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Althusser, suicide, and our two female outlaws March 15, 2007

Posted by Wasik in Althusser, Thelma and Louise.
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I would like to keep addressing the idea of suicide in Thelma and Louise. As I mentioned in class, I think that their suicide can be seen in one of two ways: either as an escapist, cowardly act, or as a triumphant rejection of a system and world which has failed them. Their choice to commit suicide can be seen as escapist and a cop-out on the director’s part because if the two main characters had been men, the final scene would probably involved a glorious shoot-out to the death. The movie that best illustrates this point is “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Like “Butch”, “Thelma and Louise” is a buddy story: it is the tale of two friends who become outlaws and adventure around the country while steering clear of the police. Predictably, Butch and Sundance go down shooting, while their female counterparts opt to go off a cliff.

However, I think that suicide is not inherently cowardly even though there are few examples of males in American cinema choosing to commit it. For me, Thelma and Louise’s escape through suicide is a victory. In his article “Ideology and the State”, Althusser lists a number of what he calls Ideological State Apparatuses. ISAs are state structures which subjugate and form the individual through a set of ideas and principles—they “function by ideology” (Althusser, 97). Public ISAs include institutions such as the law, education, and the cultural ISA; those that belong to the extensive private sphere are churches, parties, families, etc. For Althusser, “an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material” (112). He means to say that the physical act of performing an action which subjugates one to the ISA is essential to its power over the individual. When a person reports a crime to the police, he or she is, as Professor Parham mentioned in class, allowing him or herself to be ‘interpolated into the law’. Throughout their lives, Thelma and Louise have been the ultimate subjects and also victims of such interpolation: although they have been law-abiding citizens, the law does not shelter Thelma when a man attempts to rape her. Subsequently, Thelma and Louise’s adventure begins at the moment when they change their status under the law by refusing the interpellation which gives it power over them. The moment when Louise kills Thelma’s attacker is a moment of recognition that Althusser addresses: he states that it is, in fact, possible to recognize our status as subjects. At the same time, however, he says that “to recognize that we are subjects and that we function in the practical rituals of the most elementary everyday life…this recognition only gives us ‘consciousness’ of our incessant (eternal) practice of ideological recognition…but in no sense does it give us the (scientific) knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition” (117). Although Thelma and Louise realize how the law and a patriarchal society have subjugated them (which is evidenced by the fact that, after some time, they explicitly start to blame the men in their lives for repressing them), they are, as Althusser says, unable to see the greater method by which this subjugation occurs. Fighting against the system does prove efficacious to a certain extent, for the truck driver and police officer they come across will probably think twice before underestimating a woman ever again. Ultimately, however, the system catches up to the rebellious twosome. They are chased down by a mad squadron of police cars, and are faced with three options: turn themselves in and let the law decide their fate, stand their ground and fight to the death, or commit suicide. Because it is impossible for individuals like Thelma and Louise to comprehend the mechanisms of ISAs, they cannot truly combat them. Clearly, this adds an element of melancholy and inevitability to whatever Thelma and Louise choose to do; however, it does challenge the notion that suicide is definitely cowardly. All outlaw stories must come to an end—why not with a picturesque drive off a cliff?

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