The audience is quickly given an idea of Louise’s role when she asserts to two of her young customers "Aren’t you girls too young to be smokin’. You know, it ruins your sex drive." With this line, Louise is afforded two facets of her persona that were not really offered to Bonnie, both mother and sexual being. In sharp contrast to this depiction of Louise, Thelma is shown somewhat childlike in her initial scene with Darryl (her husband) and in the conversation she has with Louise regarding their weekend plans "What’s the matter, Thelma? Is he your husband or your father? Don’t be a child!" This exasperated question and directive lend the idea that Louise can provide both direction and autonomy for the two of them. Taking this cue, Thelma agrees to join Louise on the weekend road trip.
Scott films their preparation for the trip using the same shot to shot techniques, contrasting Louise and Thelma again. Through these scenes, Penn communicates to the audience that Louise, with a deft slide of pristinely white Keds into an equally sterile zip-lock baggie placed on top of a pile of perfectly folded clothes, lives a life of retentive order. Thelma seems to exist in sheer chaos comparatively. Penn illustrates this by showing her dumping the entire contents of her underwear drawer into a dusty valise.
On the road and in the car, it becomes obvious that Thelma is exchanging one influencing figure for another. Here, it seems that she is playing Bonnie to Louise’s Clyde. At one point, Thelma grabs one of Louise’s cigarettes and placing it in her mouth, grimaces into the side-view mirror saying "Hi, I’m Louise." This is not to suggest that only Thelma is subject to Lacan’s ‘imaginary’ self. Later, during the attempted rape scene, Louise tells Harlan "Next time, when a woman’s cryin’ like that, its not ‘cause she’s havin’ fun." This heart-wrenching assertion undoubtedly coming from first hand experience places Louise in the role of victim as well. Scott is careful to pay attention to detail here and does not shy away from the raw and graphic nature of the situation. By no means gratuitous, the camera works quickly to focus on the rape and Louise’s reaction to Thelma’s cries. The focus continues and the camera does not pull away as Louise shoots Harlan. This scene allows the audience to process that by killing Harlan, Louise somehow avenges her own rape in Texas. This action also works to bring both Thelma and Louise together, borrowing from each other’s personalities until they become representative of almost the same person. Scott helps to portray this in numerous dissolves of Thelma and Louise while they are driving, fading from one character into the next.
While killing Harlan forced Thelma and Louise to take an actively different role, it remains mainly defensive until they meet the young con JD. After he robs them of their ‘future’ as Louise puts it, or their getaway money, Thelma uses the robbery techniques that JD taught her so they can continue their flight. Their stance now becomes very aggressive, something relatively foreign to them prior to this point. Unlike Bonnie, Thelma does not assume JD’s identity through the robberies, but adopts his technique, she just borrows from him. JD is indirectly responsible for both Thelma and Louise assuming a ‘symbolic’ self however, in that he forces them to exert power to accomplish what they need to survive on the road. According to Lacan, the "child arrives at some sense of identity only by entering the ‘symbolic’...which is made up of relations of similarity and difference."(Seldon, 142) The actions that Thelma takes are initially different to her, but it is out of a similar need that she is able to execute the robbery with substantial ease: "I think I have a knack for this shit."
Thelma and Louise progress from the ‘imaginary’ to the ‘symbolic’ in another way as well. For
Lacan, ‘symbol’ at times embraces ‘phallic’ or ‘power’. In this sense, both Louise and Thelma
become less feminine and more masculine as their journey continues. They become surprisingly
efficient with this actively aggressive role, ironically more so as they accumulate objects
that they literally take from some of the male characters that they come in contact with during
the course of the film. At one point, Louise is shown trading her jewelry for an old Indian man’s
hat. Next, she takes both the gun and sunglasses off of an Arizona State trooper. They seem to
become more empowered and better equipped to handle their situation with the adoption of this
male paraphernalia or ‘armor’. Thelma later takes the sleazy truck driver’s hat, whooping as
she dons it in what could best be described as a war cry. These hats later come to symbolize
the stripping of this male/power persona and the final progression to their own identities.
During the final scene of the film, when they have come to an impasse at the edge of the Grand
Canyon, a police helicopter hovers in front of them, blowing these hats from their heads.
It is at this moment in the film when Thelma and Louise are at once strong and feminine
without having to borrow from that male identity. They have made the journey to their own
selves, not allowed Bonnie, but in one final autonomous act, die trying to reach the ‘real.’
Scott incorporates a slow motion effect here, purposefully allowing the audience more time to
process the implications of this scene. This technique works to amplify this image and the
montage sequence to follow and guides the audience to reflect on Thelma & Louise’s journey.