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April 02, 2007
Making a Genre Reading of Thelma and Louise
This posting is a section of my book on genre Repetition or Revelation: Film Genre and Society 2003. Coventry: Kino-eye. This is primarily aimed at year 1 undergraduates and A2 students as well as interested general readers. Other sections will be posted onto the blog in due course. This is all fully copyrighted material please ensure that any references are properly acknowledged.
Preface. Please note that biblographic and film references can be found under the bibliography research tag in the sidebar "Repetition or Revelation....".
This section examines how a methodology (in this case a feminist methodology analysing the film from the perspective of feminism) can be applied to make a genre based reading of a film. The case study here is based upon Thelma and Louise, directed by Ridley Scott.The article also reviews and compares Thelma & Louise with a range of typical Hollywood genres. The conclusion to the article questions whether even placing Thelma and Louise within a complex of Hollywood films is adequate to the task of explaining why it works so effectively and appeals to a wide range of audiences.
It is argued here that the film is a tragicomedy hybrid genre with the emphasis being ultimately placed upon the tragic. While it can be meaningful to relate the film to other Hollywood output it seems more appropriate to view it in the pantheon of tragedy in a cross media and trans-historical way.
That the film can be read as a tragicomedy isn’t the only possible reading and in my piece on Thelma & Louise I question whether the film is possibly best understood as a feminist dream or fantasy.
Thelma and Louise
Marita Sturken in a short monograph on Thelma and Louise in the British Film Institute Modern Classics series uses a feminist methodology, applying this through the lens of genre based analysis to provide a reading which differs from the readings which many reviewers, audiences and scholars have made. As the methodology section points out, to use particular methods to inform critical analysis is to examine a cultural object from a particular perspective to enhance our ways of looking at the world and to thus increase our knowledge about social reality.
To talk in terms of providing readings is not to say that something is necessarily “true” or “false”. It functions to open out different perspectives and possibilities concerning the object of our enquiry. The first question to be asked when considering Sturken’s views is to consider whether she has used the combination of genre and feminist methodologies effectively to provide a ‘strong reading’ or a ‘weak reading’ of the film.
Below there is a synopsis of Sturken’s reading of Thelma and Louise concentrating on the points where she has analysed the film through both genre and feminist methods. To gain a thorough understanding of her points it would be helpful to see some of the following films:
- Thelma & Louise : Used as a core film for analysis this should be seen at least twice.
- Bonnie and Clyde
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
- It Happened One Night (1934)
- Easy Rider
- Fatal Attraction (1987)
- Body Heat (1981).
Sturken (2000) has argued that Thelma and Louise is strongly reliant upon ‘bending’ traditional genres. She argues that the film is established as setting the viewer up for a light-hearted ‘screwball comedy’ of two women away for a weekend free from unsatisfactory lives and relationships.
It is crucial to the film’s relationship to genre that ‘Thelma and Louise’ do not set out to become criminals, they become them unintentionally ...It is this shift from screwball comedy to buddy movie to road movie to outlaw movie, that gives this film its hybrid genre status, but also , importantly makes it a rereading of several classic film genres’. (Sturken , 2000 : 23
Sturken points out that many critics have tried to make a reading of Thelma and Louise using genre based methods. She proceeds to argue that part of the films cleverness is the playing upon these codes.
Thelma and Louise’ has been situated by numerous film scholars in a wide range of genres, from the fairy-tale and the screwball comedy to the rape-revenge film and the buddy movie. In deploying many of the conventions of a variety of genres, the film can be seen as both naively and shrewdly playing off these codes and formulas. Primary among its references is the outlaw film, which has a long tradition in American cinema as both westerns and road movies ( Sturken , 2000 : 23 ).
Sturken notes that the outlaw has been both an icon and a mythology of a person who defied the system and brought vicarious pleasure to the law-abiding citizen. Thelma and Louise plays off outlaw conventions established in the 1960s through the star vehicles of Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid These films affirmed a sixties version of the genre reiterating the conventions within a sixties ideology of liberation which can be seen as being aimed at the youth market of the time?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a mixture of crime, screwball humour and a buddy movie. In Thelma and Louise there is a gradual switch in the film between the characters with Thelma becoming the more confident and determined one of the pair. In outlaw films other characters appear but must be relatively peripheral in order to affirm the primary relationship. Another feature of outlaw films is that the characters are understood to be on the way to their fate and get stripped of their possessions along the way. The fact that they are accidental criminals is essential to the reworking of the genre. They are crimes of impulse which become crimes of necessity.
Thelma and Louise lose the accoutrements of traditional femininity and take on several signifiers of masculinity and the road during the film. Their dress code changes with frilly items being replaced by jeans and an engagement ring is exchanged for a hat. Compared with the male characters of the sixties who are on a journey of nostalgia, their journey is ‘inexorably away from the past’ (Sturken, 2000 : 31).
The Use of Space and Place
There is an iconic use of space within the film carefully avoiding ‘the road’ constructed in the image of MacDonald’s for an older style of America. Ridley Scott has commented on his deliberate choice to do this:
I felt it was better to lean to the vanishing face of America, which is Route 66 rather than the new face of America , which is malls and concrete strips(Ridley Scott quoted Sturken , 2000 : 36 ).
The romantic even nostalgic atmosphere is also enhanced by the soundtrack of steel guitar from German composer Hans Zimmer. It is thus worth considering whether this is a European take on America. This is a generic landscape which moves to a culminating romantic icon of the canyon in Moab,
A Shifting Multi-generic Film
There is little doubt that Thelma and Louise is a complex film and reading it through the lens of a genre throws up interesting questions. Whilst Sturken has categorised the film as a genre hybrid, it is worth considering whether it can be considered as more of a multi-generic film. The reason for suggesting this is that the complex shifts which are made throughout the film moving through a range of genres is a little different to being a combination of two or three genres. The film has its comic parts, but it is not considered as a comedy or even a comedy-thriller. Below the generic complexity of the genres the film has been associated with are explained and examined.
The classic road movies are about male privilege, the right to hit the road without worrying about children or destination. Women weren’t the protagonists of road movies, rather women were often what men were running away from. Corrigan (1991) describes the classic road movie as having 4 defining features:
- Breakdown of the family unit
- The context in which events are acted upon characters and obstacles being constantly put in the way
- Protagonist who is readily identified with their means of transportation
- A focus upon men in the absence of women.
Many critics have credited Thelma and Louise with reviving the road movie genre and opening it up to new identities. Thelma & Louise follows the tradition of road movies where the protagonists are most happy when they are actually on the road. As soon as they stop they get into trouble. The film continually reiterates the duality of space contrasting the open road with a claustrophobic domestic environment. This is a reversal of the traditional theme of men riding through a landscape which is usually coded as woman/ nature.
The men in the film are forced to participate in female codes of behaviour. The men are forced to wait for them whilst previously the women were forced to wait on them. This sense of movement versus stasis is achieved through the technique of crosscutting from the car racing through the landscape making whistle-stops, to the unchanging domestic interior for example. This functions to reinforce the stereotype of domesticity and interiors as female non-progressive space.
The Buddy Movie
The film embraces a basic aspect of the buddy movie which is that men understand each other better than they understand their women. The primary relationship in this film is between the women who understand each other’s ways of being in the world better than their men do.
The Screwball Comedy
Screwball comedy is a genre which was very popular in the 1930s. It is usually based upon the clever sexual banter of a couple who don’t know that they are supposed to be together, but who eventually find their way to each other through a set of foibles, mistaken identities and other plot ploys. Classic example Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.
In Thelma & Louise screwball humour is apparent in the scene when the motorcycle cop pulls them over. There is a panic mode akin to that used in screwball comedy. The film plays with the audience using suspense when the cop is put into the boot Thelma tells him to ‘be sweet to em’ (his wife and kids) in a screwball mode. Thelma’s relentless optimism ‘is central to providing the film’s screwball tone’ ( Sturken, 2000: 60 ).
Female Revenge Film
Thelma & Louise is often interpreted as a “female revenge film”. This is a genre construction which could be seen as misogynistic (misogyny is hatred of women). ‘Female revenge’ films feature female characters in which the potential of women for violence is contained within plot scenarios that either demonise them or destroy them in some way (Fatal Attraction, Body Heat, Black Widow (1987). They are films in which femme fatales wreak havoc on the lives of innocent men. The films above are often considered by some critics as neo-noirs.
However, this isn’t a revenge movie for past acts committed against them, rather Thelma and Louise are on a search for liberation from oppressive patriarchal structures (patriarchy is where everything is ruled by norms established by men).
Revenge is not the motivating factor in their decisions - escape to better social conditions is. Despite the obvious histories of forms of sexual abuse the attempted rape on Thelma and the unspeakable past of Louise there is no talk of revenge. There were plenty of opportunities for a range of violent acts on men. They could have blown away the lorry driver after all as well as the policeman. The hitchhiking lover who stole their money could have been murdered. Those critics and reviewers following that line of thinking were clearly motivated by something other than clear analysis.
For this writer at least there is something unsatisfactory about trying to slot Thelma and Louise into various complexes of Hollywood genres. My initial view was that the film is based upon classical tragic drama and even after reading Sturken’s analysis my view is unchanged. Fate dealt Thelma and Louise a cruel hand and ethically they had decided that they would take a certain course in which the options continually narrowed until death was the only option.
Where this film differs from the tragic classic genre of theatre is that the heroes of the film are everyday characters who had started out on an everyday weekend outing which was pretty much the highlight of lives which were very narrow. This is very different from the Greek tragedies or those of Shakespeare which were based on powerful people making and taking important decisions.
Thelma and Louise appears more like a popular version of this very old generic form and in that sense it can be a useful description of the film. Whether that would have proved attractive to the potential audiences in terms of marketing is impossible to say.
Sturken’s analysis of genre hybridity seems to relate strongly to the comments Neale has made concerning ‘New Hollywood’ critics who, inspired by ‘post-modern’ thinking, are seeking ‘hybridity’ under every stone. Neale points out that it is important to distinguish between hybridity and allusion to other films often achieved through a sort of pastiche. Arguably Thelma and Louise remains a classic tragedy rich in allusions to well known Hollywood films. Thinking of the film in these terms seems more likely to open up questions among the audience about the nature of the human condition at the time the film was mad
The genre readings of the film don’t appear to open out any useful insights about the relationship of the film to the film industry of the time in terms of marketing or reasons for the film in the first place.
The film is taken as a classical tragedy transposed from the standard conventions of this wider genre from the character in high society to the background of two ordinary women somewhere in rural America. The plot hinges on an ordinary weekend trip featuring a dramatic turning point where a brutal prior experience combined with the arrest of a brutal act which temporarily prompts an act of transgression born of uncontrollable emotions.
From that point on the tragedy unfolds. The breakthrough of the film that two ordinary women can become the subject of tragedy signifies that Hollywood can play a progressive role in raising deeper questions about social reality. Arguably, it is the fact that the film is very weak in Hollywood genre terms which allowed it to have such an effect on a wide range of audiences.
The film’s form makes it more than just a tragedy however. Starting in a light-hearted vein and having recourse to a range of comic moments which serve to alleviate what would be a dour fatalistic narrative. The blowing up of a petrol tanker, the near slapstick of the incompetent husband stepping in pizza, the turning of the tables upon the traffic-cop, and the insertion of a Rasta cyclist serve as comic high-points, which also function to highlight the underlying implications of the story which is a strong critique of individual violence against omen and a critique of institutionalised sexism which fails to deal with this.
To engage in arcane debates about Hollywood generic affiliations risks either scholasticism or critics who find the implications of the film too challenging trying to close down the deeper questions which the film is trying to raise. This means that the major points the film is raising for discussion can be obscured. Seen as a tragicomedy this film justifiably can be described as a modern classic because it is modern in its content and classic in the way that it is modelled on a traditional literary genre.