Leave 'Thelma & Louise' Alone

All you people trying to yoke the 1991 feminist movie to the fiscal-cliff negotiations seem to have forgotten that it's a vigilante fantasy about rape culture -- and ends badly.

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How's this for cultural amnesia: Politico's Jonathan Allen wrote this morning of fiscal cliff negotiations: "If they go over the cliff, they'll do it together. But it won't be some happy Thelma-and-Louise-style climax."

Happy?

Has anyone actually watched Thelma & Louise lately?

The 1991 movie is about two women who go on the lam after one saves the other from an attempted rape by shooting the attacker. Convinced the police won't believe them, they set out to drive to Mexico. But they don't make it, and the film ends with the two driving off the edge of a cliff in a 1966 Thunderbird, committing suicide. Thelma & Louise was part of the Anita Hill moment that gave rise to the so-called "Year of the Woman" and Bill Clinton's election. It was about women's self-realization and self-defense -- a kind of feminist fantasy of women vigilantes taking on a world pictured as stultifyingly male-dominated and full of violence against women. (For context: The landmark Violence Against Women Act would not pass until 1994, and it took feminist activists outraged by the mass rapes in the Balkans following the break-up of Yugoslavia until 2008 to get the United Nations to declare rape a weapon of war.)

"It wasn't personal experience so much as it was a feeling about the way things were in the world," screenwriter Callie Khouri told NPR in 2011 of what she was trying to get at with the movie. "And looking around and saying supposedly women are making all these great strides toward equality, but let's be honest: It's still very much a man's world and you're still looked at through a very narrow filter. And if you step out of line the punishment is severe. And this movie speaks to that feeling I think that women have of not being looked at as 100 percent whole human beings."

The only real reason we're even now talking about Thelma & Louise is because: a) the movie includes a scene with a cliff and b) Republicans who lost two otherwise winnable U.S. Senate seats thanks to their tone-deaf comments on rape decided that turning one of the iconic feminist films of the early 1990s into a partisan insult would be a good messaging strategy for a party facing a terrible gender gap. Talk about your people who "just didn't get it" -- to use the term of art of that bygone era.

"House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republican leaders are already complaining about the president's  'Thelma and Louise economic strategy,'" the Washington Post's Lori Montgomery reported on October 17.

While some of the earlier fall references to the movie portrayed it reasonably accurately, they were, notably, turns of phrase used by men who were rather obviously not part of the film's target demographic. "Thelma and Louise are about to drive off the cliff, in one last climactic scene of independence and stupidity. You don't have to rent the DVD because our very own federal government is heading toward the fiscal cliff. It should be spectacular," said the economists at the First Trust Ecobomics Blog on October 8. Writing in the Daily Beast, Daniel Gross on November 20 declared, "Some people, left, center, and right, believe careening over the cliff would be an affirmative good, a willful act of liberation, a step that is necessary to rationalize our tax code. I've dubbed these folks the Thelma & Louise Caucus. And I count myself a member."

The Republican National Committee decided the phrase was felicitous enough to keep pushing in late November. It launched a page on November 27 attacking "The Thelma And Louise Democrats," after sending out an email with that subject line. It followed that up with emails on November 28 declaring, "As The Thelma And Louise Democrats Are In Disarray About Entitlement Reform, The Fiscal Cliff Comes In To View," and November 30, arguing, "The Election Is Over, But Obama Is On The Campaign Trail In Pennsylvania Nearly A Month Before The Thelma And Louise Democrats Plunge Us Over The Cliff."

The Republican Thelma & Louise messaging continued on December 4:

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell even addressed the U.S. Senate on November 26 to decry "the 'Thelma and Louise' crowd."

How we get from there to Thelma & Louise's happy ending is somewhat less than clear. What is certain, though, is that the film had a great deal meaning for women of a certain generation. And the GOP, in particular, might want to think about what the movie evokes for female voters, beyond just memories of a scene of two women in a car facing a cliff.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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