Saturday, September 29, 2007


Thelma and Louise and Judith

When Judith Warner published a commentary last week, “‘Thelma and Louise’ in the Rear-View Mirror”, I found myself reading it with several “Is she for real?” pauses and a couple of WTFs. I wanted to respond to it here, but first I wanted to let it settle in, to brew a bit... and I wanted to check on a couple of things, like this claim:

Rape itself is down — its incidence having dropped 75 percent since the early 1990s, according to the Department of Justice.
It’s not just Ms Warner’s poor choice of an em-dash that bothered me there: 75% just can’t be right.

Indeed, since then Ms Warner has come out with this week’s column, “The Legacy of ‘Thelma and Louise’”, and in it she backs off of that number, noting that different sources have vastly different estimates, and that there’s no way to judge the validity of any of them.

All right, so one of my WTFs is sorted, but there’s still plenty to question in both columns. Not the least of these is her assessment of the movie “Thelma and Louise”.

Judith Warner sees “Thelma and Louise” as being a story of the liberation of the title characters. I see nothing remotely liberating about it. From the beginning, when they leave their men, to the end, when they drive off a cliff, they are still controlled by what — and who — they’re running from. We can cheer as they blow up the truck of a man who’s harassing them, but it’s really not an empowering move. People who are empowered don’t wind up being cornered into taking a flying leap into the Grand Canyon.

And in that sense, the movie tells us the same thing now as it did in 1991. Ms Warner sees differences here:

[...] That year, the William Kennedy Smith rape case went to trial, belittling and publicly humiliating the victim; Anita Hill confronted Clarence Thomas and emerged besmirched while he reigned victorious; and Roe v. Wade seemed destined for extinction.


Date rape is no longer a contentious concept; it’s a known reality. Rape victims are no longer so thoughtlessly named and shamed by the media as was William Kennedy Smith’s accuser. [...]

Does Ms Warner really think that accepting the existence of date rape and giving it a name has solved the problem? Does she really think that rape victims are no longer shamed — a statement belied by evidence that rape is still the most underreported, underprosecuted, and underconvicted of all violent crimes — or that the William Kennedy Smith case would play out differently now? Does she not see how Clarence Thomas’s new book laughs in Anita Hill’s face once again, despite the years since, despite whatever progress we’ve made? Isn't it clear that with the recent changes to the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade is more in danger than ever?

For all the changes since 1991, women are still harassed and raped, and men still look the other way, still say that they were asking for it, still accuse them of lying about it. Pregnant women have even less choice than before about what they may do with their own bodies, to the point of being denied necessary medical treatment in some cases. We call women “hos” and “bitches” even more now than then, and we say that those are terms of endearment. Women still earn less than 80% of what men do, for the same jobs.

No, “Thelma and Louise” was never an anthem for women’s freedom from diminution and violence, and women are only a little less diminished and violated than they were 16 years ago. And the problem with thinking we’ve made more progress than we have is that we pat ourselves on our collective back, and we think we’re done.

We’re not done. We have a long way yet to go.

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