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Men and the Male Gaze: Thelma and Louise March 12, 2007

Posted by lindamc in "the gaze", Thelma and Louise.

The men in Thelma and Louise seemed to fall into two brackets: pigs who see the women through the traditional objectifying male gaze, and those whom we were supposed to view the women, or those holding the “male gaze” for the audience viewers.

The “pigs” clearly represented what the women were fighting against: sexual violence against, and general oppression of, women (the dirty trucker, the guy they shot outside the bar (Harlan), Thelma’s husband, Darryl). They are played so over the top in these roles (the trucker has female bodies engraved on his truck to clearly show his objectification of women, and Harlan and Darryl clearly have no respect for the women in all of their assigned dialogue. By having such a clearly negative group to fight against, viewers are drawn into the female protagonists’ plight, and feel sympathy for all their brushes with the law. However, I feel as those this is compromised throughout the film, by the other male characters, who provide their own “male gaze” on screen. 

The main detective, Investigator Slocomb seems to be oddly sympathetic to the girls, because as we randomly find out, he “knows what happened to [Louise] in Texas” referencing her own rape. Also, Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy, is wonderfully supportive and loving towards her, offering her the money she needs, and even proposing in order to keep her by his side. After Jimmy serves this purpose, however, he is rarely seen again, his part as supporter seems lost, as if when he heard that she was in trouble with the law, he would do nothing. Darryl follows the investigation closely, but Jimmy seems to disappear. These two men in particular, seem to distract from the main focus of the audience, which is to support Thelma and Louise, and draws then into a man’s world, where some guys do understand, and makes the audience ask: why do they have to keep running? Slocomb and Jimmy will work it out, they’re nice guys. I feel as though those loose ends make the film less about female empowerment, and more about two crazy women getting beat up and lost in a man’s world. 

The last shot of the film, Slocomb chasing the car, could show, if one were to argue this way, that he was running after them to try and pull them back into the man’s world, that they had broken free and he was trying to reign them in. However by not having the camera follow the girls off at the end, but having a shot from behind Slocomb’s shoulder, and then the car flying over the edge on the side, I feel like we end disconnected from the girls. We follow them from the point of a male detective who, while clearly (and in my mind strangely) is empathetic and supportive of the girls, is also a man, and a representation of the police (controlling men).




1. kelly - March 12, 2007

While Investigator Slocomb does seem strangely sympathetic, he also constantly refers to the women as “girls.” He seems almost demeaning in his sympathy, he assumes that these “girls” are in way over their heads and are really just two sweet and innocent girls who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even after Thelma robs the store like an expert, Slocomb refuses to believe her capable of anything “bad.” He also somehow makes the connection that it is Brad Pitt’s fault that they had to rob the store and only because of his trickery and thievery were these poor girls forced to commit a crime. It almost seems to take us back to the revenge narrative in which case women’s crimes are often seen as a result of personal, emotional reasons, rather than pure selfish pursuits. While in this case it is true that the women are in an unfortunate situation, it is interesting that the investigator is able to come to this complicated conclusion on his own, perhaps because he assumed it from the beginning.

2. Melissa - March 12, 2007

One interesting thing I picked up on in the final scene, was when Slocumb said something about the “girls” needing help and not the armed force that had been arranged and the FBI detective correcting him stating that “those WOMEN were armed and dangerous.” Throughout the movie we heard Louise complain about the male dominated society and that even though it was Thelma who was the vicitm (in the beginning) a man could never look past her “promiscuity” and declare the male culpable. Thelma orginially wanted to go to the police, hoping for some sympathy. I think it is interesting the way these two pairs, the fugitives and the law, were matched up: the FBI agent matches what Louise thought of the police and the local investigator matches what Thelma originally felt. Though the women’s perceptions of the law would change throughout the film, not drastically Thelma would harden and Louise would soften, I just thought it was an interesting comparison that was raised by the film.

3. andyw - March 12, 2007

I disagree with the negatives pointed out by Lindam-c in terms of female empowerment. Unlike her, I do not see Jimmy and Slocomb as “distract[ing] from the main focus of the audience, which is to support Thelma and Louise, and draw[ing] then into a man’s world, where some guys do understand”.

To take an iteration of her basic objection, she argues that Jimmy and Slocomb suggest that the women are crazy and could have just come back into male society. I would like to suggest that this perspective is only possible from the position of the male gaze. This judgment analyzes the situation and finds the women’s resistance to the law puzzling: they are seen as simply wrong in their interpretation of the police as being against them, and they could have, from the beginning, just come back into the world of officials and authority. Seen from this analytic angle, there are any number of other obvious flaws they have: Louise stays on the phone far too long and gives up their location, Thelma is an idiot for trusting Bard Pitt, they clearly take things way too far when they blow up the gas tank, they are complete idiots for not going through Texas, etc. I agree that, from this perspective (which I will suggest as only being accessible from within the male gaze), the two are indeed “crazy women”. If, instead, we take the view of the two women, or at least a gaze external to that of the male gaze (and these two viewpoints may not coincide), then the women’s struggle can be seen as an attempt (I almost said tragic attempt, but I am not at all sure that is an appropriate term for it) to resist a certain form of interpellation. They are ultimately resisting the Subject figure of (and this is only a tentative naming) the male legal order as it occurs in the form of the police, the husband, the boyfriend, the boss, and even the thief. They are called to this resistance, this attempted reconfiguration of their own interpellation (Thelma as house wife, Louise as waitress and girlfriend), through the unsuccessful interpellation of a few others into this society (I use the word unsuccessful not to imply that these individuals are not interpellated, but that they weren’t properly intepellated into the system: they create certain dissonances within it that are not in line with the main ideological order of the day; it might help to think of them, tentatively, as, taking my queue from 1984, Party members who think the Party is at war with Eurasia when they are in fact at war with Eastasia). Harlan violates the male order by taking his chauvinism too far. It might be debatable about where that precise line lies and when it was crossed: you could argue that it was crossed when he tried to rape Thelma, or later than that when he was verbally taunting them (or somewhere in between). But he does cross that line of acceptability, and the FBI agent tells us why. He says (talking to Darryl, another figure who has not successfully been interpellated into the male legal order) that women “love that shit”: they love being talked to nicely and the appearance of care. Harlan (and Darryl and the truck driver) violates this rule of the male legal order. They are propelled to find a new interpellation by these excesses (this is, obviously, an attempt to take seriously Hall’s objection to Althusser’s account that “there are no answers” about why ideology “would ever produce its opposite or its contradiction” (Hall, 19)). For the rest of the movie they struggle, on new grounds, to articulate or be subjected to this new interpellation, which gets variously defined as the movie goes on. Thelma tries out the interpellation of adulterer, but that doesn’t end up working out (of course, I have not – and am unable to – articulate the criterion for “working out” for this attempted new interpellation, but it seems that they are clearly unsatisfied with the results of the theft; however, there is ample ground to suggest that Thelma’s new-discovered sexuality propels her to her new interpellation). (To point to another possible interpretation of Thelma’s actions that would also resist the view pushed forward by Lindam-c but not read them as attempting to articulate a new ideology with completely different subject positions, it could be argued that Thelma comes to occupy the position of the thief, and thus achieves a subversion of the male legal order but not an articulation of a completely new order.)

My argument is that they come to define a new ideology, through a resistance towards what I have named the male legal order. Lindam-c points out that “by not having the camera follow the girls off at the end, but having a shot from behind Slocomb’s shoulder, and then the car flying over the edge on the side, I feel like we end disconnected from the girls”. My response to this observation is that the final shot is actually a side-view of the girls in the air. We follow the male gaze up to a point, and then we (as viewers) occupy a new position, one incomprehensible to the male legal order since none of the police officers could actually occupy our point-of-view. I agree completely that Slocomb represents a certain kind of (successfully) interpellated subject in the male legal order (as does Jimmy, who manages to resist the urges he has to be destructive and do the “right” thing by proposing to Louise; I stumble at giving an interpretation of his giving the money to her). But I think we leave that perspective behind in the end (just as we, perhaps more obviously, leave Jimmy and even Brad Pitt’s character behind).

The elements of this new ideology (which is willing to resist the male legal order even if it must pay the highest cost) are perhaps contradictory, perhaps not completely articulate, perhaps not even the resistance that will end up “working out”, but I think they do constitute an attempt at a new ideology. And I think it is inappropriate, or at least missing the point, to criticize this ideology solely with the terms, or point-of-view, offered up for us by the male legal order (where it obviously can’t be seen in a positive light, since it is constituted as a resistance to that order). Now, I don’t think this completely solves the issues, and turns the movie into a transparent and perfect vision of female empowerment. There are any number of problems with the subject positions that Thelma and Louise variously occupy, and there is also the dicey problem of who the Subject for them is (could it be Louise’s boss’s former wife, who is breaking up with him?; could it be that the movie tries to picture Thelma and Louse as the Subject?; could it be “goddamn”-edness, seen through the police’s reaction to Thelma robbing the store – “Jesus Christ. Good God. My Lord.” – as well as through their ultimate destination of “goddamn Mexico”?). But I do hope this sheds some light on what I understand to be the perspective offered up in the movie.

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