David Reynolds recent book on popular culture, Beneath the American Renaissance, with its companion biography of Walt Whitman, argue somewhat onesidedly that the great canonical texts of that era really are the product of their authors’ immediate popular culture and not part of any great stream of elite literature at all. He argues that even Moby Dick owes more to popular novels about whaling in the 1840s than it does to Job, Jonah, or Shakespeare.
This is an extreme position, well argued, which has the appeal of downplaying the importance of so-called high culture and elevating popular culture in its stead. In Reynolds’ reading, each era’s culture, popular and elite together, is almost a closed system, with very few ties to the past. This approach has the advantage of blurring the elite/pop culture distinction. But it has the disadvantage of blurring historical contingencies and robbing our texts of their significations from larger contexts.
I wish to defend another model, a more traditional one, in which the elite texts of one generation influence the popular culture of the next. Elite culture, after all, is always avant garde, always in rebellion against tradition, always rejecting the past. It has to if it is to stay ahead of the mob. Once its ideas become generally accepted, the elite move on, but that is when the themes are picked up by popular novels and played in the movie houses where their debt to elite culture is often obscured by the immediacy of the lens through which we tend to analyze popular texts.
My example, today, is the film, “Thelma and Louise,” which came out to popular acclaim and feminist adulation in 1991. I saw it for the first time myself in Bratislava, Slovakia, with Czech subtitles, and I was, like so many back home in the states, instantly entranced. My Slovak students on the other hand, not being as saturated with the traditions of American culture as we are, didn’t get it.
The film begins with Thelma and Louise, (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis), tired of their lives, trapped in stale jobs, stale relationships, eager to get away from it all, if only for a weekend. They make a small break from the structure of their lives, but in the process they find themselves propelled further and further outside of structure. Daring to stop and grab a bite at a honky-tonk truck stop, they cross limitas, a dangerous portal into another realm, much like the bar scenes in Kidnapped or “Star Wars.” There, they are pursued by a would-be rapist, who is shot by Louise before he can rape Thelma. They then run for it.
And as they run, they get deeper and deeper into trouble, further and further outside the law. They lose their cash to J.D. (Bradd Pitt), a hitchhiking cowboy, and have to rob a convenience store to get more. And the police are on their tails. They lock one officer, who stops them on the highway, in his own trunk after stealing his gun. And they blow up the very symbolic gas truck of a truckdriver who harasses them.
All of this takes place in the desert southwest as they head toward Mexico. And while the literal plot is unfolding, so is another plot. Both women are discovering the terror and the excitement of being on their own, outside the law, for the very first time completely, wildly independent and free. They have stepped outside not just of the legal structure and the social structure but of structure itself. They are letting go, and the experience is awful.
While Thelma is robbing the convenience store, Louise notices two made-up matrons in a shop looking at her sitting in the car, and she starts to put her old face back on. But after a few seconds of trying to apply lipstick and stroking back her hair, she throws the lipstick out the car, giving up on the attempt to fit in.
Liberated by her experience robbing the convenience store, Thelma says she has discovered her calling, “the Call of the Wild.” But she isn’t there yet. “Thelma,” says Louise, “you gotta stop being so open. We’re fugitives now. You gotta start acting like that.” The next morning, Louise stands on a hill in the dawn and we see in her eyes as she silently watches the sun rise that she is experiencing some sort of epiphany. Further down the road, she takes off her watch and earrings and hands them to an old man sitting by the road who stares silently at her in confused wonder.
Eventually, with their car facing the Grand Canyon and the police in back, they have to decide between ultimate structure, jail, and the unknown ultimate freedom over the edge. So over they go, and at the end the camera stops the scene with the car still in the air, still ascending.
By and large, feminists loved the movie. And most of the critical acclaim interpreted the film from a feminist perspective. The review in “Cineaste” summed up the major questions: “Is Thelma & Louise a male nightmare of emasculating women run amok? Is it a parable of female bonding? Or is it women breaking their chains and liberating themselves?”
But all of this assumes that the film can be interpreted only from the immediate perspective of the politics and social milieu of the 1990s. Like Reynolds, it looks at the immediate culture for its context of meaning. But by doing so, it misses a crucial aspect of what is going on, the aspect I argue that accounts for its peculiarly American popularity.
For Thelma and Louise actually fits very neatly into a pattern found throughout popular American culture which has roots not in the feminist movement of the recent era but in the patriarchal culture of Puritanism. It is, in short, a conversion narrative, a modern “Narrative of the Captivity of Mary Rowlandson,” all the more powerful because the imagery and language and setting and plot fit the traditional pattern perfectly without overt mention ever being made. To understand the movie, it is necessary to say a few words about the tradition out of which it comes, the wilderness tradition of American puritan literature.
In this tradition, the goal of human life is seen as a need to escape from the artificial cages of cultural construction, what the theologians called “worldliness.”. Human civilization with all of its literature and laws and empires is seen to be a shallow affair at best, an illusion at worst. Each human born into a specific culture as it were wears a virtual reality helmet which dictates the part that person must play within a particular time and place. We are all here seen, as Shakespeare saw us, as actors strutting our momentary part upon the stage, playing defined parts.
To escape from this lie was the goal of the Puritan conversion. To break out of the false constructions of “worldliness” and to break on through to the other side was the whole point of all that hell-fire and damnation. In the conversion experience, sinners first awoke to the reality of being caught up in a false construct. They then stepped out of that construct into the terror of not having any construct, outside of identity and outside of the beliefs that had always sustained them. They wandered there, in near madness, in the hope that some spirit from outside the human cage would come and fill the emptied soul with new light and new birth.
In this, the Puritans identified typologically with the Children of Israel in their sojourn out of Egypt, into the wilderness, and across the wilderness to the promised land. They read this Biblical narrative on two levels: first as an historical narrative of God’s chosen people in real historical time; and second as a typological symbol of the crucifixion of Christ in the new Testament. In that typological reading, Egypt is a type of worldly structure, the Children of Israel are types of Christ, the trials of the wilderness are a type of the crucifixion, and the crossing into the Promised Land is a type of the Resurrection.
The compelling narrative of all Puritan literature was the insistence that sinners, like Christ and like the Children of Israel, must also leave behind the structures of the world, enter into the wilderness in which they learn to abandon all of their old dependencies, and finally achieve a mystic vision as they cross over from the wilderness to a freedom in which each newly awakened individual stands alone upon the very ground of ultimate being.
Thus, one of the most enduring patterns of American fiction is that of the hero thrown out of structure into the wilderness where he becomes an outlaw and is forced to abandon the old dependencies and recreate himself from scratch. The American cowboy in the desert is a typological symbol. Often, for reason Charles Feidelson has already explained, these heroes come in pairs.
Thus, Thelma and Louise are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in drag. Their journey is an absolutely classic example of what has often been demonstrated as a major motif in American writing, the buddies heading out together into the wilderness away from structure, away from conventional civilization and responsibilities, sometimes into romantic destruction in the quest for “freedom,” sometimes (like Huck and Jim) into an uncertain future which at least hints of hope, sometimes to return as heroes. What so fascinates about Thelma and Louise isn’t any feminine innovation but the sight of two women playing the classic outlaw roles usually reserved for males. They leave their families, their jobs, and they head out literally into a wilderness, and they are forced further outside of structure the further they get. The wilderness is the symbol of the unstructured realm into which they are moving, as it always has been since the children of Israel left Egypt. Louise even has a mystic awakening, which she names, in the wilderness.
Yes, she kills a man, and the feminists see empowerment. But it is not a unique female empowerment. The gun has always been an American symbol of individual empowerment. That is why the NRA is so strong. And why males in American literature have often been on the side of the revolt against structure. If Huck seems old hat, look at Randle P. McMurphy, another hero/quester outlaw who, like Thelma and Louise, has his momentary victories and dies in a manner that suggests worldly loss but cosmic victory. Come to think of it, Kesey consciously made McMurphy a Christ figure too. Doesn’t the Christian construct suggest a stand against and a pointing beyond structure? Not all Christianity is what Niebuhr called the “Christ of culture” variety. In American Christianity, the “Christ against culture” is a pretty strong tradition too.
Thelma and Louise, in their sojourn, follow this pattern perfectly, and they do it in exactly that locale which was the site of such transformations from the Old Testament to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards to the texts of the American Renaissance, in the desert wilderness. Their old lives, marriages, jobs are the Egyptian structure they must break out of. They step aside for what they think will be only a weekend, but instead they find themselves descending into a wilderness which carries them outside of structure and outside of the law. As they proceed into the wilderness, they lose everything, at first unwillingly, but eventually they willingly surrender as when Louise takes off her rings and watch and hands them to the old man sitting by the side of the road. When she tries nervously to put on her face and then tosses the lipstick out of the car, she has passed over.
The music plays Marianne Faithful’s “Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” a song of abandoned illusions, as the car speeds through the desert night. When Louise stands with her eyes wide open and sees the dawn, she sees the reality outside of herself, just as Jonathan Edwards had said sinners become awakened in the wilderness to the greater reality outside of the finite texts of the self.
Later, Thelma too crosses over. She tells Louise, “Something’s like crossed over in me and I can’t go back.” Soon after, as they are racing along, Thelma asks Louise if she is awake. Yes, she replies, “I guess you could call it that. My eyes are open.”
Thelma responds, “I feel awake…wide awake. I don’t remember ever feelin’ this awake. Everything looks different. You feel like that too? Like you got something to look forward to?”
So there it is: to be awakened in the wilderness is to be born again from a person seeing the world through the old eyes of old structure to a person reborn into a whole new perception of the creation. This is the very language and imagery that Jonathan Edwards used. It is the same language and imagery that Thoreau took from him.
In the end, Thelma and Louise are forced to choose between absolute Egyptian structure, jail, or the mystic freedom of release from the body. With a line straight out of Huck Finn, Thelma says, “Let’s not get caught. Let’s keep going.” They choose, not death, for that is never mentioned or shown, but to light out to an unknown territory. They pass from the literal into the spiritual wilderness as they gun their car over the edge of the Grand Canyon. The movie ends appropriately with the car ascending, not with the crash on the rocks below. Again, the reference to the resurrection is blatant.
Thus, what we have here is a very popular movie which appeals on an immediate political level to feminists who cheer the way in which two women in fact take the traditional male role in a traditional male narrative. But beyond that immediate appeal is an appeal to traditional, perhaps universal, cultural themes and values. The movie works because it works on both levels, as all art must. And in the process it provides us with an example of the endurance of some of the religious themes and imagery with which the continent was settled even in the most secular artifacts of popular culture.
When I launched an early version of this analysis on the American Studies listserv group on the internet, I started a long thread in which one of the repeated themes of those who disliked my analysis was the insistence that any interpretation be kept within the context of 1990s feminism, to keep it rooted, as Reynolds tried to do, in the immediate culture.
Thelma and Louise flee, I was told, into what Elaine Showalter calls “a female wild zone, a cultural space unintelligible to men.” The reason, I was told, they flee to the wilderness in the first place is because they are convinced that a male justice system won’t understand why killing the rapist was OK. My attempt to transcend gender categories and universalize their experience by making it an escape from a larger cultural cage robbed the film of its immediate political punch and was therefore suspect. I understand this point of view. But I argue today that to keep interpretation within the narrow confines of the immediate and specific also robs it of its greater meaning and robs us all of a chance to understand ourselves.
One of the writers in the listserv group wrote in rebuttal of my religious interpretation of the ending, “Perhaps most interesting in terms of the ‘cultural web’ was the rejection of this ending by wearers of the feminist buttons: ‘Thelma and Louise Live.'”
But at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the death/resurrection interpretation of the end, with all its romanticism, is hardly “rejected” by a button saying “T & L Live.” Does a button saying “Jesus Lives” imply a rejection of the crucifixion? We need to understand the way in which in American/Christian discourse the physical death is a liberation into eternal life to appreciate the power of this scene. From a material point of view, death and life are unalterably opposed; one “rejects” the other and hence a button saying they live rejects the idea of their death.. But we need to take the theological position into account too. McMurphy lives; Elvis lives; Jerry also lives. So Thelma and Louise are in good ol’ American company. They have joined the other good ol’ resurrected boys of American culture. The feminist critics want to make them exceptional, but they belong to American culture in its most traditional forms. The button “Thelma and Louise lives” shows that even those who intend their meanings within an immediate political context are despite themselves still caught up in the larger, universal themes too.
The wilderness for Americans remains, not just a literal locale, but a type of that place outside of structure, outside of the constructions of culture. It is the place Derrida says does not exist, a place outside the text. And in the recurring American mythos, the Children of Israel must leave the Egyptian text and enter into that destabilizing wilderness before there can be any hope of an entrance into the Promised Land of Vision, the true home of humanity, our Zion.