For this paper I have chosen to examine the movie Thelma and Louise. But rather than evaluating it from the standpoint of feminism and empowerment, which tend to be the conventional themes most critiques of the movie address, current paper considers the film in terms of the concepts of fate and moral relativity. First, it provides brief introductions to those two concepts and then applies them to the movie. In regards to fate, the paper considers how circumstances led two unassuming women trapped in a dull existence to become fugitives of the law and, in particular, their motivations for the decisions they make. Also, it ponders the question, “At what point did the women, whose lives had always seemingly been dictated by others, become in charge of their own fate?” As it relates to moral relativism, this essay examines its role in determining how the actions of the main characters should be perceived. In particular, do the ends justify the means? Do two wrongs make a right? Is there even a way to determine whether the decisions the women made can be properly judged as moral?
When critiquing the 1991 film Thelma and Louise, it is typical for the writer to evaluate it based on issues related to feminism and empowerment (according to those who view the film favorably) or as a male bashing “chick flick” that seeks to bring out all of the worst stereotypes that characterize men (as it is perceived by people who disliked it). However, I have chosen to go against the stereotypes and discuss the movie based on the philosophical concepts of fate and moral relativism. This, in my view, is what broadens horizons and leads to intellectual discourse. By finding new ways to assess a film, it allows the viewer to think about it and enjoy it from a perspective that he/ she may not have previously considered. Thus, this is how I intended to examine Thelma and Louise.
Before going into the deep discussion of the film, it is necessary to provide some background into the aforementioned ideas of fate and moral relativism. Merriam Webster (2013) defines fate as “an inevitable and often adverse outcome, condition, or end.” Although, there is no scientific consensus over whether fate exists or if every decision an individual makes is based on free will, there are certainly theories. Dr. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, contends that there is no such thing as free will. Instead, he believes that based on the laws of physics, the only choice that is possible is the one that the individual, in fact, makes. That is one supporter of fate. However, Dr. Alfred Mele, a philosopher at Florida State University disagrees. As evidence, he points to a study in which subjects’ brain activities were only able to correctly predict their eventual decisions 60% of the time (Wolchover). Sadly, the true scientific answer will never be known, so the concept of fate can only be approached as a hypothetical. It is just as well, since fiction movies like Thelma and Louise are themselves inherently hypothetical.
Moral relativism is the idea that when it comes to truth and judgments, there are no universally accepted absolutes. While cultures and society as a whole may hold certain moralities on a theoretical basis (such as the recognition that murdering an innocent person is bad), in reality, there is no real moral authority or normative force by which morality can be judged in a concrete sense (Moral Relativism). In essence, what an individual deems to be moral is entirely in the eye of the beholder.
This now leads us to a discussion about Thelma and Louise. The opening credits with the steep hills and flat prairie land conveys a sense of vastness and even freedom, which obviously plays a central role in the story. The dreary, lonely greyness of the scenery gives way to beautiful greens, yellows, and the blueness of the sky. It is a reflection of the lives that Thelma and Louise live. Both of them are utterly unremarkable characters who find themselves stuck in a depressing, unforgiving world. But the series of events would eventually lead them to something bigger. When the movie cuts to the first scene, Louise is busy, working as a waitress, while the country song on the radio asks, “Honey, are you going out tonight?” A clever foreshadowing of things to come. (As a side note: I was somewhat struck by how antiquated this movie feels. While the main ideas of the story can still be relevant today, the scenes involving Louise and other waitresses smoking a cigarette in the crowded kitchen, while simultaneously doing their jobs certainly would not fly in the year 2013). In any event, this paper now turns to their actions from moral and fateful perspectives.
Critics have argued that the movie attempts to justify acts, such as armed robbery and manslaughter as a way to raise consciousness of the plight of women (Lipsitz). However, that observation oversimplifies the objectives of the movie. Instead, when viewed under the contexts of moral relativism and fate, it is clear that the movie makes no such attempt to glorify these actions. Instead, it is providing commentary on society. On the surface, most people understand that the actions of these women are wrong. Robbery and killing are not acts that should be encouraged. Likewise, when Thelma has the fling with J.D. the cowboy, she is breaking a sacred vow to her husband (although based on the way he treats her, there is no reason to believe that he has been any more faithful. Do two wrongs make a right?). Again, the central theme of the film deals with being trapped and then finding freedom. In this case, Thelma and Louise are prisoners in a world (or perhaps, better stated, society), that at first they have no control over. But the series of events from killing the would-be rapist, kidnapping the policeman, robbing the liquor store, and blowing up the gas tank are indications that rightly or wrongly the individual is free to manipulate the world, although in the end there are still consequences. But even in that case, it could be argued that the consequences were of their own choosing, since they opted to drive off the cliff, as opposed to leaving the decision up to others.
In the perceived reality that civilization has constructed, the individual essentially takes on a defined role, as if in a theatrical play. As the movie goes on, the two main characters clearly break out from the roles that had defined their lives up to that point. Thelma, who had married at the age of 16 and lived the life of a bored housewife, seemed to have resigned to her fate. Louise, a middle-aged woman with a well-intentioned but deeply flawed boyfriend, did not appear to be destined for anything beyond waiting tables. The remote cabin where the women had planned to spend their weekend getaway had become available because the owner (Louise’s boss) was getting divorced. This touches on the theme of doomed relationships (Paige), but in a broader sense, it also reflects the role that fate plays in this film. Louise did not set out to kill a man that night (fate), but as for whether that action was justified is up to the individual to decide (moral relativism). In other words, it is hard to imagine that anybody would be sympathetic towards a man who was on the verge of a sexual assault, but does that mean his actions provided moral justification for his death? Likewise, societal norms would dictate that the actions against the officer and the liquor store clerk were unacceptable. Why? Because on the basis of morality, most people would say that these victims did not deserve the danger they were put in. They were simply doing their jobs and found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time (again, fate). They may have been devoted husbands and fathers; perhaps they were good people who strived to live decently. Nonetheless, if the goal is about survival – which is not merely a cultural norm but a universal human need – then from the perspective of the characters Thelma and Louise, the ends justified the means (moral relativism). Indeed, Thelma makes the decision to allow J.D. – a complete stranger who turns out to be a petty thief – into her hotel room, which then sets off the series of events that ultimately doom the women. Having her lifesavings stolen by J.D., leads her to rob the liquor store, bringing more attention to the wanted fugitives. Then, after J.D. gets arrested, he reveals that the women are attempting to flee to Mexico. Finding themselves trapped, Thelma and Louise face the prospect of serving serious time in jail, if not lifetime sentences. As previously mentioned, they ultimately decide to drive their car off the cliff, which is meant to serve as a metaphor for finally having broken their shackles and finding freedom. Should freedom be the ultimate outcome that individuals should seek? Can their actions truly be considered freedom if they are not able to enjoy its fruits given that they are at this point dead? Perhaps choosing a path of redemption would have been more just solution? From the standpoint of moral relativism, it depends on what the individual considers to be the right thing. From an objective standpoint, it would seem that going off the cliff was a cowardly thing to do if the characters believed their acts were justified. On the other hand, the act of suicide may have been recognition on their part that the acts they had committed left no room for redemption.
The purpose of this paper was to demonstrate that more than two decades after Thelma and Louise premiered in movie theaters and despite all the reviews and articles that have attempted to dissect the film, it is still possible to find a unique angle by which it can be evaluated. This is a testament to the depth that Thelma and Louise possesses. Probing the movie as it relates to fate is fascinating because it leads us to wonder whether the characters were truly in charge of their fate and, if so, at what point did this occur? Up until that fateful weekend, it appeared that all the events of their lives had been the choices of others and then, all of a sudden, they took control. Yet, when they had control, all that ensued was disaster and ultimately the loss of their lives. Finally, moral relativism is an important concept because it allows us to explore such questions as, “If a part of me judges this action to be wrong, why do I not feel the profound guilt that should arise from making a decision that I consider immoral?” The characters Thelma and Louise provide social commentary that can be applied to real life events, such as the lawless acts of Bonnie and Clyde. At the time, the nation was complete captivated by the duo’s ability to rob banks and get away with it. Although, most people would never consider committing violent crimes, famous cases like this allow the public to live vicariously through the culprits. The fact that Bonnie and Clyde are still talked about as legend is an indication that even if the public could be seen as having a moral compass (however that is measured), there is nonetheless an understanding that the idea of morality can be tossed out the window when people attempt to find a rationale for cheering for an act. Likewise, fans of Thelma and Louise can enjoy the movie not because of the moral justifications of their actions, but precisely because of the sense of ambiguity.
- Lipsitz, Raina. ‘Thelma & Louise’: The Last Great Film About Women. The
- Atlantic. 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/08/thelma-louise-the-last-great-film-about-women/244336/>.
- Merrian-Webster’s dictionary online. (n.d.). Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fate>.
- “Moral Relativism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 9 Dec. 2008. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/>.
- Paige, Linda R. Wanted Dead or Alive. American Studies Journal. Number 50. 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <http://www.asjournal.org/archive/50/84.html>.
- Wolchover, Natalie. Is Free Will an Illusion? Scientists, Philosophers Forced to Differ. Live Science. 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <http://www.livescience.com/19213-free-fate.html>.