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Blazing Trails: Thelma and Louise Reinvent the Road Trip

Associate Professor Rob McFarland discusses how Thelma and Louise challenged the film industry thirty years ago and continue to do so today.

Thelma and Louise is a movie about subverting stereotypes and freeing the female character. These themes were radical in film at the time of the movie’s release in 1991. However, the film had an overwhelming influence because it reframed the misogynistic narrative of women's road movies into an opportunity for empowering women. Similar movies followed in its wake as the film inspired more inclusion for women in the industry, making Thelma and Louise “the grandma of women’s road movies,” said Associate Professor Rob McFarland (German & Russian).

McFarland discussed Thelma and Louise, the symbolism of movement, and film stereotypes at a Global Women’s Studies Colloquium. His presentation was titled “Thelma and Louise at 30: Women Driving Hollywood and the Winding Route of the Classic ‘Road Movie.’”

The traditional narrative of women’s road movies prior to Thelma and Louise was responsive instead of active. McFarland explained that the road trips in men’s road movies are usually journeys of discovery, decadence, or rebellion. In women’s road movies, however, movement is usually caused by displacement, escape, or survival. Women in road movies leave home because of someone else’s actions, whereas men usually leave just because they can.

Initially, the movie seems to sidestep the women’s road movie archetype, with Thelma and Louise embarking on a fishing trip so Thelma can take a break from her oppressive marriage. The trip transitions back to the traditional road movie narrative, though, because Thelma becomes the victim of an attempted rape. As the women flee, the man yells insults and profanity after them, which prompts Louise to shoot him. Now, instead of fleeing only trauma, the women are also evading the law. The attempted rape and subsequent shooting seem to solidify the road trip as a journey of displacement, escape, and survival, but McFarland points out that later in the film, Thelma and Louise transcend that stereotype.

As the trip continues and Thelma and Louise decide to stay on the run, they come to see themselves for the first time as independent of men’s control over their lives. This realization allows the women to take an active role in their mobility. They decide to travel west originally to escape their past, but they end up finding themselves along the way. McFarland noted that because of their conscious choice to continue traveling, they shed their sense of victimhood and objectification. This self-awareness broke the long-standing narrative in women’s road movies that men’s actions force women’s mobility because it showed that women could choose mobility as a result of their self-awareness.

Released thirty years ago, Thelma and Louise is an ongoing example of the power, voice, and change that women can bring to film.