Feminism was the movement that came to the fore in the 1970s and 80s where women in western society campaigned for equal rights (and media representations) to men by, among other things burning their bras and dressing in male clothing (power-dressing), claiming, if they wanted to be treated the same as men they had to dress the same as men. In this hot, factious socio-political climate, Ian Ridley-Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) and Adrian Lyne’s Fatal attraction (1987) present very different representations of women.
In this essay I will discuss these representations and the contexts and reactions to and theories about them. Thelma and Louise is about a mid-west road-trip with the titular women escaping their monotonous, servile, suburban lives. What was meant to be a short weekend fishing trip goes badly wrong when Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots a man attempting to rape Thelma (Geena Davis). They decide to go on the run from the police and, after much drama, they end up driving over the edge the Grand Canyon.
Fatal attraction is about the tempestuous relationship between happily married New York lawyer Dan Callagher (Micheal Douglas) and his new colleague Alex (Glenn Close) following a weekend-long affair (when Dan’s wife and kid were away). Despite Dan wanting to leave it as just an affair, Alex, who later announces herself pregnant, stalks him becoming angrier resulting in her trying to stab Beth – Dan’s wife – but being stabbed herself. There are many different views on what messages and representations Thelma and Louise conveys.
Some saw it as a reworking of the road movie, with women taking the place of male buddies. Some as a feminist film. For others it offered a unique exposion male myths about female sexuality and commentary on rape and sexual violence. Others noted lesbian undertones, due to the increasing bond between Thelma and Louise (hence the kiss before they drive off the cliff) and their poor relationships with men. Elsewhere it has been accused of being a betrayal; a narrative that can’t follow up its own logic.
In her book spectacular bodies, Yvonne Tasker claims ‘far from empowering women, in this view women with guns render the protagonist symbolically male’. Furthermore, it could be claimed that their attire (of which more later) which becomes increasingly masculine and reminiscent of cowboys, also renders them symbolically male. However, I believe these clothes and, especially, guns are used merely to add realism. Besides, there is nothing intrinsically male about guns and these clothes it is just that because before this film men had always had more power and had accordingly used guns and wore these clothes.
Now women are accepted in a wide range of clothes and are portrayed as having guns, for example there are now many female detectives in films and (to an extent) Lara Croft in Tomb Raider although not to the extent that men are; even where there powerful women often they don’t use guns e. g Kill Bill, and Tomb Raider (Lara croft doesn’t use guns that much). Moreover, the makers of Charlie Angels rigorously strive to invent different scenarios to avoid having their feminine female heroines use guns as their male enemies do.
This is epitomised by them kicking – with high heels – the guns out of the men’s hands. However, these films aren’t realistic, so although guns can render women symbolically male, I believe, they don’t necessarily do so. An indication that it is a feminist film is the way Laura Mulvey’s and John Berger’s and various other’s theories are subverted. After studying many films, in 1975, Laura Mulvey wrote a seminal article Visual pleasure and narrative cinema in which she claimed that, in cinema, women are ‘passive’, ‘erotic’, ‘objects’ for ‘the controlling male gaze’.
In 1972, John Berger claimed that, in art, ‘men act and women appear, men look at women, women watch themselves being looked’ but did concede that at last, such conventions were ‘being questioned but by no means had been overcome’. In the sex scene between Thelma and J. D (Brad Pitt) – a hitchhiking criminal they pick up – the camera focuses on J. D. Fatal attraction was Hollywood’s reaction to feminism, portraying as it does the embodiment of feminism – independent, career woman Alex – as the femme fatale who is lost without a man and Beth, the housewife, which women predominately were before feminism, as the good damsel in distress.
However, instead of being a typically cool, calculating, independent (i. e. not in need of a man) femme fatale (e. g Sharon Stone’s character in Basic instinct), to portray her, and thus feminism, negatively they portray her as instable and later mad. The names connotes this as Beth is an older name Alex is more edgy and even male, referring (possibly) to the fact that she is behaving in a way, that the makers think, only men should.
Furthermore, when Dan is confessing about his affair, Beth is in the light to show her innocence (and maybe the fact that she is being enlightened), yet the camera still looks up to Dan and down to Beth this reflects the film’s acceptance of Dan’s affair and reluctance to face the consequences – the resultant baby. The final scene in which Alex is stabbed by Beth with a kitchen knife carries a lot of significance as it shows domesticity winning over career and shows that the implication of the film is that women should be housewives.
Conversely, the message of Thelma and Louise is that women should try and make something of themselves because even though, alike Alex in Fatal attraction, the protagonists die when they do so as martyrs for the cause. This is shown in the fade to white which conveys their innocence and possibly heaven, despite all their criminal activity. At the start of Thelma and Louise, Thelma’s Husband, dressed smartly, sets off for work in his red sports car while Thelma does the housework in a floral feminine dress.
This juxtaposition is employed by Ridley-Scott to construct a world (which he believed to be symptomatic of the real world at the time – maybe still) whereby men are in control and women are – unwillingly – subservient. Louise’s clothes are white – to convey innocence -, reserved, and even more floral, feminine than Thelma’s, to the extent that that they are almost old lady (especially because of her head-scarf). When she takes off her scarf in the car it is symbolic off her letting go of her normal life.
The scene where Louise is in the car park and the mountains, which represent escape, are in the background also shows how their trip will be very different from they’re normal lives. Towards the end of the film Thelma and Louise’s attire is less reserved and feminine. Their hair, no longer tied up, shows their liberation and their singlets show a role reversal. Although she appears in red and black (which connote seduction danger and evil), in the majority of the film Alex wears white. This is ironic given the representation of her as a confused, deranged (even psychotic) femme fatale.
Whereas to portray her as a stereotypical older mum, Beth – even in her late thirties(? ) – wears plain, dowdy clothes. Alex’s flat, also ironically white, is very bare and a little run-down. There is also a lot of undone washing-up and mess to show how she isn’t domestic and her emotional state. The choice of flat may also have significance as you can fall from it. There is another binary opposition with Beth’s homes, (because, being an unemployed housewife, that it is what they are) which are very homely and are represented as what homes should be like and what women should do.
Given her status as a successful career woman you would expect Alex to have a plush, minimalist apartment, but to present a negative representation whereby, alike her home she is missing something – a man, she has a bare run-down flat. In conclusion, the ideology behind Thelma and Louise is that women should try and break free of what the makers of the film, especially Ridley-Scott, believed (probably, to an extent, still do) were oppressive matriarchal societies. The ideology behind Fatal attraction is probably that of male authority (Hollywood) threatened by women and saying they should know their place, like Beth who lives.