In Ridley Scott’s (for a male director) astonishingly feminist film, Thelma and Louise (1991), there is a scene-sequence that graphically captures the indissoluble connection between patriarchal men and guns. And, at the same time, it shows how much the vaunted power of patriarchal men depends on their guns.
The scene-sequence commences at that point in the narrative where the two anti-heroines of the film, the eponymous Thelma and Louise (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon), driving too fast in their blue Thunderbird on an American highway, and on the run from the police for a series of “felonies” triggered when Louise shot a man who was trying to rape Thelma, hear the sound of a siren behind them. They discover that the source of the familiar noise is a police car behind them, the driver of which is indicating to them to pull over.
When they do, a police officer, clad in the clothes of the American highway patrol, gets out, saunters over to them and goes through the normal American routine of telling them what to do, where to keep their hands, to produce their driver’s licences, and so on. They cooperate in exemplary manner, until the officer gets back into his own car and picks up the radio receiver. Before he can make radio contact with a police unit, however, he sees one of the until-now “nice ladies” standing next to his car window, pointing a gun — the veritable emblem of maleness — at him, and telling him to get out, because they cannot afford to let him communicate their whereabouts to the police (who are already looking for them).
Thelma and Louise proceed, in graphic cinematic terms, to strip him systematically of all that defines him as a man and a police officer. They confiscate his gun — a phallic symbol par excellence — his gun-belt and holster, his “eyewear” behind which he could conveniently hide until now (projecting a kind of anonymous power), as well as his ammunition. In the course of this process of emasculation, during which they fire into the car tyres to puncture them, he starts blubbering, pleading with them to have mercy on him, because — ironically — he has “a wife and kids”.
The climax comes when they open the boot of the police car and order him — ever so nicely, and apologising all the time about the fact that they cannot avoid doing it — to get into it. This is the final humiliation: sending him back into a space that metaphorically represents the womb or, as Luce Irigaray has argued, Plato’s cave in the Republic, from which people — that is, for Plato adult Athenian men — are exhorted to liberate themselves to be able to reach the “sun” of phallogocentric reason.
It is a compelling film, and Scott does not mince its dialogue or images to get his message across, namely, that to defend themselves against the predictable violence inflicted upon them by many, if not all, men, women sometimes have no option but to resort to the same kind of violence against men.
In the process they unavoidably turn to the same instruments that men often use against them, where the revolvers and pistols they appropriate also stand for the male sex organ so frequently imposed on them with violence. And the narrative clearly reflects Scott’s misgivings about the wisdom of women turning to policemen for help under these circumstances, given the likelihood of solidarity among men when it comes to “rebellious” women. The narrative can have only one outcome for two women who have tasted freedom. In the face of “the revolutionary’s choice — Freedom or death!” (Lacan) — it has to end with their death.
One might ask why women like the fictional Thelma and Louise do not resort to more “feminine” ways and wiles — employed since time immemorial by women as instruments of power against men — to defend themselves against the abuse that their respective men (husbands or boyfriends) inflict upon them, and which sometimes compels them to leave the latter. It may appear that it is mostly under relatively civilised conditions that these charms have their efficacy, but the answer is not that simple.
The history of so-called “civilisation” constantly reflects changes in its social dynamics, and has recently registered certain changes that are conducive to a deterioration in the position of women. In fact, the gender relations refracted through the fictional lens of Thelma and Louise find their counterpart in a book based on the factual social conditions pertaining to the sexes at the time.
In Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (1999) Susan Faludi reminds members of the masculine sex that it is not only through violent behaviour — either towards women or towards one another — that their masculinity can be asserted, and encourages them to cast their minds back to a time when men demonstrated their manhood by securing a social space for their families and communities to flourish.
In contrast to this, what she encountered among American men in the 1990s was a desperate attempt somehow to prove their manhood, given their experience of powerlessness in the face of what she terms the “ornamental culture” promoted by the corporations.
This was an eye-opening discovery by the writer of (the earlier book) Backlash, where she charted the “backlash” of the patriarchal establishment against the successes of the women’s movement. What she found when she was researching Stiffed, however, was that the violent treatment of women by husbands, boyfriends and the like, derived from a widespread experience on the part of men, of being systematically disempowered in a world where they had been taught that a man “should always be in control”.
This seems to me to resonate with what is happening in South Africa, and a psychoanalytical perspective on what Faludi uncovered in Stiffed is revealing. When one feels frustrated or powerless because of an inability to do or achieve what one’s self-image (in this case, as a man) dictates according to the criteria for “masculinity”, and there is little one can do to change this (given impersonal economic circumstances inexorably constituting an invisible ceiling), what happens?
As African psychiatrist Frantz Fanon realised in the case of colonised people, when powerlessness in the face of the coloniser’s power prevents the colonised from rebelling violently and “vertically” against the oppressor, the violence becomes “horizontal”. That is, the colonised people project their frustration violently on to their own people as substitute for the coloniser.
Much of the violence against women and children in this country has similar roots — in a society that has been patriarchal throughout its recent history, men increasingly resort to violent “lateral” expression of the same kind of frustration and feelings of powerlessness that Fanon found in colonised people, and Faludi detected in American men. In America it was (and still is) corporate economic power which she diagnosed as the unidentified target of masculine, “horizontal” violence against women.
We have essentially the same situation in South Africa today, and when ordinary men cannot assert themselves “vertically” against an impersonal economic system that is disempowering everyone (including men) except the very wealthy, disempowered men — who still harbour the subliminal notion that they are “the breadwinners”, but are progressively unable to fulfil this role — direct their frustration and anger “horizontally” at the women in their lives.
To exacerbate things, all the usual sources of violence still exist side by side with the kind described above. Jealousy and possessiveness on the part of men will always be there, in good as well as bad economic times, for as long as patriarchy exists.