Carol J. Clover
To focus, as the debate about Thelma & Louise did, on those men who disliked it is to miss what I think is the far more significant fact that large numbers of men both saw and did like it. Precious few American films have had women at the center and men on the periphery, and what ones there are have not, for the most part, drawn large male audiences—a pattern that has sustained the claim that whereas women are willing to "identify" with screen males, the converse is not the case. What the success of Thelma & Louise with male audiences suggests is that if you write the parts right and execute them with conviction, the sex of the players is no object: if the buddy-escape plot is conventionally male, it is not intrinsically so, and lots of men were evidently happy to enter into that very American fantasy even when it is enacted by women, even when the particulars are female-specific (rape, macho husband, leering co-worker), and even when the inflection is remarkably feminist. And although the film showed signs of defensiveness on this point (the niceness of the Harvey Keitel figure struck me as something of a sop to the men in the audience) it was on the whole surefooted in its assumption that its
viewers, regardless of sex, would engage with the women's story. When someone can say, as Geena Davis did in an interview, that "If you're threatened by this movie, you're identifying with the wrong person," a real corner in gender representation has been turned in mainstream film history. I emphasize "mainstream" here, for the same corner was turned in so-called exploitation cinema some 15 years ago. Fans of horror recognize the "tough-girl heroes" of films like Thelma & Louise, Silence of the Lambs, Sleeping with the Enemy , and Mortal Thoughts as upscale immigrants from slasher and rape-revenge movies of the eighties—forms that reveal in no uncertain terms the willingness, not to say desire, of the male viewer to feel not just at but through female figures on screen. Perhaps the mainstreaming of that operation, in films like Thelma & Louise , will call it to the attention of theory, which has not done full justice to "wrong-direction" cross-gender imaginings.