Saturday, March 16, 2013

on the road (trip)

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in a still from Thelma and Louise (1991)
Today I came across this article by Vanessa Veselka in The American Reader, which presents a compelling argument about the lack of female quest narratives and why, in turn, we nearly exclusively associate tragedy and violence with the idea of women on the open road. Veselka makes a well-observed point that in popular culture, the road trip has been romanticized as a a symbol of freedom and self-discovery for male heroes, whereas women and girls portrayed on the open road are often victimized, their standard narrative boiling down to rape and death.

I'm curious as to how Thelma and Louise got left out of Veselka's discussion. The story of Geena Davis' and Susan Sarandon's titular housewife and waitress who leave their dissatisfying lives for a quickly-escalating adventure of a road trip does in fact include (spoiler alert?) rape and death, but those aren't the core elements at its heart. In fact, the rape scene turns the standard victimization on its head, as the power shifts from Thelma's would-be rapist to Louise and the gun, and raises questions of morality.

Both characters undergo positive transformations over the course of the film, with ditzy, gullible Thelma becoming more assertive and empowered in her desires, and sharp-tongued Louise shifting from a primary diet of defensive snark to more thoughtful reflection on her damaged self. Their circumstances may be tragic, but there's great moments of joy, too, which they find within their complicated friendship and journey. They have been abused and conned, and yet ultimately, Thelma and Louise don't read as pure victims or martyrs. They can take control of their own actions despite the limitations of their destinies.

That discussion aside, I appreciated how Veselka's article made me revisit and reappraise the archetypal road trip as cultural icon. A funny thing about nostalgia is its root in the idea of homesickness, because I think that travel and even places that we briefly transit through can conjure strong feelings and that sense of remembrance and longing. I, for one, know that I have a wildly romantic view of the road trip, a North American ritual of soul-seaching and bonding with friends or family or nature and the surrounding environment. The article brought to light the very gendered basis upon which these perceptions lie. 


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