“Moll Flanders” and Thelma and Louise illustrate early feminism in two different time periods. Each work displays the conventions of the time, how women are viewed, and what these women must do to survive in a male dominant society.
Both movie and text start off with characters who are entrenched in a male dominant society, and live their lives accordingly, however, it is once they are faced with certain situations that their roles change and they forge new identities as women. Three components that make both these works feminist in nature are evident. Here they are:
1. Rejection of a male dominant society
2. The Power of Female Friends
3. Reinvention of female identity
With “Moll Flanders” quotes and examples are the main way that evidence of a changing female identity is illustrated, but with Thelma and Louise pictures and video clips can be used to illustrate these changes. With both works there is a strong sense of change, one through words and another through visual. With Thelma and Louise, the text is strong and illustrates these changes, but the images of these women changing is the strongest. Without the dialogue this change, of both a shifting female identity and a rejection of the male dominant society that these women live in, is conveyed, just through the visuals of the changes in body language and the way the women clothe themselves. The analysis of Thelma and Louise will have both text and images in order to illustrate this dramatic change in the course of two days for these two women. What this means is, my analysis of Thelma and Louise will be a lot longer than “Moll Flanders” so please try to follow it, it will be long, but I believe, well worth it in the end!
Because this novel is one on our syllabus I do not want to take too much room up in this blog with an outline so here is a link to a summary if you need it.
Thelma and Louise (SPOILER ALERT)
The movie begins with the coercion of Thelma into going for a weekend cottage trip with her best friend Louise. Thelma leaves her husband, who is domineering and allows her nothing, a note informing him that she has left for the weekend. On the drive the two women stop at a truck stop for something to eat, and Thelma starts dancing with a stranger. He takes her to the parking lot and tries to rape her when Louise shows up and after insisting he stops, with him telling her to leave them alone, Louise shoots him dead. The women run because they do not believe that the cops (men) will believe them. The movie follows the two women trying to make it to Mexico, their trials and tribulations along the way, and concludes with their defiance towards the state, a state that is dominated by men, in the form of their chosen death.
Rejection of a Male Dominant Society
The novel “Moll Flanders” illustrates the protagonist’s rejection of a male dominant society after she learns the hard way of living as a woman in such a society. “Moll Flanders” is a response to the well understood idea that women need to look to others, men that is, for help and protection (Humphreys, Feb 28). Moll is, for a lack of a better term, burned by the majority of the men that she comes in contact with. It is not until she decides terms for herself that she is able to reject a society where men rule all and transcende into a society where she calls the shots for herself. This is seen early on in the novel with Moll’s second husband. With the help of a female friend (I will go into further detail of the power of this friendship in a bit) Moll is able to have her choosing of a male suitor. Moll refers to her choosing as a “subtle game to play” (Dafoe 78) in which she picks her husband, “This was my Man, but I was to try him to the bottom, and indeed in that consisted my safety” (Dafoe 78). So, not only does Moll have a choosing of a husband, but she plays him into loving her before she tells him she is poor, and not rich as he believes. This illustrates Moll’s rejection of a male dominant society because she becomes the dominant in this relationship with tricking the man, as the elder brother did to her, into loving her for her own gain, not his.
Women in 18th century England are well known as the ‘other’, or the subordinate in society, but once again Moll proves her rejection of such a society when she takes on the profession of thievery. A woman is considered a second class citizen who cannot survive without matrimony, but Moll proves that she can and will survive without a husband when she looks to her female compatriots and solves her problem of being poor and desolate. Moll may have been taught by a woman in the profession but there are many examples of men holding the position of thief, and Moll notes that, illustrating that she is rejecting her place in a male dominant society. Moll is dressed as a man when she becomes too well known in the profession as Moll cutpurse and her governess places her with a male partner who never knows her to be a woman, further, there are many instances when she sees men stealing, and being chased after a robbery. Lastly, it becomes known that Moll’s Lancashire husband is a thief, but he does not bring her into the profession with him, because he thinks the profession does not have a place for a woman. It is only because Moll, along with other female friends, reject a male dominant society, and their ‘traditional’ roles of being a woman in this society, that they are able to forge a path as a new woman and care for themselves without the aid of men.
Thelma and Louise
Like “Moll Flanders” Thelma and Louise is a response to the idea of women being incapable of taking care of themselves. This movie illustrates how these two women experience a male dominant society and that they wish to reject it instead of participate within it as Moll rejects her society. In the beginning of the movie, Louise, a diner waitress calls her best friend Thelma and asks her if she is ready for their weekend vacation. Thelma lets Louise know that she still hasn’t asked Daryl, her husband yet. Louise retorts, “Is he your husband or your father?” This statement illustrates Louise’s defiance of a male dominant society. From the start it is quite evident that Louise has a soft spot for her on and off again boyfriend Jimmy, but it is also clear that she does not easily fit into a male dominant society as a meek woman, she is very independent, unlike Thelma. Thelma, spurred on by her best friend, decides to pack her belongings for the trip and leave her husband a note instead of asking him in person, because she knows he will say no, to this, Louise tells her “You get what you settle for”. I believe this is why Louise won’t settle for Jimmy, because then she will have to give up her independence in this male dominant society, a society where men do nice things for women because as a detective tells Thelma’s husband, “If she calls pretend like you’re happy and you miss her, women love that shit”.
Response to male dominance/sexual assault
When Louise finds Thelma in the process of being raped, Louise kills the man Harlan, for not stopping when she tells him too. Louise instructs Thelma to get the car and they drive away from the crime scene. Thelma asks Louise what they are going to do, and Louise tells Thelma to keep driving and keep quiet so she said figure it out. Thelma suggests they go to the cops:
Thelma: Shouldn’t we go to the cops. I mean I think we should tell them…
Louise: Tell them what Thelma?
Thelma: I dunno, just tell them what happened.
Louise: Which part?
Thelma: That he tried to rape me!
Louise: Just about a hundred people saw you dancing cheek to cheek with him all night! Who’s gonna believe that? We don’t live in that kind of a world Thelma.
In this scene it is clear that Louise wants to reject the help of the cops because they are men, and she believes that men won’t believe them after what had transpired over the course of the evening. Thelma is still unsure of leaving this type of a society, one where women turn to men when they are in trouble, but Louise has completely left this society after viewing the attempted rape of her friend, a terrible reminder of her own past and what men had done then to her and now to Thelma. Further, later in the movie when Thelma calls home to see if her husband knows anything Louise speaks to the lead detective and he pleads with her to come in and just be questioned, that they haven’t been charged with anything, but because of what happened to both of the women, neither want to believe the detective or be regulated by the state (cop=men).
The Power of Female Friends
Thelma and Louise
The shooting of the would be rapist by Louise illustrates a major point for the importance of friendship for feminism. However, I have spoken at length about this issue so I will move on to the next example. After borrowing money from her boyfriend Jimmy, Louise gives it to Thelma who loses it to J.D a ‘student’ they meet and give a ride to along the way to Mexico. Louise has come through for Thelma, she has made the plan to get to Mexico, guided Thelma up to this point, and been strong through it all. But when J.D steals their money Louise thinks they’ve lost, and it is Thelma’s turn to rally to the occasion. She picks Louise off the floor of the hotel room where she’s crying, just like Louise calmed Thelma directly after the shooting (wiping her tears for her with her scarf), and they get back on the road. They stop on the road and Thelma robs the convenience store so they have enough money to make it to Mexico. At this point Louise thinks they’ve lost, just as Thelma has felt until now. So, when Thelma is down, Louise picks her up, and when Louise is down Thelma picks her up.
Thelma to the Rescue!
When Louise gets pulled over for speeding and taken to the police officer’s car, again Thelma steps up and deals with the situation. She apologizes to the cop for holding him up, and tells him “If you were to meet my husband, you’d understand why” she is acting out in such a way, why she is rebelling against the male dominant society. Then she gives some advice, for the cop to be kind to his wife and kids, “My husband wasn’t sweet to me, look how I turned out” (just a side note to reinforce the idea that these women had reason enough to reject a male dominant society). But back to my case for the power of female friends, without each other, Thelma and Louise never would have made it as far as they did in their attempt to flee the cops in the States. And without each other, they never would have found the courage to reject the society they were immersed in and to find the ability to reshape their identity, one that they are happiest with.
As stated above, Moll Flanders works closely with women in order to reject a male dominant society, as Thelma and Louise work together, and work toward a reinvention of a female identity. The first example of this is when Moll first helps a lady who is abandoned by her courter because she wanted to inquire into his character. Moll fixes this with spreading gossip about the Captain, and the lady and Captain eventually marry. Once the lady is married she ventures to help Moll find a man as well, because Moll’s funds are running low, “I Communicated my Thoughts to my intimate Friend the Captain’s Lady; who I had so faithfully serv’d in her Case with the Captain; and who was as ready to serve me in the same kind as I could desire” (Dafoe 76). This first instance of women banding together illustrates the power of female friendships in the 18th century. Instead of looking to men to take care of them, women instead turned to each other in order to survive in this male dominant society.
Moll has other small friendships with women in her life, but the most important one is with her Governess, whom she meets when she returns to London after marrying her Lancashire husband, pregnant and in need of help. This Governess has a house in which she takes in women who are pregnant and without a spouse. After the Governess finds a woman to care for Moll’s child so she can marry the banker who has been waiting for her, Moll leaves the Governess, but returns years later after her fifth husband dies and she is desperate and in need of help again. When Moll appears at her Governess’ door she is immediately taken in and directed to a woman of a certain trade that could help Moll make a living for herself. This woman, her school-mistress, teaches her “shop-lifting, stealing of shop-books and pocket-books, and taking off gold watches from the Ladies sides” (Dafoe 201), this is how Moll makes a small fortune for herself before she is convicted of thievery. During her days of stealing Moll first learns the trade from a woman, then continues to live with her Governess who helps her to sell the goods she has pilfered. In every aspect of this time in Moll’s life, Moll has looked to her female friends in order to gain power within 18th century London as a woman.
Reinvention of Female Identity
As illustrated above, Moll Flanders reinvents herself over and again to suit the man or situation she is dealing with. Identity is not stable, which is good, or Moll Flanders and Thelma and Louise would not be able to survive in such a heavily male dominate society. In the beginning of the novel Moll wants to be a gentlewoman and provide for herself “by being a gentlewoman, was to be able to work for myself, and get enough to keep me” (Dafoe 13). However, Moll is seduced in her teens and is abandoned by this man. By this point Moll has already seemingly shifted identities from wanting to be a gentlewoman who provides for herself, to wanting to marry and love a husband. From this point on Moll turns into a woman who wishes to look out for herself in any way possible. When being courted by her third husband (her brother) Moll “pretended on all occasions to doubt his sincerity” (Dafoe 76) in order to manipulate him into marriage. So, instead of showing how she is successful at scheming men into marriage for not only herself, but for friends too, Moll meekly manipulates men through shifting identities.
Moll’s ultimate shift of identity is when she reinvents the female identity of meek housewife, to the patriarchal figure of the family. From their first encounter again after many years separated, Moll immediately takes the role of authority figure when making plans for her Lancashire husband and herself to be transported to America instead of being dealt the death penalty in jail for their crimes. Moll is shown as the provider in a marriage, a role that men traditionally hold. Moll reflects that her Lancashire husband relies on her the way a woman would reply on her husband. Overall, it is evident that Moll has forged a new identity for herself, that being a female patriarch figure in society because she not only cares for herself, but she provides for her husband, she makes all the business decisions, which they profit from, and she allots her husband an allowance for his own use and pleasure. By the end of the novel Moll has completely shifted identities in a male dominant society, emerging a feminist through and through.
Thelma and Louise
Another part of the cop scene with Thelma and Louise that can be categorized as a shifting identity for Thelma is when she takes control and tells Louise to shoot the radio in the car. Louise takes aim and shoots the radio… the FM AM radio, Thelma exclaims “The cop radio Louise!” Louise takes aim again and shoots out the cop’s dispatch radio. This is a major shift in identity for Thelma and Louise, in this scene Thelma takes charge and gets the job done, while instructing Louise in what to do in order to narrowly escape from the law. This scene is compelling because the audience is able to see Thelma change right before their eyes into a woman who is independent and who can take charge when need be, to save both herself and her best friend.
Throughout their journey Thelma and Louise have come in contact with a truck driver who is very rude towards them, giving them lewd gestures and saying inappropriate things. After their escapade with the cop both women are feeling awake and different. They are starting to see society through new eyes and want to say something about it. They come in contact with the trucker one last time and invite him to pull over, when they do pull over they give him a lesson he’ll never forget:
Thelma: Yeah, we think you have really bad manners.
Louise: Yeah, where do you get off behaving like that with women you don’t know? Huh? Huh? How’d you feel if someone did that to your mother? Or your sister or your wife?
Trucker: What are you talking about?
Louise:Huh? You know good and damn well what I’m talking about.
Thelma: I mean, really! That business with your tongue, what is that? That is disgusting!
Tucker: You women are crazy!
Louise: You got that right.
Thelma: We think you should apologize.
Trucker: Fuck that!
Louise: You say you’re sorry or I’m gonna make you fuckin’ sorry…. I don’t think he’s gonna apologize.
Thelma: Nah, I don’t think so.
This scene shows Thelma and Louise’s reactions to men in their society. During their shift in identity the women find less and less tolerance for this trucker who they keep happening upon. The first encounter they ignore him, the second encounter they are exasperated but again Louise tells Thelma to just ignore him and not say anything when he makes lewd gestures. But the final encounter, with their identities shifting, puts them over the edge and causes them to react violently, illustrating their shift in identity and their rejection of a male dominant society.
After speaking with the detective one last time, Thelma is unsure if Louise will continue with their journey and asks her if she is planning to make a deal, since she still has Jimmy to consider, Louise states that ‘Jimmy isn’t an option’ and that she isn’t going to make a deal because she does not want to go back to a male dominant society now that her identity has shifted. Thelma is happy because her identity has shifted too, she has changed and she can feel it. She tells Louise, “Something’s crossed over in me and I can’t go back. I mean I just couldn’t live.” She tells Louise that she feels “awake, [that] everything looks differently, like you have something to look forward to” after everything they’ve been through.
The ending scene is important but I can’t figure out where to put it, so I’ll say beforehand that I am writing about it in this category, as I wrote Moll’s ending in this category but I do believe that it illustrates both a reinvention of identity as well as the rejection of a male dominant society. After being seen by the cops a chase ensues and the girls are followed until they reach a cliff. At this point the women have to decide what to do, to turn themselves in and except life in prison in a male dominant society as meek, weak women, or continue on in their journey. By this part of the movie the women have found themselves and are unable to look back. Thelma has already said that she couldn’t live like that anymore, so when Louise looks to Thelma for her approval, Thelma answers, “let’s keep going. Go!” This indicates the women’s desire to leave behind both their old identities as well as the male dominant society. They know they can’t go back because no one would be on their side, nor would they want to if they could. So, in the end, their suicide is not a bad thing, it is an act of defiance against their society, they have chosen this life and they will live it as they see fit. For me, this ending says it all, it illustrates female friendships at their strongest, a reinvention of a shifting identity through a rejection of a male dominant society.
I end this post with Thelma and Louise because I wanted to explore this movie a litle more than I do the novel because I presented my topic of Moll Flanders as a feminist already and feel as though I made quite a case for it then. So, I still go into enough detail to make a case for it now, but I wanted to do so even more for Thelma and Louise because it has both a visual and text to follow, and I believe that the visuals, as I stated above are very important. I just wanted to end this post with a view of Thelma and Louise’s transition through the movie, mainly through images, enjoy!
Note the makeup and perfectly done hair. A reminder that they belong to a society full of norms for men and women
Louise Before Her Transformation Begins
Thelma Before Her Transformation
The Incident that Starts It All
And So It Begins
Pretty Much There: Notice that Thelma has dropped her dress and opted for a t-shirt with cut off sleeves (the kind men wear! how scandalous!) and her hair is in a mess, and Louise has exchanged her dress shirt for a tank top and messy hair as well
Embracing Feminism on Their Terms