stand at the precipice of looking at a country that will be a patchwork quilt of slave and free states, where a woman’s personal liberty will depend on her geographic location, her degrees of freedom measured by the distance she lives from a free state. And even this legal access is no guarantee of service. Last year alone there were, according to National Abortion Federation statistics, 36 incidents of abortion clinic bombings, 56 reports of arson, 44 attempted arsons, 275 invasions, 79 death threats to health care workers, two kidnappings and 22 burglaries. At the time of this writing, Wichita, Kansas is being besieged by Operation Rescue supporters who sport T-shirts with the message “Support Our Unborn Troops.” No subtlety there — keep those fetuses alive and growing so that they can become the cannon fodder they are supposed to be. Meanwhile, four state challenges wend their way up to the Supreme Court in a Kafkaesque race to see which one will become the final nail in Roe’s coffin.
The crushing reality is that the Supreme Court — the highest “law” in the land—through its political direction and radical judicial activism will make outlaws of us all, creating a world where women will run from one state to another, where underground railroads and “safe houses” will permeate the American landscape. Unlike Thelma and Louise who run for their lives with the “law” on their backs, women in slave states will have the law on all sides — and will wish they could be Thelma and Louise, forever suspended in time and space — above and beyond the laws of men.