THERE'S A SCENE IN THE NEW MOVIE "Thelma & Louise" where Thelma, played by Geena Davis, holds a cocked gun to the head of a state trooper and says: "You be sweet to your wife. My husband wasn't sweet to me and look how I turned out."
So, you're probably wondering, how exactly did Thelma, a ditzy, childless, Arkansas housewife who has the bad luck to be married to a loutish bully, turn out?
Well, for starters, by the time she holds that gun to the state trooper's head, she's an accomplice to murder, the perpetrator of an armed robbery and the victim of a brutal rape attempt by a cowboy she's picked up in a bar.
As for her buddy, Louise -- played by Susan Sarandon -- well, she's a fortysomething, world-weary waitress who's tired of waiting for her musician boyfriend to make a commitment. So she decides to make him miss her by taking off with Thelma for a weekend of fishing and driving real fast in her '66 T-bird convertible.
But the trip turns ugly after Louise, propelled into murderous violence by a mysterious trauma in her past, impulsively guns down the man who tries to rape Thelma. Soon the two women are drinking Wild Turkey and burning rubber; fugitives on the lam from the police. And, like another fugitive film couple, Bonnie and Clyde, they find that as the violence escalates, so too does their self-confidence and ability to find pleasure in life:
"I feel like I've got a knack for this s---," says Thelma after stuffing the trooper into the trunk of his car. ". . . I don't ever remember feeling this awake."
The movie -- already on its way to becoming one of the summer's hits -- is being touted by some critics as the "first feminist road movie" (comparisons abound to "Easy Rider" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") and "a bit of feminist wish-fulfillment." It's also being hailed as a breakthrough in the stereotypical way that Hollywood portrays women. Thelma and Louise, we are told by an assortment of male and female voices, represent a new and improved breed of women:
"Thelma and Louise's experiences ultimately empower them, making them stronger, more forceful, more content," writes Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan.
"It was just so refreshing to see a movie featuring strong women as characters," weighed in Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News.
And feminist lawyer Gloria Allred praised the film, saying: "I think the role models Thelma and Louise present to all of us are strong women who make up their own minds. . ."
Such remarks must please the woman who wrote "Thelma & Louise" -- former video producer Callie Khouri. Ms. Khouri created characters, she says, who have "a life where they truly make their own decisions and, in the end, are happier for it."
Well, sorry to be the one to disagree with such pronouncements but I get a different message from this film -- one which says:
That women finally have won the right to be equal-opportunity criminals on the big screen. At last, we have our very own Bonnie and Bonnie to look up to.
That women are dumb. Thelma is so dumb she leaves her one-night-stand lover -- a man who's just told her he's an armed robber -- alone in the room with $6,700 in cash. When he steals it, she's, like, totally amazed.
That women are violent, violent, violent. And that violence is an acceptable antidote to feeling trapped in a boring, unfulfilled life.
That friendship between women is based on imitating the male bonding pattern. Thelma and Louise are portrayed as women -- gun-toting women -- dressed in men's emotions.
That most men are dolts, louts, brutes, deceivers and bullies.
A few critics have objected to the negative portrayal of men in "Thelma & Louise." They say the film is anti-male.
But I say the film is anti-women.
From a feminist viewpoint -- or any viewpoint, in my opinion -- this film does not advance the status of women. This is not progression; it is regression.
If the feminist perspective teaches us anything, it is the lesson embedded in psychologist Carol Gilligan's thesis that a woman's experience of the world teaches her "to speak in a different voice."
"Thelma & Louise" robs us of the chance to hear that different voice. What the voice in this film says is: Why can't a woman be more like Hollywood's version of a man?