"Chick Flicks" as Feminist Texts: The Appropriation of the Male Gaze in Thelma & Louise

Article excerpt

Through an explication of the female gazes underlying the narrative structure of the 1991 film Thelma and Louise, this study suggests explanations for the movie's wide appeal among women spectators. The film's female gazes undercut and appropriate the dominant male gazes typical of mainstream Hollywood cinema by using mockery as a narrative device to illustrate the sexism inherent in the male gaze, and it is precisely this appropriation of patriarchal construction that offers pleasure to women spectators. Three narrative devices structuring the film's mockery are explicated: stereotypes of lecherous and testosterone-crazed men; depicting men as spectacles for women's attention; and the celebration of women's friendships. The result of the devices of mockery is a strong female gaze that challenges, resists and defies patriarchy, and opens the film's text to a feminist reading.

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When Thelma & Louise (Scott, 1991) hit cinemas in the summer of 1991, it was met simultaneously with harsh criticism as well as enthusiastic acclaim by women spectators. In the years since its release, Thelma & Louise has generated such acclaim and controversy that Premiere magazine called it one of 10 movies that have "defined our decade" ("10 movies," 1997, p. 63). The story of two women forced into a series of crimes and victimized by a series of men along the way, Thelma & Louise was denounced by some women critics for the "lunatic" portrayal of its female protagonists. Sheila Benson's scathing review in the Los Angeles Times described the movie as nothing more than "bloody, sadistic or explosive revenge for the evils men do," and asked her readers: "Are we so starved for 'strong' women's roles that this revenge, and the pell-mell, lunatic flight that follows, fits anyone's definition of strength, or even more peculiarly, of neo-feminism?" (1991, p. 1). Gossip columnist Liz Smith warned viewers not to "send any impressionable young women to see 'Thelma and Louise' " (cited in Shapiro, 1991, p. 63). And Margaret Carlson of Time argued that the movie represented a betrayal of the values of feminism, and said the underlying message of Thelma & Louise is that for women, "little ground has been won. For these two women, feminism never happened.... They become free but only wildly, self-destructively so" (1991, p. 57). Carlson conceded, however, that in spite of the film's flaws, "Thelma & Louise is a movie with legs.... [N]ext time a woman passes an 18-wheeler and points her finger like a pistol at the tires, the driver might just put his tongue back in his mouth where it belongs" (p. 57).

For many female critics, the film's depiction of sexism and the marginalization women experience in their everyday lives represented an affirmation of women's strength and a justification of their anger. Kathi Maio of Ms., for example, applauded the film for its "powerful images of women who dare to feel anger against male violence and domination" (1991, p. 84); and Glamour's Charla Krupp cheered Thelma & Louise as a "cathartic revenge fantasy" for women (1991, p. 142). Indeed, the movie's "revenge plot" seems to be the aspect that women critics found most appealing. "Men are always behaving so badly in real life that you should never underestimate a woman's satisfaction in seeing them get their just desserts on screen," wrote Anne Billson in her New Statesman & Society review (1991, p. 33). "Men have no idea how annoying they can be," she continued, fantasizing about her own revenge against harassing workmen (p. 33). "Putting men in their place" also was appreciated, said Rita Kempley of the Washington Post, because this kind of movie plot offers a woman's point-of-view rare in mainstream Hollywood: "This liberating adventure has a woman's perspective.... Bumper-sticker sassy and welcome as a rest stop, this is one sweet ride, worth hitching if you don't mind getting your hair blown" (1991, p. B6). …