I'm looking at the trivia section for Thelma & Louise in IMDb and I notice that it says the trailer presented the movie as a comedy. So, I watch the trailer and two things are immediately necessary to point out:
1. Yes, the trailer presents the film absolutely as a fairly light comedy, two women up to some crazy shenanigans. Police get involved, sure, but we don't really see how much. The trailer even explicitly cuts around the gun that Thelma points at the cop in his car. Shows him getting out with his hands up, but avoids showing the gun. We see an explosion, but there's no context, just more happy screaming and laughter. Like this is just a fun romp. Far more Outrageous Fortune than Kalifornia. Since Stephen Tobolowsky is in this, they should have just thrown in a shot of Ned Ryerson saying "Bing!" (Except, that footage wouldn't exist yet, obviously.)
2. What else were they going to do? 9 to 5 only worked like it did because it was a comedy, and not just a basic comedy but satire and farce. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and all that. You want an American audience coming out of the testosterone-fueled, winning-the-cold-war 1980s* then you have to play your female empowerment film as a comedy.
* Just check any of my entries here from January 2015, on Lethal Weapon (516 517 518 519 520 521 522), Die Hard (523 524 525 526 527 528 529, Commando (530 531 532 533 534 535 536, Rambo: First Blood Part II (537 538 539 540 541 542 543), and Top Gun (544 545 546 547 548 549).
It's not female empowerment but rather a more general raging against the system, but compare, say, Falling Down to Thelma & Louise. Thelma & Louise made about $45 million at the box office. Falling Down made $40 million. And, I thought there would be a bigger difference there, actually. How about the aforementioned Kalifornia? Just over $2 million. Better comparison, but Kalifornia is small enough that I'm guessing more people have not heard of it than have not heard of Falling Down. Thelma & Louise is more well known than either, holds up better than Natural Born Killers...
I can't remember the first time I watched it. I'm pretty sure I didn't see it in the theater. I don't think my rather conservative mother would have rented it, but I might have a few years later. Or I watched it on cable. I knew what it was, knew what it was about, knew about that ending.
As Megan Garber at The Atlantic points out, Thelma & Louise is one of those movies that is "best known for its ending." Garber writes:
Flight, ending in flight: It's a satisfyingly symbolic conclusion to a film laden with symbolism--about feminism, about female friendship, about a word that can have such little use for either.
In an earlier Atlantic piece, screenwriter Callie Khouri explains:
To me, the ending was symbolic, not literal... We did everything possible to make sure you didn't see a literal death. That you didn't see the car land, you didn't see a big puff of smoke come up out of the canyon. You were left with an image of them flying. They flew away, out of this world and into the mass unconsciousness. Women who are completely free from all shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough t support them.
She's talking about 1991 in 2011, and that last line--it's still true. We cannot take seriously two women off on their own, doing what they want. Like Thelma, they need permission from their men to do anything. They need a mostly male Congress to make decisions about their healthcare, about their wombs, about birth control and abortion and anything and everything else, because the world is not big enough, America is not big enough. Men are not big enough to accept that women might have their own hopes and dreams, their own inner and outer lives worth exploring on screen, worth exploring in reality, worth celebrating and promoting, or at least allowing.
Jimmy (Michael Madsen) tries to do something good by giving Louise (Susan Sarandon) a ring. But, he's there rather than just wiring her money because he's afraid she is with another man and he wants to give her what he thinks she wants. But, marriage just means she's locked down in that man's world she has, at that point, already escaped. Maybe she doesn't quite realize her trajectory just yet--and meanwhile Thelma (Geena Davis) is finding comfort in bed with JD (Brad Pitt) because a one-night stand in a motel in the middle of nowhere, a fixture of a man's world, just might be good for her on her own trajectory outward.
(I won’t comment just yet on how Louise needs Jimmy for money and Thelma learns how to rob from JD.)
Of course, JD steals their money. Setting them back a a bit. And Jimmy goes home. And, Thelma and Louise are already on the runway to that eventual takeoff. And, sure the ending is symbolic. Flight into a world where women can make their own decisions, defend themselves, take care of themselves. And, of course that was a fantasy in 1991, a place we can only imagine they fly to when they head off that cliff.
Unfortunately, it still is.
Just this week in North Carolina, they passed a law that says women who initially consent to sex cannot then decide not to go through with it. I guess you can't expect them to be able to have their wits about them once things get going.
Or, in the vicious cycle of this self-enforcing patriarchal world, you just can't expect women to have their wits about them at all.
Or at least you can pretend they don't. And do what you want. And, hunt them down with police cars and helicopters when they act out of line.