Thelma & Louise (1990): Western Myth with gender change

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1995

21 Pages, Grade: 1


Directory of content


Chapter I: Recent Western Film Reviews

Chapter II: Generic Criticism

Chapter II: The Echo of „Thelma and Louise“ in Contemporary American Press and Film Literature

Chapter III: The Story of „Thelma and Louise“

Chapter IV: Analysis and Interpretation

Chapter V: Conclusion

Index of Utilized Literature


The scientific community widely agrees that no region on earth shaped as many contemporary myths as the American West. The number of definitions of what is meant by „the West“ is close to the number of references made to it - in numerous fields. Only by looking at individual examples of western myth at work can we find ways to appoach the myth itself and its consequences.

In this paper I want to illuminate the intellectual and cultural web that is worked into and created around the Hollywood-made motion picture „Thelma & Louise“.

Following a rather broad attempt I want to give a comprehensive overview over all the printed reactions and reviews of this piece of discourse beginning with a few „traditional Westerns“ and a piece of generic criticism by a young female American film critic. Following that, the story of the movie will be recaptured, analyzed, and thereby, finally, interpreted.

This paper is a revised and extended version of an earlier one presented to Prof. Jeff Bass

at Baylor University, Texas, USA. Thanks to the excellent facilities and up to date media access of Moody Memorial Library on Baylor University campus I am apt to say that all relevant publications about this movie have been elaborated in my work.

New insight about the recipience and interpretation of the western myth made me rewrite this paper specifically for a course on the American West.

I. Recent Western Film Reviews

In his critique[1] of John Wayne’s „The Alamo“ (1960), movie critic Frank Thompson at first focuses on the director’s role in a cinematic piece. Emphasizing Wayne’s strong impact on the film - „Wayne produced, starred and directed the film and oversaw every aspect of its production“- he implies that there was a purpose and possibly even a message which Wayne wanted to deliver. „His (Wayne’s) passion to teach this history lesson results in a good deal of high-minded speechifying that periodically grinds the film to a halt“ . The next paragraph is devoted to both the debit side and the plus side of this movie. A concluding excourse on the production history of „The Alamo“ and a final evaluation round up the article.

The even shorter video release critique[2] of „El Dorado“ (1967) begins with an excourse on the production history, displaying „El Dorado“ as the ‘witty’ inversion of the same author’s earlier Western Rio Bravo. After having described the two main characters, Thompson comments on the significance of this film: „On the surface, the film tells the same old story about cattle barons and honest settlers in conflict, but the beauty of El Dorado is in ist moments of personal emphany.“ The final sentence is an interpretation of the closing image of the film where Western conventions created an image of the hero „as triumphant and melancholic an epigraph as an old movie cowboy is likely to get.“

Wall’s review[3] of the new version of John Ford’s 1956 movie „The searchers“ is, right at front, called „one of the better movies of this summer.“ It was, he continues, the version of John Ford’s 1956 movie. The original one was generally acclaimed as the film that defined the Western genre. Obvious as it is, Wall does not at all differentiate between the original and this new version. His entire critique is nothing but a glorification of the (to him) appealing story, its plots, the inherent ambiguity, and the celebration of the power of love. Concluding he points out that „the Searchers is worth looking for, even if you have to settle with the video.“

These examples of western film reviews and their very small number itself show that little of an analysis and interpretation on a single Western is available. What can be found, though, are essays dealing with the western genre, so-called generic criticism.

II. Generic Criticism

One of these texts of generic criticism is Jane Tompkins’ „Language and Landscape: an ontology for the Western“[4], an article in the movies-section of the February 1990 edition of „Artforum“.

At the beginning there is a well intended visual and verbal introduction. Before the reader can start reading, his view is captured by the opening shot of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The world a viewer enters by watching Western opening shots „is the same world we enter when we read a passage from Louis L’Amour’s 1985 „Radigan“.“ A passage of that very novel is the rhetorical introduction to Tompkins’ essay. The western landscape and the short novel excerpt about a women running for her life don’t seem to have much in common. But, Tompkins explains:

„This passage contains what I am calling an ontology for the Western. Faced with death, we learn the truth about life. And the truth is that the human nature is an animal. When your back is to the wall you find out that what you want most is not to save your eternal soul - if it exists - but to live, in the body.“4

Tompkins distinguishes two opposites that were absolutely fundamental to the way the Western constructs the world. The first one: to remain in a world of illusions, the other: to face life as it is and take appropriate actions. She argues that the Western represented the conquest of nature as a need to reassert male identity which was being threatened by the steady movement of women out of the home into public life. This had happened „along with women’s triumphs in fiction writing since the middle of the 19th century, in general, the influence of a Christian, domestic, female culture.“4

In the film „The Searchers“, which acclaimed to define the western genre (Wall 1993), John Ford rudely interrupts a women who is taking more than a single sentence to say something, and he asks her to get to the point. Unpacking this small incident, Tompkins encapsulates the Western’s impatient attitude towards a whole range of issues:

(1) Chasing Indians, that is engaging in aggressive physical action, doing something, while talking in or about the situation is not.
(2) The reflection (and negotiation) that language requires is gratuitious, even pernicuous.
(3) The hero doesn’t need to think, he just knows, for being the hero, he is in a state of grace with repect to the truth.

The effects of this impatient attitude on the language used in the Western are: Minimalist use of it, clipping of the indefinite articles, desperate shorthand style, strings of commands, epigraphic sayings, colloquialism, slang choppy rhythms and fragments. The impatience with language, together with instantaneous knowledge and a commitment to violent action, all went together, writes Jane Tompkins, with the ultimacy of male authority.

By utilizing pieces of literature and film, the essay leads to the contradiction between the ideology of language and forgiveness, on the one hand, and the ideology of matter and force, on the other. „Because the Western is in revolt against a culture perceived as female (...) it equates power with not-language, the absence of language: And not-language is equated with being male.“4

In a further step, the author contrasts the Western’s rejection of language with its emphasis on landscape, refering back to the opening shots of Western movies as a signal for the unimportance of words, of matter over words. The Western’s opening shots were full of promises, as if man could write the story he wants to live, his own ‘new world’. While man may dominate other beings existing in nature, including supressing or simply ignoring women, the only thing he could not dominate was nature itself. „Nature is the one transcending thing, the one thing larger than man in this world. And instead of imitatio Christi, it’s imitatio naturae, the author says. The western landscape was an area where a certain kind of mastery, autonomy, and control, through strenght and brutality, were possible. „The story the western tells, which seems to be the struggle between a pristine nature and a decadent culture, is really about who will have the right to decide, (...) the right to name god.“4

Even the journey of the western hero, usually out of the desert at the beginning and back into it at the end of the film, was an assertion that ontological purity resides in the masculine body, in masculine action, in the masculine vision of the world. Or as remarked elsewhere in this essay: „The landscape of the Western challenges the body to endure hardship. Its spiritual message is the same, and equally irresistable: come and suffer.“

After having illustrated the interaction of language and landscape in the western genre, Tompkins returns to the growing female influence in formerly male dominated life. Women’s increasing influence, she states, equated the passing-over of the right to name god in the course of the 19th century from the clergy into the hands of popular female authors. Their power, according to Tompkins, is what the Western is contesting.

There is another generic convention which the author acknowledges in her essay. It will remind every reader, at least males, of the first page of her essay. There, on the bottom of the right page, Jane Russel is posing for a promotional poster for „Montana bell“[5] with a „low, low neckline“[WD1]-dress. She seems to be lying on a street in a western city. Readers may comprehend her as a merely appealing feature, an animation to read on. Instead, this is the third of the three main themes of the text, two of which are covered in the headline: language and landscape. Now, the third one is identified as: „breasts“. The possession of those breasts was the crucial aim in almost every Western, not only in Montana bell, the movie that the illustration is taken from. The author makes a significant point: „... breasts represent a completely different way of organizing the world, completely different from the one the Western assumes.“4

After having detected the tools to create western manhood and male language, she eventually reveals what really makes the West go wild: The female body as an object available to the heroic man as „his price (...) for going out into the desert, fighting off Indians, and almost dying of thirst.“ Her conclusion is that the Western proposes physical strengths and fighting skills as the ultimate human values. Softness and vulnerability, represented in female sexuality, are being denied even though, at the same time, they are the true underlying idea, the very myth itself.

After having examined these few pieces dealing with different western movies and Tompkins’ general studies about the western genre, the following review of literature shall include relevant essays, articles, and movie reviews about the 1991 motion picture „Thelma & Louise“. In general, how did the authors approach this movie, what aspects were considered or particularly focused on?

III. The echo of Thelma & Louise in contemporary American press and film literature

A series of paintings titled: „The politically correct man 1991“[6] includes, among four men, one picture portraying two queer looking women. The subtitle: „They rode wild and boozed hard, pulled pistols and used them, nailed a pretty blonde thing, fought the law - together every step of the way. Just like usually, only this time something was different.“

Well, quite a few things about these two women are unusual or, as an article in Newsweek heads: „Women who kill to much“.[7] The article itself begins with almost a dozen quotations, criticizing it for being hostile toward men. One quotation from „Thelma & Louise“ - script writer Callie Khouri makes clear which opinion the author shares: „This isn’t hostile toward men, it’s hostile toward idiots.“7 Describing the two main actors’ traditionally male-type struggle through an environment shaped by men, the authors pose the question whether Thelma and Louise are feminist or just imitating males. The immediate answer: „(But) ... what triumphs in the end isn’t guns and whisky, it’s their hard-won belief in themselves and the soaring victory made possible by that belief. (...) Of course they are feminists, but not because they have pistols. This is a movie about two women whose clasped hands are their most powerful weapon.“7

In fact, three essays, one in „Vogue“[8], the other in „Ms magazine“[9] and the third in USA Today Magazine[10] all report a set of movies with „killing women“, each collection featuring Thelma & Louise as the first movie in their list. In „Ms magazine“ the essence is that T. & L. was a clever subversion of a male formula with two women who are no longer willing to accept violation and thereby ,ultimately, reject patriarchy.

The Vogue article concludes by saying that director Scott Ridley has managed „ make a load of hooey with feminist icing into a noble black odyssey that may just be the female buddy road movie everyone in film school and in Hollywood has been waiting for.“8

Sharett finds it impossible to conceive the movie beyond a world of violence since it felt obligated to respond to women’s issues by first responding to male issues. In „Is this what feminism is all about?“[11] Carlson critizises Thelma & Louise for acting out a male fantasy through women who do not confide in each other (i.e. Louise’s secret about Texas), women who were not portrayed believable (Thelma’s second flirt one day after the attempted rape).


[1] Thompson, 1990, p.58.

[2] Thompson, 1991, p.53.

[3] Wall, 1993, p.732.

[4] Tompkins, 1990, pp. 94-99.

[5] Dwan, 1952, (director).

[6] Panter, 1991, pp. 129-135.

[7] Shapiro, 1991, p.38.

[8] Buck, 1991, pp. 161-162.

[9] Maio, 1991, pp. 82-86.

[10] Sharrett, 1991, pp. 57-49.

[11] Carlson, 1991, p.57.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Thelma & Louise (1990): Western Myth with gender change
University of Tubingen  (Department of American Studies, Faculty of English Philology)
Hauptseminar "American West "
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ISBN (Book)
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This paper origins in a course in "Rhetorical Criticism" at Baylor University, Texas 1994. Back in Germany it was rewritten for the course at Tübingen University in 1995.
Thelma, Louise, Western, Myth, Hauptseminar, American, West
Quote paper
MA Sebastian Hoos (Author), 1995, Thelma & Louise (1990): Western Myth with gender change, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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