Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thelma and Louise -- female oppression and awakening

Director: Ridley Scott, 1991.

Any mention of road-trip brings to mind Doritos, music, and buddies. Road-trip movies usually present a pair of guys eating up the open road. But in this male-dominated genre, the female focused Thelma and Louise is surprisingly one of the best road-trip movies of all time. Certainly it is a classic in modern pop culture and the closing scene is positively unforgettable.

Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) have planned a weekend getaway to the mountains in a classic 66 T-bird convertible. Louise is a world-weary waitress who has seen it all, and is tired of her musician boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madson) whose touring lifestyle leaves her lonely. Thelma is a browbeaten housewife whose life is controlled by her football-loving insensitive lout of a husband. Together, they represent the oppression of the everyday American woman in the late 80s: unequal worker or mistreated homemaker. They are at the mercy of the men in their lives and in society.

Thelma is so fearful of her husband and his response to her vacation request that she simply does not ask. And when these two women begin their journey she is the follower. Louise is the leader and careful planner of the trip.

All is well until they stop for a drink at a country and western bar. A few drinks and a few dances later, Thelma has let her hair down and is carefree . . . too carefree. A nasty encounter with an amorous dancer leaves Thelma and Louise accidental outlaws on the run. Many women can identify easily with this fright and flight approach and this underscores the theme of feminine oppression.

Driving through Arkansas to Oklahoma and beyond, the two heroines come into contact with four men who symbolize the spectrum of males in this world. At one end of the spectrum is the obnoxious truck driver who simply wants another sexual conquest. He wants to take advantage of the women for their sexuality alone. He cares nothing for them as people. At the other end of the spectrum is Hal (Harvey Keitel), the determined but sympathetic detective hunting them down believing them to be victims of their circumstance. He is on their side, seeking to be their protector. Toward the middle is J.D. (Brad Pitt, destined for stardom after this role), a charming rogue who lies and lays but helps to bring life out of captivity for Thelma. Yet, for all his charm, he is a thief and a cheat. And there is Jimmy, who wants to do the right thing for Louise but is filled with anger at her independence. He wants control.

As with all road-trip films, the journey is one of change and awakenings. As they flee from the law and these men, they find a freedom that their normal lives of routine had denied them. They refused to submit to male dominance, and, with a nod to the western genre of loner cowboys, they drive west and ride-off into the sunset. Though the plot paints them into a corner, with no obvious escape, the final image Scott chooses to leave us with mythically embodies Thelma and Louise achieving the freedom they sought. Likable outlaws, they are in many ways like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Thelma and Louise forces us to reflect on the progress of female emancipation in the 21st century. Have women attained true equality with men in the workplace? While pay inequity still exists today, more and more women are in the workforce and job inequality seems to be disappearing. In the church, women are increasingly taking staff positions or even becoming pastors. In the family more women than men stay home to raise children. In child-raising, women still find themselves stereotyped.

The Bible has much to say about this though it is interpreted differently. Some see it as emphasizing egalitarianism, where there is true equality between the sexes. Others see it underscoring a complementarian approach where distinctions remain. A middle ground seems more appropriate, where gender roles and distinctions remain yet essential equality is affirmed. Men and women are both made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Yet, there are roles carved out for them, that are not simply culturally mandated. Paul's distinctives on the qualifications of elders seem to suggest that these should be men (1 Tim. 3:2-4). Men are placed in headship over their wives and families (Eph. 5:23). This is symbolic of the relationship between Jesus and his bride, the church (Eph. 5:24-33).

The journey of these two women is a journey of self-actualization. At one point, the timid Thelma tells Louise, "I don't ever remember feeling this awake. You know? Everything looks different now." She adds later, "Something's, like, crossed over in me and I can't go back, I mean I just couldn't live." She becomes irreversibly changed by the events of the weekend. Indeed, the two women experience a strange role-reversal with Thelma becoming the dominant leader while Louise breaks down and reverts to followership. She is not as strong as she liked to think she was.

In a sense, this weekend getaway highlights the value of retreats. Many people in this fast-paced age, especially church-goers, take short breaks from the rut of routine to experience something different. Though these are often quiet and meditative, simply breaking out of the norm can allow us to find out more about ourselves. We can move forward in character growth and personal actualization as we encounter things that are new and novel. These retreats are highly valuable. Even Jesus took time away from his busy life of ministry to connect with God and refresh his humanity (Mk. 1:35).

Of course, a road-trip movie and the personal growth that goes with it is to a large degree founded on the friendship of the heroes. This is true here. Thelma says, "Louise, no matter what happens, I'm glad I came with you." Both changed through interactions with one another. Both changed through their interaction with the other characters, especially J.D.

We are like this, too. Our retreats can be especially beneficial when we are with friends who know us and challenge us. We grow better in community. The picture of the loner, who walks into the picture alone and leaves alone, is not the proper portrait for personal transformation. Proverbs tells us, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Prov. 27:17). As followers of Jesus, we turn to one another in small groups and we turn to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is a journey, a road-trip. And we embark on it with buddies who will help us grow and change.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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