Thelma & Louise saved my life thirty years ago and it is still relevant today
In the era of #metoo and #yesallwomen, Thelma and Louise still sends a powerful message and maybe could save younger women the way it saved me so long ago.
Last week, my Mom and I laughed and cried our way through Thelma and Louise in honour of its 30th anniversary. I don’t know if it was Louise growling that “you get what you settle for,” or that final defiant drive off the cliff, but I know that movie saved my life.
Three decades ago I was 21 years old and fighting poverty, incest, abuse and depression. After watching Thelma and Louise, I realized that I would “get what I settled for” and decided to settle for something great. Rather than driving a convertible over the rim of Deadhorse Canyon I took a 25 year “road trip” and freed myself financially and emotionally from everything that had broken me in my youth. I honestly don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t seen Thelma and Louise. I want to tell that story here.
Quote from anonymous Hollywood executive: “I don’t get it. It’s two bitches in a car…”
Thelma and Louise, written by Callie Khouri, is the first antidote to Hollywood misogyny that I had ever seen. Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a chain-smoking Texan waitress in a dead end relationship. She is a rape survivor whose motto is the cold-edged “you get what you settle for.” Thelma (Gina Davis) is a young housewife, married to a tacky, domineering and philandering carpet salesman. While en route to a weekend getaway, Thelma gets a little drunk in a bar and flirts with a man named Harlan (Timothy Carhart) who attempts to rape her. Louise saves Thelma by holding Harlan at gunpoint, but when he tells her to suck his cock, she kills him. From that point on, Thelma and Louise are “outlaws.” Thelma makes a bid to “explain” to the police and Louise gives her a reality check: “Only about a hundred people saw you cheek to goddamn cheek with him all night, Thelma! Who’s gonna believe that?! We just don’t live in that kind of world.”
We don’t live in that kind of world…
Thelma says that she has an uncle named Harlan. Harlan leers knowingly, “Is he a funny uncle?”
I still shudder thinking of my “funny uncles.” Family dinners when the air was full of beer and British accents. The mistake of going into the library, the garage, the bathroom or the back of the house. The roughness of men’s skin and the pain.
“You just need to stay away from him” I was told after my 7 year old hymen broke.
“I fell off my bike” I offered after my nose was broken and a tooth dislodged.
You might think from reading this that my family were derelict truck-stop rednecks like the fabulous extras in Thelma and Louise. In fact, I grew up in a beautiful house with a cultured, educated Mom. We had pretensions but not a lot of cash. After my Dad left, we had a magical childhood, except for when the funny uncles visited.
“She did worse than break the law. She broke the rules.” -Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“We don’t live in that kind of world” means that we don’t live in a world where men have to follow the same rules that women do. Thelma and Louise are “outlaws.” They break the law, but what really gets them into trouble is breaking the rules. Thelma starts the rule-breaking by dancing, drinking and flirting with a man she isn’t married to. This sets off a chain reaction of events that result in her death. Louise breaks the rules by calling out and then killing a rapist. She broke the code of silence that all rapists, including my uncles, expect. Not only did she break the code of silence, she shot the bastard point blank.
After Louise kills Harlan, the women break more and more rules in increasingly provocative ways and we can’t help but cheer them on. Thelma bounces back from her assault to enjoy a hot night with male-sex-object & thief J.D. (Brad Pitt ). She then politely robs a convenience store and locks a police officer in the trunk of his car. Thelma and Louise (not so politely) blow up the truck of a crude, sexist trucker. We cheer and laugh at their crimes, but it is important to remember that they will pay for breaking these rules with their lives. The men, with the exception of Harlan, get off scot free. Thelma’s husband stays out all night “god knows where.” Harlan pays the price for hurting Thelma, but he has a long line of other victims who were not avenged. J.D. steals Louise’s life savings and her last chance of a quick escape. He is questioned by the police but not charged for theft. It is clear that the price for rule-breaking is always higher for women than it is for men.
The price for women…
My first year of university was hard. My family was “classy,” but we had no money. My Mom was exhausted financially and emotionally from my little brother’s drug problems. My dad was an alcoholic and I never thought to ask him for help. I saved and scrimped and wrangled a student loan. After the bus trip across Canada, tuition, a cheap room, books and fees, I had a food budget of $10 a month. By November, I started fainting at awkward moments. I sneaked sugar packs from the school café to try to get enough calories. I learned what it feels like to be hungry for days and watch classmates throw half-eaten sandwiches into the garbage.
Jobs were hard to find in recession-riddled Canada and I looked shabby, thin and unkempt. One magical day in Spring, I got a tip from a friend and walked into a lunch rush where I was hired on immediately as a bus person. Fortified by heaven-sent Jewish deli food, I gained a bit of weight, bought some fresh clothes and was promoted to waiter. I decided to work in Ottawa all Summer in order to make enough money to get through my second year of university without hunger.
Just as my finances were looking up, my Dad had a heart attack. They said it was very serious, so I spent my savings flying home. I was surprised but relieved to find him hale and in good spirits. Such good spirits, in fact, that he took me to Harrison Hot Springs, got drunk, started crying and wanted to sleep with me in the hotel room that we shared. It wasn’t a violent attack. Rather it was a twisted, pathetic, bid for motherly comfort from a crumbling man who suddenly realizes that his daughter has become a woman.
I was no stranger to sexual assaults from the “funny uncles’’ and dismissed them as normal. My Dad’s passive-attack, however, hit me right in my bones and left me spiritually disfigured for a long time — perhaps forever. Before I returned, penniless and distraught to Ottawa, my friend took me to see Thelma and Louise and something inside me finally woke up.
You get what you settle for…
You can settle for an unexpressed and unfulfilling life. Both Thelma and Louise start off prim, law-abiding and conventional. After shooting Harlan, both women are faced with a choice. They can settle for the judgement of the legal system and men in their lives, or they can “not settle” and escape to an unknown destiny in Mexico. Outlaw life under the Southwest sun and dust changes them. By the end of the movie, they are lean, bronzed amazons, packing handguns in the back of their jeans. They are no longer willing to settle for lives where they are not in control. Instead, they leave the men in a cloud of dust and drive off a cliff. Their final plunge into the Grand Canyon seems more like an existential leap than a suicide.
I walked out of the cinema with Johnny Nash’s voice from the soundtrack echoing “I can see clearly now…” in my head. The movie marked a clear turning point in my life. I realized that I was not going to change our misogynistic society, but I could choose to “see clearly” and live outside it, as free as Thelma and Louise were in those few hovering seconds as they hurtled off the cliff. I started to finally understand that I had been protecting these men in my life; Drug and alcohol-addled men who groped and invaded my body, broke my nose, knocked out a tooth and then expected an incestuous cuddle and smiles to keep the peace and save their reputations. I would not settle anymore.
THELMA: Go (nodding at the Grand Canyon)
THELMA: Go (Thelma is smiling)
I survived and finished my B.A. I was flush enough in 4th year to afford Tae Kwon Do lessons. When a job offer came up to teach ESL in South Korea, I jumped on it. It was the first of several countries I have lived and taught in. When I wasn’t teaching, I trained. I earned black belts in four martial arts altogether. I became lean and hard and traveled the world on my own. I completed two more university degrees. I could order a beer, chat and negotiate in several languages. I had wild affairs with gorgeous men who didn’t speak a lick of English. I WAS Thelma. I slept in hostels and palaces, boats and mountaintops. I drove a microbus in Cairo and a motorbike in China. If I ever caught a man abusing a child, I would know how to kill him with my bare hands. I WOULD BE Louise.
Thirty years ago I felt like I was a special victim and that I had personally been unfairly singled out for abuse. That started to change when I first saw Thelma and Louise, and my travels confirmed it. Sexual assault is a global phenomenon. 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men report being raped. The number of actual rapes and assaults is certainly much higher. Most people I know have been assaulted and very few have reported. The more countries I visited, the more adolescents I taught, the more women I talked to, the more I realized that what Thelma and Louise and I faced was in fact a universal condition for women and a fair number of men as well.
I hope if any young rape survivors were patient enough to read this whole thing that they will give Thelma and Louise a try. I urge you to laugh, cry, talk to other survivors and remember that “you get what you settle for,” so settle for something wonderful and free.