Once every two or three years I’m overtaken by the urge to watch Thelma and Louise, and yesterday was the occasion of the most recent re-watch. It’s a classic that never gets old and its philosophical dimensions are as relevant as ever, but as a student of philosophy I found the film resonating with me more deeply than on the previous three times I’ve seen it (2008, 2011 and 2013). All those times I watched the film in company; yesterday evening was the first time I saw it alone, and that may have been part the reason why my emotional reaction was so strong.
The film’s plot (SPOILER ALERT) is an affirmation of a nihilistic disposition according to which it is better to be dead than to vainly attempt leading a dignified life within a capitalist, heteropatriarchal domestic prison. The ending is a happy one because the protagonists escape the aforementioned prison; it is tragic because such a prison existed in the first place. Making it to Mexico and drinking margaritas by the sea is never an option because of the premise of the story-world–a society where all dominant forces are joined in the effort to eliminate or imprison the free spirit.
It would probably be impossible not to have an emotional reaction to the ending of Thelma and Louise but the strength with which it hit me last night was absolutely disproportionate. Of course I wasn’t just crying because two fictional women fail to escape to Mexico. I was simultaneously mourning for the state of the world that is so accurately reflected in this film’s story-world, one where the law is often not in the favour of a victim; where everyone’s personal freedom is limited; where those who guard the law have such excessive resources in their use that rebellion of those who disagree with the law is easily got rid of; a society where it sometimes really is better for the free-spirited individual to die than to conform.
Thelma and Louise are driven to their tragic ending because they are unfit for the society as it is. One could argue that the world is what it is and those unfit for it deserve to be eliminated; and perhaps it is so in natural ecosystems. That’s just basic Darwinism. However, civilised human society is not a natural ecosystem. It is a construct based on the values decided by the elite. Does the world not belong to the rest of us just as much? Not if you ask the elite, but that’s what they would think, wouldn’t they? We can pretend to live in a democratic society where everyone must act for the good of the group, but this is not true democracy since someone else got to decide long ago what is meant by “good” and what constitutes a good way to act. We’re brought up on these values and are given very few opportunities to critically reflect on them. Lacking the vocabulary to disagree, we’re left with a lingering sense that there is something wrong with the world and perhaps it should not exist at all; this drives us towards nihilism, the unproductive kind, the one Nietzsche tried so hard to overcome only to fail and to stay alive long enough to become its embodiment. We will also find that those around us who benefit from the world as it is will go to any lengths to convince us that there’s something wrong with us, not the world, and that we must either conform or disappear. But what if we refuse to do either, and liberate ourselves while articulating that we are living, breathing things who have just as much right to this world as any other being that ever lived and breathed, and should have just as much right to shape the world towards one that we’re capable of existing in? Thelma and Louise do this by taking the law into their own hands and defend their rights to exist in the world in their own way for as long as they can. This is why, on the other hand, the ending is also a happy one: they will neither conform or be silenced, and when the dominant forces get them in the end, they go out loudly, by their own choice, on their own terms; demonstrating in their final moments that even in a world such as this one there can be found at least occasional spaces and moments where the dominant forces cannot reach and the free spirit is allowed, if reluctantly and temporarily, to exist.