Sexism Or Sweet Revenge? Some See The Film "Thelma & Louise" As Anti-men. Others Call It A Celebration Of Sisterhood. As You Might Expect, The Sex Of The Speaker Makes Most Of The Difference.

Posted: July 05, 1991

Alot of women love Thelma & Louise. It doesn't much matter who they are or where they stand on feminism, white males or housework. They just love it.

Judith Shapiro is provost of Bryn Mawr College. Gypsy is a couch dancer at the Fantasy Showbar in Mount Ephraim. Both women like the same things about the film: the part where Geena Davis (as Thelma) holds up the convenience store, and also the ending, where Davis and Susan Sarandon (Louise) decide that the only way out is - out.

"If you have a goal in life, go for it!" said Gypsy. "They didn't back down."

Many men, on the other hand, hate Thelma & Louise.

Maybe it's because of what Louise does to the rapist. Or because of what they both do to that long, shiny, cylindrically shaped oil truck, driven by that disgusting idiot with the twirling tongue.

"All males in this movie exist only to betray, ignore, sideswipe, penetrate or arrest our heroines," sniped John Leo in U.S. News & World Report.

The movie was "scary to a guy like me who's never even yelled at a woman more than a couple times in my life," said South Carolina journalist George Shadroui. "Man, I'm afraid to look at women on the street now."

Such clashing views have made T&L the "talk of the summer" and the subject of "white-hot debate," according to Time, which featured a smug- looking Davis and Sarandon on last week's cover.

(It was a strange week for the sexes. Newsweek's cover was about the ''men's movement" for males who seem confused about their masculine roles. It featured a photo of a hairy-chested man holding a baby on one arm and a bongo drum on the other, and wearing a tie.)

Maybe without even meaning to, said Time, the creators of Thelma & Louise ''sank a drill into what appeared to be familiar American soil and found that they had somehow tapped into a wild-rushing subterranean stream of inchoate outrage and deranged violence."

But what is the outrage that T&L has tapped, and what message is it trying to get across? Lunch chats, dinner conversations and pillow talks have been dominated by those questions for weeks.

On the surface, Thelma & Louise is just a female remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Bonnie and Clyde. (Bonnie and Bonnie, it's been dubbed.)

It begins with housewife Thelma and waitress Louise leaving an oppressive husband and Peter Pan boyfriend behind for an innocent weekend trip to a fishing lodge.

On their way, during a light-hearted stop at a country and western dance bar, the plot takes an abrupt and dark twist. Thelma is very nearly raped by a sleazoid named Harlan; a gun is drawn and Harlan is dispatched.

The shooting sends Thelma and Louise on a run-from-the-law race across the badlands of the Southwest in Louise's green Thunderbird. During the ride, the pair become exhilaratingly free female crooks. They commit various forms of mayhem, often against men. Along the way, they discard ethics, makeup, cute outfits and any need for the male sex.

So what's the big deal?

Almost to a woman, those who like the movie observe that if the characters were men, or if this were simply another movie about males bashing women, moviegoers would shrug.

There's no controversy when films "depict women being done in or women as

whores," said Chris Niebrzydowski, president of Pennsylvania NOW, which even now is ordering a batch of "Graduate of the Thelma and Louise Finishing School" T-shirts for sale at the national NOW convention in New York next month.

Another camp, though, finds T&L to be anti-male, if for no other reason than that all but one of its male characters are real jerks.

"Sisterhood bash-a-thon," said the Los Angeles Times. The work of "the most alienated radical feminists," said U.S. News & World Report.

"I'm not arguing there aren't men like that out there," said Shadroui, 33 and single, who saw and hated the film in Philadelphia. But "I don't relate to women that way. I've been a victim of women as much as women have been a victim of me."

Anti-maleness aside, what is the essential statement of Thelma & Louise? That women are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore? That crime doesn't pay?

"It's a kind of tragedy; it gives the message that if you go against the system, this is how you end up . . . Look what happens when you leave the house," said Diane Singerman of the women's studies program at Drexel University.

Actually, said syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman in an interview, Thelma & Louise zeroes in on the "great deal of (social) change going on.

"We know that women are fed up with guys doing what a lot of the guys in that movie did. You see it in some of the stuff that is going on about date rape . . . The movie is saying, 'Don't f- around with me.' "

Cathy Noyes, a Chester County homemaker, agrees with Goodman:

"Stand up for yourself. That's what it's all about."

So this means Thelma & Louise is a feminist movie, right?

That depends on who's talking. Feminist Gloria Steinem loved the film, which she felt had "more truth per square inch than five years of standard Hollywood fare . . . (Men are) afraid that we will do to them what for all these years they've been doing to us, but they should rest assured. We don't want to be like them."

Bryn Mawr provost Shapiro, though, found the film's representation of males ''a little regressive. I think there's a lot of feminism around that emphasizes stereotypes about men and women. My feeling is that if that is what feminism does, who needs sexism?"

Gypsy, of the Fantasy Showbar, whose job is to dance nude beneath a robe in front of men seated on a couch, "didn't see anything feminist about (Thelma & Louise) anyway. I heard no feminist remarks."

On the other hand, the 20-year-old dancer noted, the film's heroines ''didn't take any help from the men."

While "every man needs a woman," she observed, "women don't have to have a man."

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