What Makes a Woman Wander
Thelma and Louise have been much criticized for behaving, in the time-honored tradition of most American heroes, violently and without reflection. Male critics have been especially critical of this violence, claiming that to put women in the male outlaw mold of Butch and Sundance is nihilistic, "toxic feminism" with a fascist theme. Obviously there is something unsettling to male viewers about women with guns. Obviously there is something exhilarating about this same vision to women viewers. But the gender gap that has widened in discussions of this film has, I think, missed the crucial cultural reference. If Thelma & Louise offers a gender-bending revision of a basic American myth it is not simply that of the going-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory of Butch and Sundance but something closer to a complex revision of that most resonant of revenge Westerns, John Ford's The Searchers .
The Searchers is a revenge saga in which Ethan Edwards, hooked up with a younger male sidekick, obsessively hunts and kills the Indians who raped and killed his brother's wife, Martha, and abducted his niece. Thelma & Louise re-imagines the revenge narrative from the point of view of the women who were once its victims. (The exhilaration for women viewers is in the difference.) In both films melancholy, mature heroes (Louise and Ethan) have mysterious, guilty pasts about which they do not speak. Ethan, haunted by an unlawful desire for his brother's wife, shares a measure of guilt with the savages who have raped and abducted her. Though victim of the Indians' violence, Ethan shares in it as well.
Louise too has a clouded past. Something happened to her in Texas and it seems to have been rape. When she sees this crime repeated upon her young friend she, like Ethan, turns mad and vengeful, becoming angry at men the way
Ethan is angry at Indians. But the revenge of the women victims is different. It is as if Martha and Debbie in The Searchers set out to revenge themselves.
Revenge stories grip us because of their mythic excess. Watching The Searchers , we become aware, as Ethan and Martin wander over the Southwestern landscape, of the depth of the revenge-seeking hero's alienation from the "sivilization" once equated with things feminine. And watching Thelma & Louise , we thrill to another form of alienation—from things masculine. Lighting out for the Territory, or leaping into the void, are no more nihilistic, or toxic, when women do it than men. But they are different. For women to close themselves off to the comforts of home, the alienation and anger must run deep. And the exhilaration of the release from this "sivilization" amounts to something like pure joy. The sheer surprise of Thelma & Louise is to have shown, in a way that serious films about the issue of rape (cf., The Accused ) could never show, how victims of sexual crimes are unaccountably placed in the position of the guilty ones, positioned as fair game for further attack. The thrill of watching this film is the thrill of seeing our deepest and most contradictory myths reworked with female victim-heroes at their center.