“Thelma & Louise” seems to be intended to serve as an inversion of the “buddy movie” genre that was popular in the late 1960s and 1970s. The male buddy movie revolves around two men embarking on a series of adventures with female characters marginalized or sometimes even non-existent. The Freudian subtext of these films was one of repressed homosexuality coming to the fore through the actions of bonding without the necessity of a woman to validate their heterosexuality. Robin Wood takes his analysis a step further with his assertion that “the basic motivating premise of the ’70s buddy movie is not the presence of the male relationship but the absence of home.” Women never had to worry about the absence of home and “Thelma & Louise” makes this concrete in the concept that their journey is not about finding a home at the end, but escaping the suffocation of patriarchal domination.
This domination that begins at home commences from the opening frames of the film. Thelma is quite literally under the thumb of a domineering husband. Louise’s situation is revealed to be that of submission to the prevailing order that places men in control and women as servants; she works as a waitress. The film quickly locates home not as a place to which most women would long to return, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, but as burden to escape. There is nothing specifically peculiar to the early 1990s in this regard; the film could be made today or could it have been made in the 1930s as a Warner Brothers gangster film. As the sign in the original Scarface promises Tony Camonte: The World is Yours.
Thelma & Louise, then, fits more closely into the gangster movie genre than the buddy picture as they too come to believe and pursue that ultimately empty promise. In the buddy movie, the men have it all from the beginning. Even if they have nothing, it is still a man’s world so they still have the upper hand. The gangster genre presents a man’s world as well, but the dominant theme in that genre that is missing from many buddy movies is the establishment of authority. Thelma & Louise do not embark upon a journey to locate home; the climax proves there is no home in America that is not a return to the status quo. Their overwhelming desire is to, just for a brief period, assign domination to the matriarchy. The drive over the cliff is a validation of their acknowledgement that such domination can only be fleeting in America and it is also an acknowledgement of their refusal to return home to the burden of submission to that male domination.
Thelma & Louise is such a disturbing portrait of the realities of American society because the two characters are drawn with such complexity. It might be easier to accept their tragic fate if they were mere stereotypes of women commonly referred to as doormats; if they were women who’d been victims of domestic abuse. The fact that Thelma and Louise are intelligent, engaging women only serves to underline the fact that patriarchal dominance is systemic in America.