Thelma and Louise in the Wilderness;
- or -
Butch Cassidy and Jonathan Edwards in Drag
David Reynolds recent book on popular culture, Beneath the American
Renaissance, with its companion biography of Walt Whitman, argue somewhat
onesidedly that the great canonical texts of that era really are the product
of their authors' immediate popular culture and not part of any great stream
of elite literature at all. He argues that even Moby Dick owes more to
popular novels about whaling in the 1840s than it does to Job, Jonah, or
This is an extreme position, well argued, which has the appeal of
downplaying the importance of so-called high culture and elevating popular
culture in its stead. In Reynolds' reading, each era's culture, popular and
elite together, is almost a closed system, with very few ties to the past.
This approach has the advantage of blurring the elite/pop culture distinction.
But it has the disadvantage of blurring historical contingencies and robbing
our texts of their significations from larger contexts.
I wish to defend another model, a more traditional one, in which the elite
texts of one generation influence the popular culture of the next. Elite
culture, after all, is always avant garde, always in rebellion against tradition,
always rejecting the past. It has to if it is to stay ahead of the mob. Once its
ideas become generally accepted, the elite move on, but that is when the themes
are picked up by
popular novels and played in the movie houses where their debt to elite culture is
often obscured by the immediacy of the lens through which we tend to analyze
My example, today, is the film, "Thelma and Louise," which came out to popular
acclaim and feminist adulation in 1991. I saw it for the first time myself in
Bratislava, Slovakia, with Czeck subtitles, and I was, like so many back home in
the states, instantly entranced. My Slovak students on the other hand, not being as
saturated with the traditions of American culture as we are, didn't get it.
The film begins with Thelma and Louise, (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis),
tired of their lives, trapped in stale jobs, stale relationships, eager to get
away from it all, if only for a weekend. They make a small break from the
structure of their lives, but in the process they find themselves propelled
further and further outside of structure. Daring to stop and grab a bite at a
honky-tonk truck stop, they cross limitas, a dangerous portal into another realm,
much like the bar scenes in Kidnapped or "Star Wars." There, they are pursued by
a would-be rapist, who is shot by Louise before he can rape Thelma. They then run
And as they run, they get deeper and deeper into trouble, further and further
outside the law. They lose their cash to J.D. (Bradd Pitt), a hitchhiking cowboy,
and have to rob a convenience store to get more. And the police are on their tails.
They lock one officer, who stops them on the highway, in his own trunk after
stealing his gun. And they blow up the very symbolic gas truck of a truckdriver
who harasses them.
All of this takes place in the desert southwest as they head toward Mexico.
And while the literal plot is unfolding, so is another plot. Both women are
discovering the terror and the excitement of being on their own, outside the
law, for the very first time completely, wildly independent and free. They have
stepped outside not just of the legal structure and the social structure but of
structure itself. They are letting go, and the experience is awful.
While Thelma is robbing the convenience store, Louise notices two made-up
matrons in a shop looking at her sitting in the car, and she starts to put her
old face back on. But after a few seconds of trying to apply lipstick and
stroking back her hair, she throws the lipstick out the car, giving up on the
attempt to fit in.
Liberated by her experience robbing the convenience store, Thelma says she
has discovered her calling, "the Call of the Wild." But she isn't there yet.
"Thelma," says Louise, "you gotta stop being so open. We're fugitives now. You
gotta start acting like that." The next morning, Louise stands on a hill in the
dawn and we see in her eyes as she silently watches the sun rise that she is
experiencing some sort of epiphany. Further down the road, she takes off her
watch and earrings and hands them to an old man sitting by the road who stares
silently at her in confused wonder.
Eventually, with their car facing the Grand Canyon and the police in back, they
have to decide between ultimate structure, jail, and the unknown ultimate freedom
over the edge. So over they go, and at the end the camera stops the scene with the
car still in the air, still ascending.
By and large, feminists loved the movie. And most of the critical acclaim
interpreted the film from a feminist perspective. The review in "Cineaste" summed
up the major questions: "Is Thelma & Louise a male nightmare of emasculating women
run amok? Is it a parable of female bonding? Or is it women breaking their chains
and liberating themselves?"
But all of this assumes that the film can be interpreted only from the
immediate perspective of the politics and social milieu of the 1990s. Like Reynolds,
it looks at the immediate culture for its context of meaning. But by doing so, it
misses a crucial aspect of what is going on, the aspect I argue that accounts for
its peculiarly American popularity.
For Thelma and Louise actually fits very neatly into a pattern found throughout
popular American culture which has roots not in the feminist movement of the recent
era but in the patriarchal culture of Puritanism. It is, in short, a conversion
narrative, a modern "Narrative of the Captivity of Mary Rowlandson," all the more
powerful because the imagery and language and setting and plot fit the traditional
pattern perfectly without overt mention ever being made. To understand the movie,
it is necessary to say a few words about the tradition out of which it comes,
the wilderness tradition of American puritan literature.
In this tradition, the goal of human life is seen as a need to escape
from the artificial cages of cultural construction, what the theologians
called "worldliness." Human civilization with all of its literature and laws
and empires is seen to be a shallow affair at best, an illusion at worst.
Each human born into a specific culture as it were wears a virtual reality
helmet which dictates the part that person must play within a particular time
and place. We are all here seen, as Shakespeare saw us,
as actors strutting our momentary part upon the stage, playing defined parts.
To escape from this lie was the goal of the Puritan conversion. To break out
of the false constructions of "worldliness" and to break on through to the other
side was the whole point of all that hell-fire and damnation. In the conversion
experience, sinners first awoke to the reality of being caught up in a false
construct. They then stepped out of that construct into the terror of not having
any construct, outside of identity and outside of the beliefs that had always
sustained them. They wandered there, in near madness, in the hope that some spirit
from outside the human cage would come and fill the emptied soul with new light
and new birth.
In this, the Puritans identified typologically with the Children of Israel
in their sojourn out of Egypt, into the wilderness, and across the wilderness to
the promised land. They read this Biblical narrative on two levels:
first as an historical narrative of God's chosen people in real historical time;
and second as a typological symbol of the crucifixion of Christ in the new
Testament. In that typological reading, Egypt is a type of worldly structure,
the Children of Israel are types of Christ, the trials of the wilderness are a
type of the crucifixion, and the crossing into the Promised Land
is a type of the Resurrection.
The compelling narrative of all Puritan literature was the insistence that
sinners, like Christ and like the Children of Israel, must also leave behind the
structures of the world, enter into the wilderness in which they learn to abandon
all of their old dependencies, and finally achieve a mystic vision as they cross
over from the wilderness to a freedom in which each newly awakened individual
stands alone upon the very ground of ultimate being.
Thus, one of the most enduring patterns of American fiction is that of the
hero thrown out of structure into the wilderness where he becomes an outlaw and is
forced to abandon the old dependencies and recreate himself from scratch. The
American cowboy in the desert is a typological symbol. Often, for reason Leslie
Fiedler has already explained, these heroes come in pairs.
Thus, Thelma and Louise are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in drag.
Their journey is an absolutely classic example of what has often been
demonstrated as a major motif in American writing, the buddies heading out
together into the wilderness away from structure, away from conventional
civilization and responsibilities, sometimes into romantic destruction in
the quest for "freedom," sometimes (like Huck and Jim) into an uncertain
future which at least hints of hope, sometimes to return as heroes. What so
fascinates about Thelma and Louise isn't any feminine innovation but the sight
of two women playing the classic outlaw roles usually reserved for males.
They leave their families, their jobs, and they head out literally into a
wilderness, and they are forced further outside of structure the further
they get. The wilderness is the symbol of the unstructured realm into which
they are moving, as it always has been since the children of Israel left
Egypt. Louise even has a mystic awakening, which she names, in the wilderness.
Yes, she kills a man, and the feminists see empowerment. But it is not a
unique female empowerment. The gun has always been an American symbol of
individual empowerment. That is why the NRA is so strong. And why males in
American literature have often been on the side of the revolt against structure.
If Huck seems old hat, look at Randle P. McMurphy, another hero/quester outlaw
who, like Thelma and Louise, has his momentary victories and dies in a manner
that suggests worldly loss but cosmic victory. Come to think of it, Kesey
consciously made McMurphy a Christ figure too. Doesn't the Christian construct
suggest a stand against and a pointing beyond structure? Not all Christianity
is what Niebuhr called the "Christ of culture" variety. In American Christianity,
the "Christ against culture" is a pretty strong tradition too.
Thelma and Louise, in their sojourn, follow this pattern
perfectly, and they do it in exactly that locale which was the
site of such transformations from the Old Testament to the
sermons of Jonathan Edwards to the texts of the American Renaissance,
in the desert wilderness. Their old lives, marriages, jobs are the
Egyptian structure they must break out of. They step aside for what
they think will be only a weekend, but instead they find themselves
descending into a wilderness which carries them outside of structure
and outside of the law. As they proceed into the wilderness,
they lose everything, at first unwillingly, but eventually they willingly
surrender as when Louise takes off her rings and watch and hands them to
the old man sitting by the side of the road. When she tries nervously to
put on her face and then tosses the lipstick out of the car, she has
The music plays Marianne Faithful's "Ballad of Lucy Jordan," a song
of abandoned illusions, as the car speeds through the desert night. When
Louise stands with her eyes wide open and sees the dawn, she sees the reality
outside of herself, just as Jonathan Edwards had said sinners become awakened
in the wilderness to the greater reality outside of the finite texts of the self.
Later, Thelma too crosses over. She tells Louise, "Something's like crossed
over in me and I can't go back." Soon after, as they are racing along, Thelma
asks Louise if she is awake. Yes, she replies, "I guess you could call it that.
My eyes are open." Thelma responds, "I feel awake...wide awake. I don't remember
ever feelin' this awake. Everything looks different. You feel like that too?
Like you got something to look forward to?"
So there it is: to be awakened in the wilderness is to be born again from a
person seeing the world through the old eyes of old structure to a person reborn
into a whole new perception of the creation. This is the very language and imagery
that Jonathan Edwards used. It is the same language and imagery that Thoreau took
In the end, Thelma and Louise are forced to choose between absolute
Egyptian structure, jail, or the mystic freedom of release from the body.
With a line straight out of Huck Finn, Thelma says, "Let's not get caught.
Let's keep going." They choose, not death, for that is never mentioned or
shown, but to light out to an unknown territory. They pass from the literal
into the spiritual wilderness as they gun their car over the edge of the Grand
Canyon. The movie ends appropriately with the car ascending, not with the crash
on the rocks below. Again, the reference to the resurrection is blatant.
Thus, what we have here is a very popular movie which appeals on an
immediate political level to feminists who cheer the way in
which two women in fact take the traditional male role in a
traditional male narrative. But beyond that immediate appeal is
an appeal to traditional, perhaps universal, cultural themes and values.
The movie works because it works on both levels, as all art must. And
in the process it provides us with an example of the
endurance of some of the religious themes and imagery with which
the continent was settled even in the most secular artifacts of
When I launched an early version of this analysis on the American
Studies listserv group on the internet, I started a long thread in which
one of the repeated themes of those who disliked my analysis was the insistence
that any interpretation be kept within the context of 1990s feminism, to keep
it rooted, as Reynolds tried to do, in the immediate culture.
Thelma and Louise flee, I was told, into what Elaine Showalter calls
"a female wild zone, a cultural space unintelligible to men." The reason,
I was told, they flee to the wilderness in the first place is because they
are convinced that a male justice system won't understand why killing the
rapist was OK. My attempt to transcend gender categories and universalize
their experience by making it an escape
from a larger cultural cage robbed the film of its immediate political punch
and was therefore suspect. I understand this point of view. But I argue that
to keep interpretation within the narrow confines of the immediate and
specific also robs it of its greater meaning and robs us all of a chance
to understand ourselves.
One of the writers in the listserv group wrote in rebuttal of my religious
interpretation of the ending, "Perhaps most interesting in terms of the 'cultural
web' was the rejection of this ending by wearers of the feminist buttons:
'Thelma and Louise Live.'" But at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the
death/resurrection interpretation of the end, with all its romanticism, is
hardly "rejected" by a button saying "T & L Live." Does a button saying "Jesus
Lives" imply a rejection of the crucifixion? We need to understand the way in
which in American/Christian discourse the physical death is a liberation into
eternal life to appreciate the power of this scene. From a material point of view,
death and life are unalterably opposed; one "rejects" the other and hence a button
saying they live rejects the idea of their death. But we need to take the
theological position into account too. McMurphy lives; Elvis lives; Jerry also
lives. So Thelma and Louise are in good ol' American company. They have joined
the other good ol' resurrected boys of American culture. The feminist critics
want to make them exceptional, but they belong to American culture in its most
traditional forms. The button "Thelma and Louise lives" shows that even those who
intend their meanings within an immediate political context are despite
themselves still caught up in the larger, universal themes too.