Everything Men Need to Know About How to Respond to Abuse They Were Told by Callie Khouri 25 Years Ago
Posted by Teacher Lanouette on Thursday, October 19th, 2017
In a 1992 printed interview, screenwriter Callie Khouri told this story about a pivotal moment in her life:
“One day I was walking down the street minding my business when this old guy in a car starts talking to me. He’s old enough to be my grandfather. I’m ignoring him, which is what you’re supposed to do in that situation. You know, ‘I can’t hear you. I can’t see you. You can say whatever you want. I’m not a human being.’ Then he said, ‘I’d like to see you suck my dick.’ And I just lost it for a second. I pulled my sunglasses off and I walked over to the car and I said, ‘And I’d like to shoot you in the fucking face!’”
Thus was born Thelma & Louise.
Khouri found a perfect outlet for her anger towards the old man by creating a story about an Arkansas waitress Louise who takes retribution against the serial rapist Harlan that prompts a gradual awakening in her friend Thelma as they make their escape to Mexico. It’s as if in her story she is saying, “Sometimes I get so angry I just want to shoot somebody!” which makes a much better revenge than actually shooting a man in the face. However, despite the defiant tone of Louise’s impulsive murder of Harlan, there is laced throughout the film a nuanced discussion about what women would really like from men in response to sexual harrassment.
In a series of didactic scenes that begin around the middle of the film, Khouri lays out the challenges women face when they try to stand up for themselves. The first discussion is prompted when Louise tells Thelma that her husband Darryl’s phone might be tapped:
In other words, the system is stacked against them.
A few scenes later, Thelma has an inappropriate response and Louise calls her on it:
For all their swaggering glee, these women also know the gravity of what they’ve done. Vengeance may have its thrills, but the truth is a man is dead. In an ideal world, he would not have been allowed to behave that way. And they would not have killed him.
Then Thelma asks the $64,000 question:
This is the magnitude of the trauma that women who have been raped must live with. Louise can’t even talk about it with her very best friend.
Eventually, Louise and Thelma both know that there is no way out. But before they are brought down by the system, they have a point to make. Given that they have no legal recourse for the attempted rape and neither is murder a desired recourse, what, in an ideal world, do these women really want to see happen? The answer to this question is articulated in another series of scenes, this time with a truck driver they have been encountering on the road.
They first come across the truck driver not long after Thelma holds up the roadside store. As they prepare to pass his rig, they express the kind of respect that is generally afforded truckers in their status as kings of the road:
Their respect for truck drivers is met with disrespect towards them.
A few scenes later, they pass the truck driver again. Louise tells Thelma to just ignore him:
Ignoring verbal abuse from men, the method our mothers taught us for making it stop, is completely ineffective.
Now we are at the third encounter, and this time they invite him to pull over. So begins a confrontation scene that is also a didactic discussion on the impact of sexual insult. Their first effort is simply to raise awareness:
But it has no observable effect.
Taking another tact, they mirror his actions back to him, demonstrating how women perceive them:
Indeed, this is what it means to women. Not that it seems to matter to these men how unattractive they appear when they do it.
Then Thelma gets to the point:
Oops! Now he’s in trouble! He’s just been placed at the scene with ole Harlan and made guilty by association.
But these women are not out for blood. In fact, they’re not even vengeful. They don’t want to abuse, hurt, maim, torture, disfigure or kill this guy. They’re far above all that. They just want one thing . . . .
They want an apology.
In the course of the film, Khouri’s perspective has evolved. Now she is saying, “No, I don’t really want to shoot men in the face. I just want them to apologize. Is that asking so much?”
The most striking line in this scene is also the moment of ultimate female fantasy: “You say you’re sorry or I’m going to make you fuckin’ sorry.” The audaciousness is thrilling and liberating. But the likely truth is that few, if any, women have ever said that to an aggressive man while having the power to actually follow through. In the final analysis and collectively speaking, just by virtue of their greater size and strength, it is always men who hold the power. Some men abuse it. Not enough other men stand up to the abusers. Women are hoping things will now change. The place to start is with an apology. Just as it has taken courage for the women who have suffered abuse to come forward, it will take courage for the thoughtful, well-intentioned men among us to now respond in the way that Callie Khouri was calling for in the guise of Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer way back in 1991.
Adapted from Thelma & Louise: A Screenplay Analysis, a digital screenbook by Jennine Lanouette.
Jennine Lanouette is a story consultant and lecturer on screenwriting. She has written digital screenbooks analyzing the story structure of the films Thelma & Louise, The African Queen and Kramer vs. Kramer. Her work can be found at www.screentakes.com.