Hit the road, Thelma. An analysis of the road movie with focus on gender mobility in Ridley Scott’s "Thelma & Louise"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Gender-Mobility

3. The road movie genre
3.1. Origins of the road genre
3.2. The road movie

4. Thelma& Louise
4.1. Mobile Outlaws
4.2. The movie’s ending

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Close your eyes (not literally!). Imagine yourself getting into your car, rolling down the window and driving onto the highway and into the sunset. No responsibilities, no boundaries and no worries. Just you, your car and the road. Hitting the road. For many people this is the equivalent of freedom. Surely, a romanticized version of it but nevertheless freedom.

The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities!

Here today, up and off somewhere else tomorrow!

Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!

-Toad speaking in The Wind in the Willows

The road narrative has influenced American literature massively, especially in the 20th century. With automobiles available for most households, traveling by car not only became part of everyday life but gave men and women the chance to leave their lives behind and drive into the unknown. In fiction particularly, the road became a figure for adventures, discovery and freedom. Both literature and movies depicted the road theme and displayed the many different aspects of the road.

One of the most prominent and heavily discussed road movies is Ridley Scott’s Thelma& Louise (1991). The first American road movie with females as main protagonists has sparked much controversy and was claimed both a feminist and antifeminist movie. The movie opened discussion about gender roles, patriarchy, the law, male-bashing, women bonding and even a possible lesbian subtext. The movie explores the struggles for females in a society ruled by men and gives one of the most ambivalent endings Hollywood had seen up to date.

This paper will highlight the struggles Thelma and Louise encounter, how they became outlaws, personal changes they make and how their journey is a metaphor for their lives. This paper aims to show and analyse the gender mobility in connection to the road narrative questioning how Thelma and Louise deconstruct contemporary gender patterns. Therefore, the paper will start with a short introduction to gender mobility as a concept, followed by a historical placement of the road narrative, from the Western movie to the tradition of the buddy narrative. It will show how the genre emerged and how its roots lie in the American past.

The main focus will be on the movie Thelma& Louise and its aspects of gender-mobility followed by the film’s controversial ending.

Looking at the political situation in America today with a President who tells men just to grab women by the pu**y and the Supreme Court making abortions illegal in many states, it becomes evident that women’s rights debates are just as relevant today as they were 30 years ago. Living at a time where the pay gap still exists, men getting paid more than women, it comes to show that women and men are not recognized as equals, yet. Women have come a long way in the last century and it is important to highlight the progress but also bear in mind that society still remains patriarchal. This paper will depict the first steps in matriarch road movie history.

2. Gender-Mobility

To move around and be mobile are key features of the road genre. Even though these terms may seem alike, Tim Cresswell argues that they are indeed very different. He distinguishes movement as a general fact of displacement from location A to B. It is “contentless, apparently natural, and devoid of meaning, history and ideology.” (Cresswell, 2006: 3) Mobility however is the context that surrounds movement. Mobility deals with the line that connects location A to B.1 Mobility is not limited to the human body, but it is also part of society, culture, gender and sexuality. It is simply everywhere, this includes the concept of gender.

The concept of gender is a highly complex one. In contrast to what is commonly stated, it does not operate in a binary form. It is not as shallow as a simple division in male/masculine and female/feminine. Gender is a construct made through performative reiterations, as Cresswell points out. The resulting perceptions of gender are therefore historically, geographically, culturally and politically variable. (Cf. Cresswell, 2008: 1) This means that genders are conditioned around social constructions- for example pink was historically considered a masculine colour, whereas nowadays it is associated with femininity. Following this thought, it implies that genders are not permanent but fluid. Gender is not a permanent thing, it changes with time, society, politics and culture. It is mobile.

Cresswell investigates the connection between mobilities and gender, examining how mobilities enables, disables and modifies gendered elements. He points out, that both elements are heavily intertwined and influence each other. “The meanings given to mobility through narrative, discourse and representation have also been clearly differentiated by gender. Similarly, narratives of mobility and immobility play a central role in the constitution of gender as a social and cultural construct.” (Cresswell, 2008: 2) In other words, gender has shaped mobility and mobility and immobility stand at the core of traditional gender ideologies.

This correlation becomes utterly distinctive looking at travel behaviour patterns. While men are associated with long travels, dangerous roads and discovering the unknown, women tend to only travel in typically feminised and close routes, e.g. to go grocery shopping or drop children off to school. (Cf. Cresswell, 2008: 3) Cars and roads are typically gendered as male elements, with men having a long-standing association with cars and engines, while the road has always been a frightening and challenging place for women. Women are expected to stay home and be safe, while men hit the road. The following chapter will discuss how the idea of hitting the road was depicted and overturned in Hollywood.

3. The road movie genre

The road movie has become one of Hollywood’s most profitable movie genres. For almost a century, viewers have been fascinated by movies such as Huckleberry Finn (1931) Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Mad Max (1979) and in recent years, the Oscar-winning road movie The Green Book (2018). The road has evolved into a component just as important as the actors and actresses. While this genre is not exclusively American, it is striking that a great number of road movies take place on American soil and resonate particularly well with the American audience. The reason for this American road movie phenomenon can be explained by America’s origin, as the road has always been a persistent theme of American culture.

3.1. Origins of the road genre

‘The freedom to move upward and outward, is one of the most central and persistent images America has of itself’. (Eyerman& Löfgren, 1995: 55) It draws upon America’s history of migration, having always been a moving people. The image of going on the road, leaving poverty and sorrow behind and hoping for a better life around the corner has influenced millions of Americans in the 20th century. The resonance this image finds within American society has its basis in the ways freedom and social mobility have been linked to physical mobility as topics in North American culture. (Cf. Eyerman& Löfgren, 1995: 54) Being mobile became the equivalent of being free.

For many years, trains were the main means of transport2, however with automobiles being available for most households and the infrastructure improving, traveling was newly defined. Route 66- some may argue the most famous road in the world- lead Americans to the South, connecting Southern California, Arizona and Texas. Traveling cross-state had no boundaries and hitting the road became a part of life.

In pre-depression America, the road signified speed, the future and the search for native roots. The idea of time being money arouse and the future-orientated America of the 1920’s believed in its progress and success. Americans perceived automobiles as a sign of wealth and technological superiority over other countries. However, when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression began, America’s take on the road changed. Post-depression America saw the road as a sign of physical mobility with a new life waiting around the corner and movement became a sign of hope. (Cf. Eyerman& Löfgren, 1995: 56f) Americans left their homes behind and hit the road in order to find a better place with new opportunities it became the image of the post-depression time. The road became the equivalent of hope in a hopeless situation. It wasn’t long until the road became a part of American fiction, both literature and film representing the road genre. The road movie developed out of this deeply rooted literary tradition (most prominently Jack Kerouac’s On the road3 ), which reflects the history of Western culture. However, this paper will focus on the examination of the road genre displayed in movies.

3.2. The road movie

Roads and movies have made an excellent combination for the past decade, especially with the American audience. This increased demand for the genre on the big screens since the late 1960’s.4

In spite of the genre’s huge success, when it comes to a specific definition of the road movie, academia has left this term mostly vague. Looking at the characteristics of a road movie it is inevitable for there to be a road and a technological form of transportation- mainly automobiles or motorcycles. This technological aspect is the main difference to its precursor genre, the Western. Automobiles and motorcycles can be seen as a sign for the future, man made progress and the desire for liberty. The automobile transports the protagonists from one location to another. However, it is the journey rather than the destination that becomes the main aspect of the road movie. One could even argue that the journey becomes the destination. The planned destination becomes somewhat irrelevant, more significant is the protagonists escape from society and their development throughout the movie.

Corrigan adds to this that the world always happens to the protagonists, meaning the characters are always confronted with obstacles on their journey. It seems as if anything could happen on the road and it usually does. Corrigan perceives the road movie to be a genre ‘traditionally focused, almost exclusively, on men and the absence of women’ (Corrigan, 1991: 143) It was widely considered a ‘masculine’ desire to be wild and free. Boys and young men were typically expected to explore the world and were therefore depicted by male protagonists in road movies. The male protagonists are usually referred to as Outlaws, as they often break the law and flee from the consequences. It will later be discussed how this feature changed in the 1990’s.

In his academic paper What a trip, David Laderman investigated the road movie in connection to the American culture. He agrees with Corrigan in understanding the road movie as a postwar phenomenon and connecting it to the increasing number of automobiles and the many restless youngsters in the suburban in the 1950’s. Fundamental for Laderman’s understanding of the road movie is the ‘dialectical tension between the road film as a rebellious critique of conservative authority and as a reassertion of a traditional expansionist ideology’. (Laderman, 1996: 41f) Often protagonists portray the desire to free themselves from social norms but meanwhile wanting to reconnect with cultural conceptions and values. Road movies incorporate the dialectic of conservative values on one hand and rebellious desires on the other. It is this contradiction between tradition and rebellion that builds the base for the road movie genre.

Road movies often illustrate an escape from the small-town and bourgeoise life, where the protagonist is mistreated and seemingly stuck in the situation called life, with the road being the only opportunity for change and freedom. Road movies explore the boarders of both American society and states.

A key element to the road movie is undoubtably the automobile as a means of transportation. While there have been road movies involving motorcycles, trains or busses, the most common way of movement was the car. Particularly because of mass production of cars most households were able to afford one. The idea of driving was not limited to male drivers only. Cars were so popular among not only men but women too that in 1955 Chrysler released their Dodge La Femme exclusively for women. In contrast to trains, busses or motorcycles (which too have been depicted in road movies), the automobile adds unique elements to the movie: its ability to personalize and individualize the car’s interior and therefore display a person’s character and additional possibilities for characters to interact.

Equally important to the automobile are the roads that enable traveling. Therefore, the American highway system is another key element of the road movie. It portrays the many possibilities that lay ahead of the protagonists, connecting the many American frontiers. According to Laderman the ability to cross borders via these highways becomes the central feature of the genre’s mise en scène. The highways symbolize the potential to leave the familiar behind and discover the unknown. (Cf. 2002: 14)


1 A more detailed depiction of the concept of mobility is beyond the scale of this paper. This paper recommends Tim Cresswell’s One the move (2006) for further reading on this topic.

2 For African-Americans, trains were the main way of transportation for many years to follow. Traveling between states was considered dangerous for blacks and they were advised to not make unnecessary stops. This topic is depicted in the movie The Green Book (2018) as a black pianist hires a white driver and bodyguard to travel the southern states in 1962.

3 David Laderman suggests that Jack Kerouac’s novel On the road (1957) can, in retrospective, be understood as a formative source for the road film. (Laderman, 1996: 42) The novel “captured the great sense of relief that marked post-war American society and culture, a need to make up for lost time at war, a need to consume, as quickly as possible, all the good things life had to offer.” (Eyerman& Löfgren, 1995: 58) Central to the novel is the depiction of the automobile not simply as the means of transportation, but as a metaphor for the transformation of the main characters. Kerouac distributes a new romanticized understanding of the road, as an exciting and adventurous place somewhere beyond urban and suburban enclaves. (Cf. Laderman,1996: 42)

4 This never-ending request for road movies draws upon its obvious potential for romanticizing alienations (Cohan, Hark, 1997:1) as well as criticising existing social constructs. Michael Atkinson states that road movies are too cool to cover serious socio-political issues. They do however, display struggling individuals leaving their homes and families behind with a one-way ticket to nowhere. (Cf. 1994: 15) According to this, road movies are not necessary the medium for critical examinations on political or social topics, but pay attention to the human needs and failures. A much more significant aspect to the road movie is the way the tension and crises of historical moments are depicted, as Cohan and Hark point out. Key moments in the history of the road movie often come in periods of upheaval and dislocation as can be seen during the Great Depression or the Vietnam war. (Cf. 1997:2) The road-movie adapts to the specific needs of the time and brings them into theatres. ‘The road-movie genre emerged out of this wide cultural constellation to become one of the most powerful forces of its reproduction.’ (Eyerman& Löfgren, 1995: 57)

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Hit the road, Thelma. An analysis of the road movie with focus on gender mobility in Ridley Scott’s "Thelma & Louise"
University of Hamburg  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (Book)
Thelma & Louise, Gender mobility, road movie
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Sophie Fischer (Author), 2019, Hit the road, Thelma. An analysis of the road movie with focus on gender mobility in Ridley Scott’s "Thelma & Louise", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/534982


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