Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Cooper, B. (1999). The relevancy and gender identity in spectators' interpretations of Thelma & Louise. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 16(1), 20-41.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

Cooper analyzes self reports of people who have seen Ridley Scott’s film Thelma & Louise and finds that women and men seemed to experience two different films. By way of introduction, she summarizes reviews of the movie that either affirmed a female “buddy movie” that addressed U.S. sexism directly or rebuked a male-bashing screed in which the protagonists got what they deserve. Cooper than argues that we must “read” audience reactions to Thelma & Louise from the perspective of relevance. Cooper defines relevance as a manner by which viewers judge media texts and, ultimately, use “media texts to fit their individual life experiences and cultural subjectivities” (p. 24). To study the relevances perceived by individual viewers of Thelma & Louise, the author employed a methodology of collecting college student self-reports about their reactions to the film and then searching for recurring themes within the contexts of student identities.

Her analysis reveals three relevances that were experienced in markedly different ways by women and men: friendship, role reversals, and sexism. Regarding friendship, women seemed to celebrate that component of the film while men ignored it almost entirely or focused on the “anti-male” context of the relationship. Writing about role reversals, Cooper found that women appreciated the film’s placement of female characters in positions traditionally held by men while men were less than impressed, often rejecting the film’s reversal as self-defeating. Turning to sexism: once more, women saw the relevance of this phenomenon in their viewing of Thelma & Louise, while men saw sexism (and its many manifestation in the film) as merely motivation for the plot, or adopted responses that could be defined as defensive or even misogynistic.

Following this analysis, Cooper proposes several implications, including a brief comment on the limits of her conclusions and a discussion of the larger social issues implied by her findings. Here, she pays particular attention to the film’s (and its female audience’s) rejection of patriarchy. She also notes that male responses to the rape scene in Thelma & Louise might explain the distressing prevalence of sexual assault in contemporary society.

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