The classic 1991 hit Thelma & Louise is more than a contemporary, female-dominant version of Bonnie and Clyde. While upon first glance many viewers may think that the film is simply a story of loyal friendship, when watching the film through a queer analytic lens it is evident that Thelma and Louise in fact share a special and queerly intimate relationship. This is obvious only when considering the subtext in the film, as the dominant narrative reads platonic. The women’s adherence to the stereotypical lesbian trope of a masculine and femme female pairing as well as the choice to leave their male partners for each other, solidifies that Thelma and Louise are more than platonic friends; they are lovers.
While Thelma & Louise is filmed in a heteronormative context, it is important to consider how non-mainstream or that is to say, queer, non-heteronormative audiences may read the film. Because we are assumed straight until proven otherwise, non-queer audiences may not notice anything abnormal about a film, however, queer viewers often pick up on subtext that fits more within their realm of reality. Thelma is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Thelma is classically beautiful and stereotypically feminine. Once paired with Louise however, it is easy for a queer reader to be able to discern that she is the femme woman in the scenario while Louis fills the role of Thelma’s strong, butch protector. Louise fits the classic butch, masculine, lesbian trope. Again, while the dominant reading of Louise’s character may just stand out as a woman who is a little rough around the edges, the subtext speaks volumes to her lesbian identity. Louise is masculine. She smokes cigarettes, shoots guns, and wears t-shirts and Levis. Her hair is always in a low-maintenance messy bun and she never appears to be wearing makeup. While of course stereotypes do not always resemble the truth and there are certainly lesbian couples who do not fill these femme and butch roles, it is worth noting that the adherence to these stereotypes is a way of being able to discern the underlying lesbian subtext between the two women. If both women were butch-like the subtext would likely still work however, if both women were traditionally feminine, it would be less apparent that the two were perhaps lesbians. With that said, however, while Thelma appears physically to be traditionally feminine, both women reject traditional feminine expectations and lifestyles. A rejection often associated with lesbian women.
In the film, both Thelma and Louise leave their male partners. So, while they start off as “straight” in the sense that they are dating and married to men, both women leave this lifestyle to be with each other. Throughout the film, Thelma and Louise become increasingly closer to the point that in the end right before their deaths, the two share a loving kiss with each other. This kiss is likely not platonic. In fact, Thelma and Louise’s demise is familiar. Their deaths echo that of Romeo and Juliet. They fall in love and realize that when they have nowhere else to turn for a life where they can live out happily with each other, they take their own lives. This parallel further solidifies the likelihood of a lesbian romance between the women.
Thelma and Louise’s escape from feminine norms along with the disposal of their men is inherently queer. Queer-ness itself is not a gender nor sexuality. Rather, queer is any identity that is non heteronormative. Whether or not they are in fact lesbians is able to be debated however, by rejecting these normal versions of womanhood, Thelma and Louise are explicitly queer women. Not only do they leave their male partners for each other, but further, even when discussing their male counterparts, it is always a complaint. Thelma and Louise do not appear to enjoy their heterosexual relationships and are actually much happier when it is the two of them paired together.
The theme of escape in the film itself is representative of Thelma and Louise’s queer exploration. While the dominant reading of the film suggests that the two are running away from the law, the subtext offers a narrative where the women are escaping their heteronormative life that they are unhappy with. It is in this vein that the women’s flee from “the law” speaks to their newly accepted queer life. In an even deeper sense, the law itself is a subtext that could represent the accepted structure of heteronormativity and the women “breaking” the law is their destiny towards an “illegal” or frowned upon lesbian relationship.
Ultimately, Thelma and Louise choose each other. They choose a wild life with each other and a death with each other. In a way, it is reminiscent of the marital phrase, “Till death do us part”. To this extent, Thelma and Louise’s choosing of each other is the ultimate queer subtext in the film. The women demonstrate a conscious decision to leave behind the heterosexual life they knew for each other. Even when Thelma has a sexual engagement with J.D., Louise expresses disapproval; proof that she wants Thelma as her own exclusive partner which, she gains in the end; a decision both of the women seem enthralled with. The two even laugh and smile after they kiss and hold hands as they drive off of a cliff to their inevitable deaths. As long as the two can die in the love and company of each other, they can be happy. In the end, Thelma & Louise has an abundance of queer subtext, you just need to watch a little closer. As a straight person myself, I must admit at points, finding some of the more hidden subtext (i.e. the kiss is an obvious indication of their queer-ness) was difficult. Once watching the film through an analytic queer lens however, it is easier to see how a lesbian viewer for example may fill in the subtext to feel more connected to the film. Queer identities are rarely featured in mainstream film so it is understandable why queer viewers would want to reach for subtext that they can relate to and see themselves in. Thelma & Louise provides just enough queer subtext for that to be a reality. Through their costuming, their gritty attitudes, and their growing stride towards each other, Thelma and Louise demonstrate how a queer relationship can form, albeit subtly throughout a non-queer specific film. Though the film may not be the most progressive one out there (only one actor of color with no lines in the film, adherence to stereotypes, etc.), Thelma & Louise has just the right amount of hidden queer messages that straight and gay viewers alike can see a little bit of themselves in the film.