Sunday, September 3, 2023

The Films of Christopher Nolan: Oppenheimer

The 12th film in my continuing analysis of The Films of Christopher Nolan, is the WWII biopic Oppenheimer. Still reeling from his inability to “save cinema” with the release of his previous venture, Tenet, Nolan is given another bite at the apple from Universal Pictures, after he burned the Warner bros bridge because of HBOMAX (Now just Max *eye roll).  Rather than have any kind of clear or compelling understanding of history, the audience for Oppenheimer is treated to a well shot, overly edited piece of Pro War disjointed propaganda that has nothing to say about morality and genocide, while still treating his female characters as two-dimensional fridge victims despite their real-world accomplishments. This film is a love letter to those white male dads who got into WWII when they became parents, thoroughly validating their overinflated sense of nationalism. For the rest of us, or those of us that don’t exalt that identity, Oppenheimer is an arduously long, repetitive slog into the worst parts of humanity and masculinity, while reveling in its self-delusion of nuanced benevolence.



After experiencing anxiety over performing lab work, doctoral student J. Robert Oppenheimer pivots to theoretical physics, where he eventually achieves a Ph.D. Later in 1941, he is tasked by the United States Army to enter a nuclear Arms race with Nazi Germany. The successful test and use of the Atomic Bomb causes public backlash resulting in Oppenheimer being subjected to a political and judicial inquiry where a lot of his personal foibles, infidelity and political ties are revealed to discredit him.



            Based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Shewin, Nolan’s script seems to be historically accurate in broad strokes and faithful to its source material, minus some dramatic license in its narrative. What is more alarming is not the minor inaccuracies of who said what when, or where someone’s hand placement was, it is what this film leaves out.[1] There is little to no mention of the effect the events of the film had on other people; especially those living in the area where the Los Alamos Laboratory was built, and the literal fallout of the Trinity test itself.

            Tina Cordova’s article in The New York Times elucidates the vacuous absence of the direct consequences of the US development of nuclear weapons in Nolan’s film. There is no mention on the razing of farmers land in the region to build the laboratory and mine uranium through eminent domain, the government’s ability to take private property for public use. Cordova also points out that there were 13,000 people living within a 50-mile radius when the nuclear test was conducted, who are still waiting to be recognized and compensated through the Radiation Exposer Compensation Act set to expire in 2024. The film’s omission of this displacement, danger to the populace, and lack of clarity on how the project was obscured for those that worked on it by Military leaders, ultimately sanitizes these events[2]. Where the lab was built, and the test conducted, Nolan treats his audience to nothing but empty land. Like a lot of films set in the open plains and the American Southwest (there is a whole genre with this backdrop) there is always empty land space without reminding movie going audiences how that space became empty in the first place.

 Pop culture is Soft Power. It shapes the way that we experience and understand the world, in part, through its sheer volume of content. The multitude of films that depict the United States, especially certain regions, as devoid of everything, save geographic resources, compared to a few handfuls of books, articles and (usually) documentaries that explain how that space became vacant; overrides the public consciousness from the truth, and reinforces a Pro War Image that has long history in our entertainment.

In a previous essay I explained the relationship between the Military Industrial complex and entertainment in this way:

   In 1956, Sociologist C. Wright Mills in his book The Power Elite discussed the collusion of the three powerful social institutions in the United States, that of the Military, the Economy and The Government. The name for this collusion, the Military Industrial Complex, was attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower during his farewell presidential address in 1961. What was considerably absent from this analysis, that was later filled in by other scholars in the interim, was the overall role of the media in this enterprise.

 The role of the media, and more specifically Hollywood, in the overall interconnection between these powerful systems is as a propaganda machine and recruitment tool. Since World War II, the media has been used to not only shape the public opinion about war, but to also provide the Military with large numbers of young, able-bodied recruits. Many of these tactics include but are not limited to: fear mongering (through news media), a sense of cultural pride (through an appeal to nationalism), to expressions of gender (combining militarization with masculinity) and economic stability (GI Bill and the Poor). This has led to the entire entertainment industry, from books and films to television and video games, to be linked with the military and the broader department of defense. This Hollywood connection has been disparagingly referred to as “The Military-Entertainment Industrial complex” or more succinctly, “Militainment”. 

According to Rebecca Keegan (2011): 

Filmmakers gain access to equipment, locations, personnel and information that lend their productions authenticity, while the armed forces get some measure of control over how they’re depicted. That’s important not just for recruiting but also for guiding the behavior of current troops and appealing to the U.S. taxpayers who foot the bills.

Thereby many films, TV show episodes or Video Games that are about, or feature, any aspect of the military (regardless of genre) will have a military consultant assigned to them if the filmmakers want to keep their overall costs down.

            The development of this relationship between entertainment and the military began in early Hollywood with film directors making legitimate Propaganda films in the 1940’s (look at Frank Capra’s film: “Why We Fight.”). This continued through the 1950’s and 60’s with the films of John Wayne, members of the Rat Pack and Elvis. Yet, this collusion wasn’t solidified until the Reaganite 80’s with the release of Top Gun in 1986. The Navy was heavily involved with the film as a consultant ultimately increasing Navy recruitment by a staggering, but yet unsubstantiated, 500%. Thirty-five years later, that link is still strong with its sequel Top Gun: Maverick not only being nominated for best picture but praised as being the film that saved theaters after the COVID-19 lockdown. Any film that is contentious, or critical of the military and its mission, will not get support. Oliver Stone had a very difficult time getting his films Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July funded because the military rejected his funding requests given the depiction of the Military in those films.

Nolan’s decision to direct a period piece and further whitewashing that time period contributes to and classifies Oppenheimer as “Militainment.” US focused WWII stories have always been a soft-landing point for military propaganda due to it being the birth of the American war machine. It is a time that we’ve disinfected from the realities of protest or derision to manufacture public support. Even today, these stories are still a hook for a lot of older white male theatergoers that buy into the myth of American Greatness; thereby developing an unhealthy interest, bordering on obsession, with “The Greatest Generation” convincing themselves it was a time when “America was Great.” *eyeroll*. Clearly, Nolan got support from the Military for this film as he was given permission to film the explosion on White Sands Missile Range even if he didn’t use it. The military officials must have not been threatened by the script, believing it would show the American Government in a positive light.  

            Furthermore, since we’ve seen a rise in, and desire for, diverse representation on film and in other forms of media, we’ve also seen a rise in white male directors retreat into the period piece. That way, their penchant for hiring (and telling stories about) white men is obscured by the era when their story is set. This has the added effect of veiling any racial ignorance/racism they may have; as well as shield them from obsolescence in the current progressive culture.[3] This retreat from criticism is even illustrated in the stories that these white male directors decide to tell[4]. For Nolan in this film, he skirts the surface of critical analysis for J Robert Oppenheimer without producing anything of substance. Like a lot of Right-wing pundits and the “discourse” coming out of the libertarian movement, Oppenheimer depicts white men engaging in lazy, inconsequential thought from a safe distance. These stories often do not engage with their subject in any meaningful way. Instead, many of these recent white male focused period pieces, play fast and loose with history to the point where they should be considered fantasy or science fiction. This inevitably comes across as teenagers writing collective fan fiction, building on each other’s statements by saying: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”. The problem, however, is the unlikelihood that the audience for Oppenheimer recognizes the difference between fact and fantasy. This is especially murky given Nolan’s reputation for “gritty realism”. The public do not know, or aren’t prepared, when Nolan takes such liberties, stretches truths, and tips his hand into the absurd. For instance, the cringe inducing moment when Nolan uses Oppenheimer’s famous quote: “I have become death; destroyer of worlds.” as sexual foreplay. This context robs the quote of any pathos. Instead, it is a sophomorically pithy deflection and deflation of reality while also hypocritically undermining the very “seriousness” Nolan is evangelized for. This shows that Nolan only wants to be perceived as being inquisitive without any real contemplation.

            Sociological Aside: Theory and Research

In Sociology, a theory is a statement about how particular facts are related that is often explaining social behavior usually through the lens of a theoretical perspective. Sociologists usually talk about “The big three” theoretical perspectives (Structural Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism and Power/Conflict) while others are adjacent and incorporated (Post Structuralism, Feminist Theory, and Critical Race Theory). Each of these perspectives act as a blueprint and or model for how the social world operates and exists; and while the derivative individual theories of each perspective will be explaining the same behavior, the conclusions are going to be different because of the lens with which they are observing the world.

 The relationship between theory and research is symbiotic. You cannot have one without the other. It is obvious you need a hypothesis born out of theoretical analysis to test ideas. However, for a theory to be viable, it first needs to be based on observable evidence. Otherwise, why does it need to be explained? It is through the curiosity generated from the observation that theory is born. Theory is not fabricated; it is the attempt to understand the order of things and requires research. This continues through the Scientific Model allowing the theory to be tested through a variety of research methods either from the quantitative branch, broad numerical approach, or the qualitative branch, which is far more descriptive and detailed.  Once the observation informs the idea, through research, the data informs the theory. Does the theory need to be changed to account for the results of the test? Usually, yes. Those changes then allow the theoretical analysis to build. This is not what happens in Oppenheimer. I take great umbrage with the way that this film scathes the importance of theory and research.

At the beginning of the film, Oppenheimer is seen struggling in the laboratory. It is heavily implied, and later, directly stated, that he is terrible at scientific lab work. Because the University does not want to “waste his mind”, it encourages him to transition to Theoretical Physics. This makes the unintentional consequence of valuing research results over theory. The University is just going to stick him in his own theoretical corner until one of his ideas can be usable for a practical purpose. Rather than reinforce this division between theory and research, the film could have done something different. Imagine if the film leaned into his incompetence at lab work which then shed some doubt on his ability to help generate the bomb successfully, adding to the tension; and reinforcing the importance of both theory and research. Instead, that drama is minimized through a cheeky conversation between Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) and Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) which doubles down on the devaluing of theory and reduces the importance of research with the line: “What do you want from theory alone?” 

Meanwhile, the actual Oppenheimer said:



     Nolan has long been interested in doing his version of a biopic. For years, he was interested in adapting the life of Howard Hughs, but was beaten to the screen by Martin Scorsese with The Aviator. It is unclear if his fascination with Oppenheimer was concurrent with his development of the Hughes story, or if became a more recent interest with the publishing of  the source material, American Prometheus, which Nolan read in 2019. With Robert Pattinson’s Tenet wrap gift to Nolan being a book of Oppenheimer speeches, it seemed like the subject of Nolan’s next project was set. Yet, as the planning for what would become Oppenheimer began, Nolan’s relationship with Warner Bros soured due to their 2021 release schedule in conjunction with then titled streaming service HBOMAX.

            In my previous essay on Tenet I wrote:

            There has been a lot of negative reactions to the AT&T decision in the last few months, many of them coming from people who stand to lose a lot of money with this decision; namely directors and actors (who’s pay scale may be tied to box office performance) and Theater owners. One of the most vocal about this decision was Christopher Nolan himself, who’s relationship with Warner bros. up to this point was so strong, that he is one of three directors (The other two being Clint Eastwood and Todd Philips) that could make whatever they wanted without studio interference.[5] This relationship was immediately put into jeopardy when Nolan criticized the decision for not including filmmakers in the conversation. In an interview he was quoted as saying

“Filmmakers went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest studio, and when they woke up they realized they were working for the worst streaming service. Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

With such a statement it is clear that Nolan was so burned by this decision, as a clear anathema, and bane of his existence, that he has decided to completely sever ties with Warner Bros. a studio he has worked with since 2002 and where he reigned supreme, along with Eastwood and Philips, as Warner’s Directing holy trinity.  It is clear with his clout in Hollywood, and now evidence of principle consistency and having the “courage of his convictions”, Nolan will be able to produce and distribute his film anywhere he wants.  It has yet to be determined who the real losers in this exchange are. The unknown variable is the complete and long-lasting economic impact of COVID 19. AT&T’s decision may be the best for them in the short term (which is typically how large corporations think) But Warner Bros will not be able to ride the Nolan gravy train to the next station, as long as he keeps making films that people want to see.  In the case of Tenet, the convoluted nature of the film’s plot and the difficult social conditions of the industry upon its release created a perfect storm of complications that led to this film’s overall failure.

This led Nolan to go to Universal Studios for Oppenheimer, getting a “Blank Check” for his trouble, and being allowed to extend the theatrical window for the film from the standard 90 days to 120. Thus, Nolan was a “studio darling” again without any oversight. To keep his position as the studio paragon, Nolan again brought the film in early and under budget. While this may ingratiate himself to the producers, and the studio financing the film (like Neo, he is “the one), this can also put a strain on the workers; especially considering that Oppenheimer was shot in 57 days: beginning in March 8th2022 and ending that May. Because of this self-imposed timeline, corners were cut, labor was not valued, and three thread bare story concepts, unable to stand on their own, were twisted together in a contrivedly convoluted claptrap that one could barely call cinema.

            In the truncated timeline of Oppenheimer, the set for Los Alamos took 6 months to build but was only used for 6 days of actual shooting. While this is often common in a lot of Big Budget films, it speaks to the frivolity of spending when your budget is the equivalent of the infinity symbol. This also has the added implication of the transient nature of background labor in Hollywood, and the lack of compassion for production and postproduction labor.  This mentality is the underline problem that has led to the ongoing Writers and Actor’s strike.    

            Additionally, because Nolan is perceived and self-promoted to be a chiefly technical director, little regard is shown for story and dialogue.  This is initially evidenced by Nolan’s fascination with cinematography and scene composition, manifesting itself through his obsession with IMAX cameras.  The camera’s being notoriously loud, a lot of the dialogue gets drowned out. On another film, that wasn’t overly fixated on a single part of the filmmaking tapestry, this draw back would be fixed with Audio Dialogue Replacement (ADR) requiring actors to come back and redub their lines to provide a film with cleaner audio. But in a Nolan film, that is not happening. In a recent interview Nolan rejected the use of ADR because he “wanted to preserve the actor’s performance on set.”. But on Oppenheimer, Nolan goes a step further to obscure his dialogue by maintaining a score in the background even in a simple two shot dramatic scene in an office. The only time that Nolan’s film is noticeably silent is in the authentic depiction of the bomb’s explosion, which sees a noticeable time lapse between the flash of the explosion and its delayed cacophonous resonance. Whether this is another instance of Nolan’s preoccupation with style over substance, or an active obfuscation of trivial and puerile dialogue is unclear, but possible.

            Nolan’s contempt for anything outside of his beloved shot composition is observed nowhere more clearly than his inability to tell a linearly rich and detailed story. Instead, Nolan chooses to weave disparate fibers of uncomplicated and rudimentary storylines into an unnecessarily complex web of scenes/images, that are cut together with such rapidity, that the audience does not know what exactly they are watching. In Oppenheimer, Nolan cannot help himself from trying to connect three simple linear parts of Oppenheimer’s life: His romantic relationships, His work on the bomb, and his political persecution afterwards, into an inconceivably incongruous mess of nonlinear spaghetti; each storyline thin and unsatisfying by the end. To be fair, in past films, such as Memento, The Prestige and Inception, this style has worked for Nolan given the genres he was playing in. This style becomes increasingly unnerving and frustrating when working in the genre of historical Biopic.    

            It is unclear how much Nolan is a man who sees the world outside of his own perspective. He often tells the same story and wrestles with the same themes that shallowly speak to him as a well off British American white dude. Like a lot of other up incoming auteurs of the 1990’s, including the likes of Tarantino (*groan*), Nolan prides himself for never going to film school and being able to go to every department and understand what they do; learning how to make films by going out and making them. The problem with this self-made, pro-meritocracy, bootstrap pulling bullshit is that does not recognize the opportunities, assistance and support Nolan, and others of his ilk, got from countless other people behind them. They are under the false consciousness that they did it all themselves, and that they are the most important person in the room. This is a common mentality that feeds the egoistic narcissism of young male directors. At which point the directors are surrounded by so many sycophantic suck-ups that they are never challenged in any meaningful way.



Being a specifically rooted biopic of a person in a significant time period, Oppenheimer becomes less sociologically interesting outside of its historical context. What is compelling is not the themes of the film, but how those themes were used to market the film to the public, and the film’s ultimate consumption. In the age of low theater attendance and viral media marketing campaigns, Oppenheimer became ensnared in a box office battle, turned friendly rivalry, that ironically deconstructed and laid bare one of Nolan’s greatest screenwriting weaknesses.

“Barbenheimer” and the Bechdel Test

            When Christopher Nolan had his falling out with Warner Bros over the HBOMAX deal, that left a hole in Warner Schedule of programming that was originally reserved for Nolan.  However, because Nolan could pretty much write his own ticket at Universal he decided to keep with the originally planned third week in July release date (a staple for Nolan). Still, in a petty move of counterprograming, Warner Bros slated Greta Gerwig’s Barbie the same weekend as Oppenheimer, and thus, “ Barbenheimer” was born.

            Initially, the media manufactured these films as rivals. They initially saw the behind-the-scenes drama between Nolan and WB, and the overall thematic differences between the films, as being ripe with contentious drama.  Yet, as this comparison went viral, creating companion memes galore, it became less about box office competition and more about what is the proper viewing order. Were you going to see Oppenheimer first to get the serious heft of a WWII era Biopic out of your system and then finish it up with a bubble gum chaser of Barbie? Or were you going to see them in reverse. The irony, to anyone who has seen both films, is that Gerwig’s Barbie is a lot more nuanced. It attempts to maintain a feminist lens that dismantles gender norms and the patriarchy; ultimately revealing itself to be a lot more cerebral than originally perceived. 

            It would be easy to frame these two films along the gender binary and say that Barbie, with its loud neon pink saturation, and collection of racially diverse female cast, is about women, and that Oppenheimer is about men. Yet, Barbie says more about toxic masculinity and how to heal from it, whereas Oppenheimer just doubles down on the poison. This persistence for the film to have no self-awareness, in comparison to Barbie which is cheekily self-aware, highlights Oppenheimer’s deaf tone with audiences, especially around the writing and characterization of women.

            Christopher Nolan has never been able to write women, and as a result women are little more than window dressing in his movies.  Few of Nolan’s films pass The Bechdel Test, a simple low bar of female representation in film that has three basic components:

1.      There are two women in the film that have names.

2.      Those women talk to each other.

3.      The subject of their conversation is not men, or a male character.

This measurement is not determining a film to be feminist or even good. Many of the films that pass can still be sexist, while other films with an egalitarian message can fail.  It is a just a foundational measurement for the perception of women in filmmaking; but it is surprising how many films fumble this criterion.

In Oppenheimer, Nolan seems to have regressed from recent work to present women more unfavorably than before. There are two principal female characters in the film, each of whom are framed only as a love interest for Oppenheimer, even though the women being portrayed: Jean Tatlock (Florance Pugh) and Kathrine Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), were far more interesting and accomplished in their own lives beyond their relationship with Oppenheimer. Yet, Nolan sees these accomplished women as nothing more than the motivation that drives his protagonist and the source of shame and guilt that haunts him.  What makes this film different than the countless other 2-dimensional carboard props, Nolan usually creates of his female characters, is that in Oppenheimer, he adds nudity and sex. At least 1/3rd of Florance Pugh’s screen time is spent nude, and with the stilted jolting cuts that Nolan loves to make, most of her screen time is just visualized parts of her body.  Understand, nudity and sex are not the problem. But add female nudity and sex to the already reduced myopic vision of women to begin with, then you are just recreating tired and objectifying stereotypes.           



Christopher Nolan retreads a lot of the same ground in his films, often using the same actors to go through the same notes of time, loss, regret, and redemption, to usually financial and critical success. In addition to pointing out Nolan’s narrowed interests in storytelling, this also points to the way that our culture has been conditioned through Bureaucratic socialization to want a remixing of certain stories, rather than new ones. This is made heart-wrenchingly clear with the proliferation of legacy sequels, IP adaptations, and forever franchises that have become so much cash cow content that the public becomes desensitized to it. It just becomes something to watch. In this landscape, no one cares what they are eating, so long as the troth is full. The problem, aside from the obvious slow corrupting death of a hundred-year artform, is that Nolan’s work looks like the peak of cinema by comparison.  Use older techniques that bid time return and frame your film in a different way than the countless hours of churned out drivel from every production company, and suddenly you are evangelized as a god. Like this film’s subject, Nolan believes himself to be divine, graciously giving the gift of “real” cinema to the people, when, his reverence is a function of the quality of cinema decreasing, rather than his work shining above the rest. His work profits from lowered expectations which also shields him from mainstream criticism and growth as a filmmaker. Oppenheimer is a culmination of a lot of Nolan’s worst tendencies, and without honest introspection, he will become what the indie film bros. of the 1970’s became: bloated human husks of corporately controlled power, that strangled the very thing they claim to love.       


[1] As a geek and film snob, I know what it is like to get very granular with things that you are interested in.

[2] Those in authority literally called the bomb a “gadget” Meanwhile, their many other employees had no clue what they were working on until Truman’s announcement of the attack on Hiroshima.  

[3] Scorsese, Tarantino and Nolan have all done this in recent projects.

[4] These characters are usually a thin veneer atop the director’s own collection of neurosis and narcissism that they are publicly trying to work through.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

The Queering Feminist Spectacle of Thelma and Louise


In the organization of traditional gender stereotypes, masculinity is framed as the rational (emotionally) repressive and relationally reductive identity that thrives on aggression as well as the alienation and abuse of women. Women, thereby become the fulcrum and rubric by which men ocellate toward and are critiqued; to achieve and maintain their traditional forms of (fragile) masculinity. Conversely, in this same organization, femininity revels in the relational, having women define their identity through the emotional bonds they cultivate with their children or the variety of male figures in their lives, albethey fathers, mentors, or partners.  The normalization of this framing happens through its consistent representation in film and popular culture. Under this yoke, not only do we see a reproduction of these dangerous archetypes, but there is little room for exploration past these boundaries, unless there’s a monumental catalyst. Ridley Scott’s 1991 Thelma and Louise is the frenetic feminist film about friendship that became the popular spark for the third wave feminist movement, upended traditional gender role organization in cinema, and galvanized a generation (of women). This paper is a brief exploration of the social and cultural impact of the film, its resonance, relevant themes, and reclamation by both the industry and populace.     



While traveling to a fishing cabin for a weekend getaway, two girlfriends stop at a roadside bar to get a drink and proverbially let their hair down. However, after experiencing an assault and attempted rape that leaves the rapist dead, the titular Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) flee the scene; understanding that they will not be believed or found innocent. What follows is a road-trip across the southwest as the pair attempt to get to Mexico while trying to avoid a tenacious cop (Harvey Keitel) and the FBI hot on their trail.




            Since its release in 1991, Thelma and Louise’s cinematic gravitas has been profound. This praise being validated in 2016 when the film was entered into the library of congress as a work that was “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Screenwriter Callie Khouri’s female led “buddy road trip” movie both subverted and exceeded expectations. The film acts as a barometer for the time period from which it is currently being analyzed. The feminism, and barriers that were present at the time of production and the initial reviews, have different arguments for the film’s merits and shortcomings than those who view the film retrospectively.  What was harsh criticism and resistance in the early 1990’s, may be nostalgically tempered today; even perceived as quaint. It is also important to recognize that Thelma and Louise is a seminally foundational film from which other filmmakers have scaffolded and parodied in the warmest heartfelt way


            Callie Khouri originally planned for Thelma and Louise to be an independent film, with herself serving as writer/director. But after shopping it around and finding no buyers, her producing partner arranged to have the script find its way (through a series of acquaintances) to Ridley Scott. Scott loved the script and bought the film rights for $500,000. Scott only decided to direct the film after Michelle Pfeiffer convinced him; she and Jodie foster were originally going to star in the film. Both would eventually drop out due to scheduling conflicts with other projects: Pfeiffer went on to star in Love Field and Foster went on to her award-winning turn as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. After their departure, other actors under consideration were Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn who also withdrew. During this time of protagonist uncertainty, Geena Davis was heavily campaigning for either role. Scott liked her, but did know for which part, feeding rumors about her being able to take either part if casting took too long.  Her chemistry with Sarandon clinched it, and they were off to the races.

            During the production of the film, the lighting and framing of some of the driving scenes were difficult. Much of which caused them not to be able to wear a lot of hats and glasses as the camera always had to find their faces. Sarandon, who did a lot of driving for many of the film’s shots, commented on how she was instructed to keep the camera shot between the side mirror and Davis as she drove.            

            In one of the insert essays for the immaculately sensuous 4k Criterion Blu-Ray release of Thelma and Louise, film critic Jessica Kiang (2023) marvels at the way costume designer Elizabeth McBride visually represents Thelma and Louise’s transformation through their attire. At each act break, the wardrobe of each principal character expresses their emotional state. In act one, both women are buttoned up and constrained, trapped in the lives that they are (at this point) momentarily escaping for a weekend. The inciting incident breaks both women, and afterwards, there is a change of clothes. Eventually by the third act:

“The makeup goes the way of the headscarves, which are replaced by battered hats bartered or stolen from men. Plain tanks and sleeveless tees come to be favored over girlish blouses and crisp shirts. Soon, the two rangy, tanned, double-denimed redheads in the dusty blue Ford are almost camouflaged against the stonewashed desert skies and the pink-orange sandstone bluffs” (Kiang 2023).

The transformation of our principal characters is visually expressed within the continuity of their clothes. They become unencumbered, unfettered, freer… even as this is juxtaposed by the dangers getting closer as the police close in.  According to Khouri (2011) they’ve went from invisible to, too big for the world to contain; all of which is visually represented in t-shirts, jeans and sunglasses.[1]  Indeed, the utter simplicity with which this is visually conveyed in small increments, is so remarkable that it almost seems meditative. Thelma and Louise are stripping off all the things that they were, to embrace their new surroundings. They emerge out of their hardened gender stereotypical shells revealing that they have taken on the aesthetics of the geography of their liberation: the American Southwest.

Second Wave Representation and the Impact on Third Wave Feminism

            According to Valenti (2007) Feminism can be defined as:

1.      The belief in the social, political, and economic equality of all the sex and gender identities within the gendered spectrum that incorporates an understanding of standpoint differences based upon age, race, class, disability, sexual orientation, cultural and religious ideology.

2.      An organization and socio-political movement around such a belief.

In discussing the overall history of the Feminist movement, and to delineate the changes in scope, goals, issues, and membership, several scholars and public intellectuals have organized the movement into a “wave model”.[2] During the development, shooting and release of Thelma and Louise, the United States was on the precipice of its third wave of Feminism.

            When the public thinks of “The Feminist Movement” they think of  “The Second Wave,” immortalized by names like Betty Friedan, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde. “The Second Wave” feminist movement coincided and overlapped with the Civil Rights movement beginning in the 1950’s. Motivated by the renewed domesticity of Post World War II, women, particularly white women, felt a non-specific malaise. This feeling was articulated by Betty Friedan (1963) as “the problem that has no name.” to describe the state of personal unfulfillment many women felt not having anything outside of embodying the roles of wives and mothers.

“The most glaring proof that, no matter how elaborate, “Occupation Housewife” is not an adequate substitute for truly challenging work, important enough to society to be paid for in its coin…having their husbands share the housework didn’t really compensate women for being shut out of the larger world.” (Friedan 1963: 350-351).

            This state of “profound unfulfillment” motivated the second wave feminists to fight for women’s ability to work outside the home, reproductive rights, abortion rights, representation in government, and rights to education; and against: the wage gap, sex discrimination, body image, hyper-sexualization, and sexual violence. This ultimately led to such victories as contraception access, equal pay acts, and federal body rights for women. These became the foundation with which women and their allies could build a third movement.


            Third Wave Feminism rose to prominence through the fighting back against the anti-feminist movement that rose out of the hyper conservative corporate cultural flavor of 1980’s individualism (Hyde Amendment, Bombing/ defunding of abortion clinics, murdering of abortion doctors). By 1987 85% of clinics provided no abortions.  It was a culture where Feminism became known as “The other F-word.” The Third Wave Feminism officially began during the outrage over the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas scandal.  This controversy, coupled with the shaming of Hill and the eventual appointment of Thomas to the Supreme Court, energized feminists into a new movement, sparking Rebecca Walker to coin the term "Third Wave” in 1992.

            The third panel of this Feminist Movement triptych, focused on the topics of language re-appropriation, body and sex positivity, intersectionality (problems and different realities living within a gendered system), social justice representation in popular culture, sexual harassment, rape culture, LGBTQAI rights, and "Girlie" Feminism.[3] At the time, this burgeoning new wave, bursting with youth and vitality (as all movements are initially) claimed many victories. They successfully staved off the weakening and repeal of Roe (something that would remain commonplace until its eventual repeal with the Dobbs decision in June of 2022). They helped to pass and implement the Sexual Harassment ban by creation of a ‘hostile environment’ in 1986. 1992 was deemed "The Year of the Woman", which saw the election of the most women elected to congress in US History at the time. Third wave feminists championed the federal ban against raping your wife in 1993, The Family Medical Leave Act 1993, the Violence Against Women Act 1994, and the illegality of FGM (female genital mutilation) in 1997. In popular culture, we also saw an increase in Feminist Icons: Madonna, Queen Latifah, Angelina Jolie, and characters like Buffy Summers and Xena, who like Thelma and Louise were not only feminist icons, but were also Queer claimed.   


“We don’t live in that kind of world Thelma.” Louise 


In Thelma and Louise, Thelma’s story arc is one that demarcates the transition from Second wave feminism, to the more radicalized third wave.  In the opening of the film, Thelma is the isolated and embattled housewife Friedan (1963) describes above. Marrying Darryl right out of high school, Thelma has little of an identity outside of the one she has cobbled together behind his back, primarily through her friendship with Louise. As the road trip begins, having never been on a vacation (presumably without her Husband) and not knowing what to pack, Thelma brings (almost) everything. Not knowing how to act, Thelma also begins to imitate Louise, playfully smoking a cigarette and declaring: “I’m Louise.” like a child copying their parent’s behavior to learn how to be an adult. This infantilism of Thelma continues when she suggests stopping for a drink before they continue to the cabin. The acquiescence of Louise is framed more as the capitulation of a mother to her daughter rather than another adult. “Ok, but it’s gonna be a quick stop.” Louise amends. An enraptured Thelma becomes a giddy schoolgirl bouncing in her seat.

            Thelma’s innocent, open and naïve nature becomes a plot device that moves the story forward; being the catalyst for the inciting incident and bridging the different acts of the film. Because of this, cheap, easy, and intellectually uninteresting criticisms full of victim-blaming were lauded at the film upon release in 1991. Rather, what Thelma’s arc depicts is the persistent virulence of a misogynistic rape culture that does not allow women to be open, honest, and trustworthy; without being harmed for putting that faith in people. This messaging was unfortunately drowned out in the public consciousness of the 1990s that saw Thelma’s victimization as a catalyst to grasp feminist power, which now has become a tired trope hung around the neck of every “strong female character” since. The public takeaway of Thelma’s attempted rape (and the implied rape Louise experienced in Texas) was not just that the patriarchal misogynistic cesspool of our culture destroys our belief in humanity (framed by Thelma’s feminized innocence); but that we need to break women of their femininity in order to make them worthy of (Masculine) power. Thus, after the attempted rape, Thelma baptizes herself in sex with a young robbing drifter, JD (Brad Pitt) and becomes born again. And after surviving the crucible of his sudden and inevitable betrayal (he steals their money) she is reforged into a liquor store robbing, cop threatening, truck exploding badass. Thelma, like Louise before her (in Texas), morphs from a second wave archetypical cautionary tale into a third wave paragon. “This is what a (third-wave) feminist (will) look like.”  



            A lot has been written about Thelma and Louise since its release. The initial criticism of the film by critics were eventually drowned out by the reclamation of the film in the eyes of the public. It is daunting to write about a film that is so much a part of the cultural and socio-political zeitgeist. A film that is used as a bridge between two subsequent eras of feminist liberation signifying its transformation without becoming overwhelmed and a pedantically glib facsimile of other work that is better written and researched. The film is even a part of academic discourse.  However, what seems to be missing in this discourse is a deconstruction of the patriarchy through an analysis of the film’s male characters, a focus on Adrianne Rich’s “The Lesbian Existence” not just through its queer reading (though we’ll talk about that kiss), but through the importance, and power of female friendships, and the main character’s liberation through masculinization that echoes the wisdom and warnings of Audre Lorde.

            “You get what you settle for.”- Louise

            Patriarchal Takedown: The Men of Thelma and Louise

            The male characters of Thelma and Louise are a cinematic rebuke of the misogynistic institutional shackles of marriage, family, and masculinity itself. From the extremes of Thelma’s husband, Darryl, to the Arkansas Detective, Hal, with Louise’s beau Jimmy, and honey trap JD in between. Each man represents a certain type of masculinity and how those masculinities co-exist (or not).

For this purpose, Masculinity can be defined as:

…simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender and the effect of these in the body experience, personality and culture [through] everyday conduct of life…in relation to a reproductive arena defined by the bodily structures and process of human reproduction. (Connell 1995: 71).

Darryl is the embodiment of the masculine stereotypes within the institution of marriage: a bumbling, philandering, oafish, meanspirited man, who barely rises to meet his own mediocrity. He is the archetype of a common and likely story: he peaked in high school, and imprisoned a smart, capable excitingly vibrant woman with the chains of matrimony.  Additionally, because traditional masculine gender socialization has robbed him of any knowledge of how to care for himself, or others, (he is a selfishly poor lover); he begins to fall to pieces once Thelma leaves. In other films, where this device is often employed to allow a (usually male) character to achieve an epiphany; and learn to treat their spouse with more care and attention, Darryl doubles down (albeit meekly) and attempts to use anger and threats to get Thelma to comeback, a tactic that, prior to the events of the film, would have worked. While this depiction is more believable than a sudden transformation that populates other (lesser) films, it also points to the way that masculinity only allows men to express the complexity of emotions through anger. He is scared, distracted and utterly clueless without a woman to guide him. As the final chase begins to escalate to its climax, we cut to Darryl one final time and push in on his void and vacant face. He is dumbfounded. He is lost.  

Jimmy is the epitome of Masculine domestic violence. He classically fits into the behaviors of the power and control wheel of sexual violence.  He is sweet and caring one minute, explosively violent the next. He is willing to help wire some money to Louise (out of her own account). But when she goes to pick up the money, she also finds Jimmy, because his help always has strings attached. He sternly banishes JD and sidelines Thelma so that he can be alone with Louise. In their hotel room, she doesn’t want to confide in him what happened, so he violently throws a tantrum of an insecure man with arrested development. When Louise rightly attempts to leave, he blocks her exit and gives her an engagement ring. This whiplash reaction is common with domestic abusers and is a textbook example of the cycle of violence.

Typical cycle of physical domestic violence


1)      Unrealistic Standards or expectations in the relationship (involves coercion)

2)      Verbal abuse (yelling, screaming)

3)      Threat of Physical attack (“I’ll kill you.” “Don’t make me beat the shit out of you”) which may include destroying property

4)       Actual Attack- One hit or multiple, closed fist , open fist, with an object, sexual or not, doesn’t matter

5)       Remorse from Attacker:  minimizing/denying the attack and/or blaming the victim. The police may or may not be called “It will never happen again”

6)       Unresolved Action: Fear of leaving attacker, forgiveness, internalizing blame, not pressing charges (Cycle then starts over).


The morning after the violence in the hotel room, Jimmy is back on the cycle in his remorseful contrition stage; telling Louise that he won’t tell anyone where she and Thelma are, where they are going, or that he’s even seen them. Louise blithely asks if he took a drug that made him say “all the right things.” (implying that he regularly doesn’t). It is in this moment of serenity that Jimmy, again, brings up the ring. With the gentleness of talking to a small, wounded child; Louise quietly says: “Why don’t you hold on to this for me.” And pushes the ring and (metaphorically) him away.  The last we see of Jimmy is him being confronted by the cops to interrogate him about Thelma and Louise’s whereabouts. Yet, unlike his promise, it is later revealed by Hal that he told the cops everything that he knew.  Whether that was a ploy to get Louise to come back to him (assuming they were caught), or as punishment for her rejection of him, remains to be seen.


            JD is the female gazey incel that entices naïve sex-starved Thelma into a romantic dalliance, so that he can rob her. Thelma is clearly his target, setting up their meet cute for just after she tells Darryl, in a phone call, to go fuck himself. In another instance, he leans over while purposefully being backlit from the setting sun from Thelma’s side mirror vantage point. All of this to trap her in a honey pot scam.  However, unbeknownst to him, Thelma is motivated toward the same passionate interlude to free herself from the fear of the assault and attempted rape, so she can reclaim her body. JD’s actions have a two-pronged effect: It complicates Thelma and Louise’s plans to get to Mexico, forcing them to begin robbing from convenience stores and other people, while it also provides Thelma with an (orgasmic) catalyst for her soulful and spiritual awakening. The audience is left to determine if this nonconsensual prostitution payment was money well “spent”[4]

            Hal, the police officer, is the film’s attempt at a male savior. In his initial investigation he believes that the shooting was in self-defense, and in the face of mounting additional evidence, supports them being brought in. He understands both Thelma and Louise’s circumstances and what led them to make their decisions.  At the end of the film, he is pleading with the FBI field officer (Steven Tobolowsky) to not let the police shoot them, screaming: “How many times does this woman [Louise] have to be fucked over?!” We last see Hal as he desperately runs after the Thunderbird in vain, as it launches off the cliff and into the Canyon.           

  The last man in the film worth talking about is “Earl”, the truck driver. He is the personified caricature of “toxic” masculinity’s sexual objectification of women. Every encounter he has with Thelma and Louise on the road is disgusting. He leers, hoots, hollers, makes obscene gestures, and verbally harasses them in aggressively sexual ways. Yet, when they lure him to pull over, being an oblivious imbecile who only sees women as things for his pleasure, he believes he’s walking into a possible three way. Even when Thelma and Louise give him a chance to apologize for his lewd behavior, he aggressively refuses.  When they shoot out his tires in response, he gets irater, prompting them to blow up his tanker truck in feminist cathartic retaliation.                

In looking at the intersections of masculinity, a greater light can be shined on these men when looking at their interactions with each other. Among them, Darryl is less confident, and preoccupied with cost and inconvenience, more so than his wife’s safety. In meeting him, Hal is so unimpressed that he just finds him comical, laughing at his antics and somewhat shocked by his ineptitude. Jimmy folds like laundry under the slightest police pressure, while clearly dismissing JD upon meeting him.  It is also no surprise that Darryl, is the one to be cuckhold by JD. This is framed as the ultimate insult and the obliteration of Darryl’s fragile masculinity. As he is being led out of questioning, JD mentions to Darryl in passing: “I really liked your wife.” This sends Darryl into the most explosive tirade yet, having to be held back by four police officers from attacking JD, who from a comfortable distance away, begins to mock Darryl with sexually suggestive gestures. However, JD’s suave and swagger instantly crumbles when he is stuck alone in a room with Hal. Hal proceeds to treat JD like a sniveling child, berating and threatening him. Hal tells him: “If anything happens to them, I will hold you directly responsible for your part of it. Your ruin will be my God Damn mission in Life!” He, like Jimmy, acquiesces to Hal’s authority and masculinity.    



            Sometimes, “The Lesbian Existence” is just “Friendship” 😉    

            The Feminist impact of Thelma and Louise cannot be overstated. Regardless of the fact that the stars and filmmakers never intended to make an exclusively feminist film, the public ownership and social consequences as such, makes it one (thank you WI Thomas). This feminism is empowered by Thelma and Louise’s friendship.  

In a Previous Essay, I explain Adrianne Rich’s “The Lesbian Existence”:

In her article, Rich exclaims:


“Lesbian existence comprises both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is also a direct or indirect attack on male right of access to women. But it is more than these, although we may first begin to perceive it as a form of nay-saying to patriarchy, an act of resistance. It has of course included role playing, self-hatred, breakdown, alcoholism, suicide, and intrawoman violence; we romanticize at our peril what it means to love and act against the grain, and under heavy penalties; and lesbian existence has been lived (unlike, say, Jewish or Catholic existence) without access to any knowledge of a tradition, a continuity, a social underpinning. The destruction of records and memorabilia and letters documenting the realities of lesbian existence must be taken very seriously as a means of keeping heterosexuality compulsory for women, since what has been kept from our knowledge is joy, sensuality, courage, and community, as well as guilt, self-betrayal, and pain”

As the term "lesbian" has been held to limiting, clinical associations in its patriarchal definition, female friendship and comradeship have been set apart from the erotic, thus limiting the erotic itself. But as we deepen and broaden the range of what we define as lesbian existence, as we delineate a lesbian continuum, we begin to discover the erotic in female terms: as that which is unconfined to any single part of the body or solely to the body itself, as an energy not only diffuse but, as Audre Lorde has described it, omnipresent in "the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic," and in the sharing of work; as the empowering joy which "makes us less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial[7]


Rich identifies in this stitched together passage, (as in the article as a whole) that in a patriarchal system women are taught to see other women as a source of contention and competition for male attention (Thus making heterosexuality compulsory through socialized behaviors, reinforced by rewards from social structural institutions (Marriage, family, Military economy etc.)), and denying the reality of the power women have among and with each other by placing undue emphasis on the type and nature of a relationship rather than what that relationship provides for the individuals involved. Thus, women are socially trained through compulsory heterosexuality and patriarchal oppression that the most important relationships that they have are with men, and that all other relationships are secondary within this structure.

  The journey that Thelma and Louise go on, is one that sees a relinquishing of their primary relationships with men, while understanding “the lesbian power” of their relationship with each other. The arc of both Thelma and Louise is one of amalgamation. Throughout the course of the film, they blur and blend into each other; becoming the same unified person, together in the same place, just by different roads.

Thelma, in the beginning of the film, actively looks up to Louise and sweetly emulates her because she has no other role models, or really any relationships outside of Darryl.  Thelma’s journey is punctuated by the lines of dialogue said to her that she repeats in a different context.  The first time that she stands up to Darryl she uses the words Louise gave her, and when she decides to hold up a convenience store, she cribs word for word what JD said to her the night before.  Through these experiences, Thelma becomes harder and a little less trusting. Whereas Louise’s edges soften a little and she becomes more introspective (Syme 2023). However, the credit and power of the “Lesbian Existence” is displayed when Thelma and Louise have these heartfelt exchanges:


Louise: I think I fucked up. I think I got us in a situation where we both could get killed. I don’t know why I didn’t just go to the police right away.


Thelma:  You know why. You already said. No one would believe us. We could still get in trouble, still have our lives ruined. You know what else, that guy was hurting me. If you hadn’t come out when you did, he would have hurt me a lot worse, and probably nothing would have happened to him because people saw me dancing with him all night. They would have made out like I asked for it. My life would have been ruined a heck of a lot worse than it is now. At least now I’m having some fun, and I am not sorry that son-of-a-bitch is dead, I’m just sorry it was you who did it and not me.



Thelma: I know this whole thing was my fault!

Louise: Damn it, Thelma! You should know by now that none of this was your fault!


Thelma: Louise, I want you to know whatever happens, I’m glad I came with you.



Thelma: I guess I went a little Crazy, huh?!

Louise: No, you were always this crazy. This is just the first time you’ve had to really express yourself.



These examples are of two women supporting each other, validating their choices, and moving in lock step with each other.  After the film’s release, Thelma and Louise became the paragons of female friendships for its audience. As they clasped their hands and rocketed into the Grand Canyon, they were subsequently launched into the future.  It is not much of a stretch to think if you mined the Photo albums of the late 90’s, they would show women, best friends, sisters, lovers (possibly unrequited) jumping off sand dunes, diving boards, out of planes, or the faces of cliffs, mimicking the final moments of the film in solidarity with Thelma, Louise, and all women. This moment is so powerfully iconic, that it has not only been recreated in the lives of many young people at the time, but across popular culture.  

Queer Coded and Claimed

            When looking at the basic plot structure of Thelma and Louise, it is obviously a queer coded story. A quick and easy queer reading of the story could be: Two women, unsatisfied with their lives with their heterosexual male partners, decide to go off for a weekend alone. As they leave their lives behind them and begin to relax, they are haunted and hunted by the heterosexist white male patriarchy in the forms of a would-be rapist, Truck driver, and the army of police and federal agents after them. The story that unfolds is allegorically damning their love and annihilating their existence. First, they are enticed with the bait of the heterosexual female gaze, in the form of JD. Then, the patriarchy tries overt objectification through the Truck Driver. But at every turn Thelma and Louise choose resistance and coupleship, each refusing to leave the other’s side. In the final moments of the film, when the police are ready to assassinate them, to put an end to their queer subversion; Thelma and Louise know that if they surrender and are somehow not murdered by the army at their back, that they will be separated, never to see each other again. Rather than life in a heterosexist patriarchal cage, torn from the one they love, Thelma and Louise choose love and death on their own terms. With their fate decided, the passion they have held for each other finally breaks free of its heteronormative bonds and they share a short but intense kiss of romance, recognition, and resolve. They choose love over the cage that was their former lives.

Examples of Queer Coded Dialogue:


Thelma: You’re not gonna give up on me, are you?

Louise: Thelma, I’m not making any deals.

Thelma: In a way I get it, that way you’ll have something to go back to [beat] with Jimmy.

Louise: Jimmy’s not an option.

Thelma: Listen, something has…crossed over in me. I just can’t go back.

Louise: I know. I know what you mean.


Two: (very next scene)

Thelma: You awake?

Louise: I guess you could say that; my eyes are open.

Thelma: Me too, I feel awake.

Louise: Good.

Thelma: Wide awake. I don’t remember feeling this awake, you know what I mean? Everything looks different. You ever feel that way, like you have something to look forward to?

Louise: We’ll be drinking Margaritas by the sea, mamacita.    



Thelma: What are you doing?

Louise: {Loads and chambers her pistol] Look, I’m not giving up.

Thelma: Ok, then. Listen, let’s not get caught.

Louise: What are you talking about?

Thelma: Keep going.

Louise: What do you mean?

Thelma: [Gestures to the cliff] Go.

Louise: [Smiling and Crying] You sure?

Thelma: [Nods] Yeah. Yeah.

Louise Grabs Thelma and Kisses her.


            One of the reasons this dialogue can be queer coded and not explicit is due to the historical time period of its release. At the time of the film’s production, in the US, gays and lesbians were scapegoated into being the cause of the AIDS epidemic, labeling it “the gay plague”. With the moral objection to non-heterosexual sexualities increasing as AIDs case numbers rose, mainstream popular culture was reticent to explicitly provide open and direct queer representation without fear of reprisals.[5] Therefore, the LGBTQAI+ community had to comb film, TV, music and other popular culture for subtextual breadcrumbs in order to satisfy their hunger. Yet, even today, while the Queer community are not starving for representation, they have never had a full meal.  In 2021, the annual GLAAD report on representation in media found that only 20.8% of films that year contained LGBTQ characters. However, this was not equally distributed throughout the group. Most of these characters were gay men with Bisexual and Trans people having the least representation among them. This decreased even further when the report factored in race and had no representation of non-heterosexuals with disabilities. Secondarily, even when representation is achieved it is usually in declaration only. Many gay characters today are not allowed to be gay. Even with 20% representation in 2021, far fewer numbers are also showing affection, the dating process, romantic rejection, fights, and reconciliation. Basically, being gay without showing it.  At least with Thelma and Louise we got a kiss before dying… That’s more than some studios will allow, even today. [6]


            Thelma and Louise: Appropriating tools to knock down the House

In a heterosexist white male Patriarchy the escalation of violence is the result of noncompliance, not compassion and empathy. Therefore, what started out as a clear action of self-defense, accelerates into an inter-state chase, robbery, and assault, because the Masculine institution of The Criminal Justice System can not be compromised with, nor will it reckon with its misogyny and rape culture, the components of which, are the reason Thelma and Louise decided to flee in the first place. When developing the film, writer Callie Khouri talked to police officers and asked them what would be said to alleged criminals once cornered.

She put their response in the film, verbatim:

Any failure to obey our commands will be considered an act of aggression against us.    

She might as well have had the police say “Signed, “The Patriarchy””          


            As Thelma and Louise slough off their traditional femininity (Thelma more so than Louise) and break free from the patriarchal power and control that has ruled or overshadowed their lives for so long; they also begin to accumulate items, behaviors and attitudes that are more masculine. With each set piece in the film, they shed a little more of tradition, and move away from acceptable femininity. As stated earlier, this can be read as the adoption of a gender fluid and queer coded context. But it also can be seen as an attempt to use the tools of the oppressor against them. Couple this with the uncompromising nature of the system, and the result is when an unstoppable force (Unbridled Feminism) meets an immovable object (The Patriarchy). Unfortunately, Thelma and Louise learn that the more they push back against the carceral system and actively resist using the tools of violence they have acquired, might keep them going, but it won’t provide liberation.

Audre Lorde (2007) said it best:

The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but it will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

 Thelma and Louise aren’t changing the world with their actions, they are just trying to eke out an existence based upon the terrible choices they have been given.  As horrible as choices can be, like the choice between getting shot or driving off a cliff, bad; you still have to make them. Thelma and Louise choose the latter, because even though the master’s tools won’t ever dismantle the master’s house, it doesn’t mean that you have to live there.    



Thelma and Louise is an iconic Feminist Masterpiece.  A generation later, it is still inspiring and foundational to both individuals, communities and causes.  The more you watch, the deeper the analysis and appreciation goes. The filmmakers believed that they cracked a glass ceiling with the success of this film and that more films like it would flow from the breech. While we have seen a steady increase in female led films in a variety of genres, there has never been another Thelma or Louise. They remain frozen in mid-air on their pedestal, daring us to follow them.   




Connell R. W. 1995. Masculinities California: University of California Press

Friedan Betty 1963.  The Feminine Mystique New York:  W.W. Norton and Company Press

Khouri Callie 2011. “20th Anniversary Edition: Callie Khouri Looks Back on Thelma & Louise.” In Script Magazine retrieved at

Kiang, Jessica 2023. “Three Routes through Thelma and Louise: How The West Was Won.” New York: The Criterion Collection   

Lorde, Audre 2007. “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider California, Crossing Press

Scott, Ridley 1991. Thelma and Louise MGM

Syme, Rachel 2023. “Three Roads through Thelma and Louise: Bringing to Life.” In Current New York: The Criterion Collection

Valenti, Jessica 2007. Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters New York: Seal Press

[1] I’ll come back to this idea of clothing again in Social Analysis

[2]  There is a legitimate argument against organizing feminism into particular waves According to Rory Dicker (2008):


                       "Approaching Feminism as a collective project aimed at eradicating sexism and domination seems the most practical way to continue feminist work. Quibbling about which wave we are in now or in whether I think of myself as a second, third, or fourth waver hardly seems a good use of my limited time; instead, I'd like to see sustained feminist activism performed by young, middle-aged and old women-separately or better yet, together."



[3] An attempt to reclaim feminine beauty and body norms as feminist and not just a symbol of traditional patriarchal gender norms.

[4] Plus, it would take A LOT more than $6000 to sleep with Brad Pitt nowadays 

[5] Much of the direct queer representation came a little later in the 90’s but were mainly independent films

[6] I am looking at you Disney! Also, does that count as a “Bury your Gays” trope if the Queer representation is coded and claimed rather than explicit?