A visit to the United States is not necessary in order to be aware of certain ideas and icons of America. From a wide range of media, including film and advertisements, representations are shown of what being American and being in America means. There are various reasons as to why this is so, involving American history; it's social structure and the spread of a global, American culture. This essay will focus on the theme explored in American Exceptualism, looking at the symbolic representations in the road movie genre together with ideas of American identity. This will be explored in a number of ways including the representations of American society offered, the identities it produces, the issue of dominant ideology and the American iconography used throughout a number of the films in this genre. The essay will also explore the notion of intertextual references, which reinforce the American identity, including and influencing other forms of media and consumption. Texts looked at in most detail include Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Wild at Heart and Thelma and Louise.
The late sixties saw the beginning of the rise of the popularity of road movies. Due to the changes in American society, attitudes towards the American Dream also changed significantly to those offered previously by advertisements and television melodrama of the 1950s:
"The psychosocial effects of economic instability,the loss of the Vietnam War and of national prestige, social divisiveness, threats to the traditional patriarchal family and to conservative sexual mores, revelations of corruption in government and business, fears of environmental poisoning and of nuclear war are on ample display in film." (Ryan & Kellner 1988:7)This gives reason as to why people felt the need to search for alternative meanings in their lives, and explore the unconventional counterculture that America could offer. The publicity fuss created with the release of Thelma and Louise in 1991, was a repeat of that faced by the release of Bonnie and Clyde over twenty years earlier. This is largely because of their representations of individuals who search for their own American Dream showing that the tolerance of exerting individuality has not changed over this time.
It is argued that America has a unique, individual history, with the taming of the frontier as shown in Western films, and that America was once a virgin land. Cultural myths are constructed in road movies and give reason as to why America is special and can offer a unique cultural and national identity. Journeys are often taken Westwards, towards the frontier: from civilisation into nature, and from people to isolation. The location for these films tend to be situated in places that time forgot: Thelma and Louise is set in the nineties, but the gas station they stop at is reminiscent to that in Easy Rider, set in the sixties. These locations also seem to be out of place, more at home in a Western film, with horses and a saloon. This could be a device that reduces the rebellion of individuals, and the impact of the social criticism, by placing the action in an "other world" context.
A feature of American Exceptualism is that it offers the possibility of a new beginning and of wealth. This new beginning is explored through the theme of escape and freedom, as discussed below. However, in most road movies it is not wealth that is being sought. Whilst Bonnie and Clyde steal money, they do not spend it extravagantly, instead, the dream they are following is not that of material wealth and success, rather it is the idea of fame and their love for each other. By being in the newspapers, and thereby famous, they become "someone", and can therefore exert their identities:
"Their robberies seem to advance their status not one whit; they gain no power, and they gain no things. What they do gain is a certain tentative freedom and happiness, self-esteem, and each others love, qualities more immediately attractive to a young mid-sixties audience." (Kolker 1988:46)The road represents a chance for the characters for freedom and escape from the confines of their dull lives of conservative and traditional living:
"Perhaps the most important of these representations was that of the self or subject in rebellion against conservative authority and social conformity." (Ryan & Kellner 1988:18)This entrapment is signified by the opening shots of Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde; she is shown behind the bars of her bed, and in extreme close-up which would symbolise the feeling of claustrophobia imposed on her by society. Thelma and Louise had planned a temporary escape from patriarchal society, by planning a fishing trip away from Thelma's domineering and oppressive husband, and Louise's boss. This is, of course, prolonged, but is still an escape from patriarchy. The idea of Frontiers is explored in detail, in two ways: on the one hand, the frame is filled with landscape imagery, unspoiled by Western progression, which stretches out as far as the eye can see, and beyond. However, there are also metaphorical frontiers as well. Whilst on the road, the characters cross personal boundaries. For example, Clyde overcomes his impotence, Thelma has her own money (albeit stolen), she does not have to ask or consult her husband, Louise turns the tables on her boyfriend, and makes him wait for her, and wonder where she is, and then turns down his marriage proposal, which is what she wanted before going on the road. In this sense, road movies show the power of the individual against conformity to social norms. This shows itself through the individual's conflict with authority, be it in the shape of parents or the law. For example, the policeman in Thelma and Louise is regarded as a Nazi, but he is then reduced to being heard crying, locked in the trunk of his own patrol car. This theme is expressed in a number of road movies:
"Like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider portrayed rebels, outlaws, and, by extension, the counterculture as a whole as victims...Easy Rider also shared Bonnie and Clyde's Oedipal anger at authority in general, and parents in particular, most evident in the cemetery sequence." (Biskind 1998:74)Representations of authority seem to be stereotypes of oppressive, overbearing figures. This is also a feature in Thelma and Louise, with the representations of men: there is the good looking, promiscuous cad, the stupid chauvinistic truck driver, and the domineering husband. If the oppressors become mere caricatures, there may be a danger that the rebellion against them might be taken less seriously.
The films offer representations of different members of American society. Road movies tend to concentrate on one of two age groups: either young twenty-something’s, or those who are around thirty or forty who are trying to recapture their lost youth, hence Thelma and Louise, having lived a little, realise that their future offers more of the same predictable conformity.
"...generating stories like On the Road or Easy Rider in which adults try desperately to postpone responsibilities by clinging to adolescent lifestyles." (Ray 1985:59)The subject of class in America is not as well defined as in Britain. Instead it is rather a matter of status: Louise has a certain degree of personal material wealth: she owns a car, and has savings of almost $7,000. She has attained wealth by living the traditional American Dream, but it is now not enough: it may seem cliched, but money could not make her happy.
The representations of family and home in road movies are somewhat contentious. Many of the films revolve around the idea of escaping the traditional notion of family. For example, it is often over-bearing parents or partners that are being left behind. In Easy Rider, because they are on the road, there is no home as such, except the idea of America being their home. But even that dissatisfies them, due to the loss of confidence in the country after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The film starts with them already on the road, so there is nothing from which they are leaving. Women are marginal in this film, used only for casual encounters. The characters leave the commune, which is the closest thing we are offered to a family unit. Thelma and Louise have no children, which theoretically makes it easier for them to leave and, in the same way, easier for them never to return. Whilst Thelma does begin by packing a number of suitcases with material belongings, these, along with make-up and jewellery, and any reminders of home are discarded. Wild at Heart, however, goes against this tradition of road movies and conforms to the Classic Hollywood Text, by including a return to the traditional nuclear family: "Love Me Tender" is Sailor's proposal of marriage to Lula, watched by their son, Pace. This element is also evident in True Romance.
As well as the road being seen as exciting in terms of freedom and escape, it is also shown to be sexually exciting. In Thelma and Louise, J.D. sexually liberates Thelma and she is clearly impressed, and now has a new found sense of confidence and optimism, which can be viewed as a positive thing. However, I believe that this could be turned around. It is true that J.D. liberates her, but only to then steal from her: she is not empowered by her liberation, she is still just as naive. It is also said that in this film, Thelma and Louise are a team and do not need men. However, my reading of the film would disagree. In one respect, men are still catalysts for the action: for example, the attempted rape and subsequent shooting puts them on the run, also, J.D. "teaches" Thelma to rob the grocery store, as she uses exactly his technique which, by means of a video camera, shows the police where they are. In addition to this there is a certain sense of sexual revolution whilst on the road. Clyde was impotent but Bonnie changes that: Clyde's replacement phallus, his gun satisfies Bonnie until his potency returns. Lula and Sailor make love in a different hotel each night, and the men in Easy Rider visit a brothel. This is all possible because they are away from the entrapments and confines of the family and home and can explore their individual sexuality.
Road movies are often referred to as "buddy movies". This is because, they have traditionally had two males as their protagonists, who, during their journey, embark on self-discovery, learning about each other and forging a close friendship. However, this has lead to many debates, and the question of homosexuality arises. Women are included in these films, albeit marginally, in order to "prove" the characters heterosexuality. This may also be proved by the inclusion of an overtly camp male, as if to say, our main characters, who we want you to identify with, cannot possibly homosexual, because they do not act like that! When Clyde first repels Bonnie's advances, he says:"Ain't nothing wrong with me...I don't like boys."
This is done to reaffirm social norms and to display that, even in rather rebellious and revolutionary films, dominant ideology of sexuality does still prevail. The use of guns is seen as a substitute for the phallus and masculinity, and so when Thelma takes her husband's gun, she also strips him of his masculine power. The idea of lesbianism has been included in many readings of Thelma and Louise (for example Griggers 1993): the idea for this is hinged precariously on the kiss shared between them before driving in to the abyss. The women have obviously been friends for a long time, this is not a friendship forged at the beginning of the film (as in Bonnie and Clyde) they were going away together for the weekend anyway. However, because they have empowered themselves and each other, the first stage of which was by rejecting patriarchy, it appears they must somehow be labelled as deviant, by being lesbians, and should therefore die. In other words, heterosexual women would not possibly think that they could get away with such rebellion. Hence, dominant ideology is put back in to place.
The long, never ending road signifies a journey into the unknown. Along that road, the journey seems to be heading towards, not a location in the conventional sense; rather it is towards a state of mind. These journeys seek individual identity and freedom. By breaking away from their conventional lives, characters can explore their own relationships and emotions. Thelma leaves behind the mousey wife, unable to handle a gun and finds the woman "awake" inside her, able not only to handle a gun, but also herself, and whatever the future may hold for her. Sailor Ripley's snakeskin jacket which he wears on the road, is: "a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom".
It is part of the American dream, that each person has the right to freedom, independence, democracy and achievement and this Americaness is prevalent with the use of the National flag. For example, in Easy Rider, Peter Fonda's character, has "Stars and Stripes" on his jacket, helmet and bike. Although he wants to exert his individuality, it could be said that his Americaness still encompasses him.
But at what price is this individuality and freedom attained? In buddy movies, it seems inevitable for at least one of the pair to die.
"They are...the protagonists of films made within an overwhelmingly patriarchal industry: hence they must finally be definitely separated, preferably by death." (Wood 1986:230)This is shown in Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, and in Thelma and Louise, they would rather die than be captured once again by a patriarchal system. I would argue that whilst the Declaration of Independence encourages individuality and freedom, when it comes down to it, that same American society will not let its people exercise that right: when they do, they die. Filmmakers realised this hypocrisy, as George in Easy Rider observes:"What you represent to them is freedom...but talking about it and being it, that's two different things. They're going to talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom. But if they see a free individual, it's gonna scare them...it makes them dangerous."
True Romance and Wild at Heart close with the formation of a traditional, nuclear family. Because of this conformity to the social norm of the family, the protagonists have learned from their "mistake" of exploring their individuality, and can therefore live.
In everyday social life, people have responsibilities in society and domestic life: for example Thelma's role as a wife. These films suggest that a person's individuality can only be explored when they are forced to act spontaneously, or by doing something wrong, to act as a catalyst:
"In America you have to knock off someone in order to become a human being." (Dawson 1995:119)Stops along this road, and the narrative that it represents, seem to prevent the continuation of this search for freedom and happiness. If the road represents their intended destination, each time they pull over, they are diverted and hindered by the possibility of the re-affirmation of the dominant ideology or to reflect on their actions. In Thelma and Louise, their first stop signals the attempted rape; at the second stop they meet J.D.; at the third, J.D. steals their money and so on, which all lead to their eventual demise.
This genre provides a way of raising social criticism, looking at what is wrong with society and the reason as to why characters need to go searching for their version of the American Dream, which has been denied them:
"One of the most satiric functions of the genre has always been to purvey a contemporary social scene and to expose its most problematic aspects." (Griggers in Collins et al 1993:130)Louise condemns patriarchy when she realises that they cannot report the attempted rape to the police, as they would never believe that Thelma had not "asked for it", as she says: "we just don't live in a world like that."
In Bonnie and Clyde, Blanche represents the dominant ideology, and the social norm: she is married, a god-fearing woman, impressed by the house and its mod-cons, fussing over her husband. Interestingly, it is she, and what she represents that is the sole survivor, despite the alternative lifestyle offered:
"[Films of the late sixties]...transcoded a growing sense of alienation from the dominant myths and ideals of US Society. Film served as both an instrument of social criticism and a vehicle for presenting favourable represents of alternative values and institutions." (Ryan & Kellner 1988:17)Due to distribution, advertising and gaining the widest possible audience, films cannot be too rebellious and must therefore be seen to conform to dominant ideology.
The films also include intertextual factors which represent their Americaness and the reinforcement of the American Dream. One example of this is the placement of the Coca-Cola trademark or product in the films. Bonnie and Clyde both drink from Coca-Cola bottles, and products are seen in Tender Mercies. Although in Thelma and Louise, this is replaced by Pepsi Cola, these drinks have an associated set of meanings, values and lifestyle, all typically whiter-than-white American. When Bonnie and Clyde drink from the distinctive Coca-Cola bottles, they thereby consume the lifestyle and Dream it encompasses. This can also be linked to the intertextual references made by films to other elements of popular culture. Elvis Presley and his music play an important role in both Wild at Heart and True Romance. He was, and remains to be, iconic of youth, America, sexuality and success: the representation of rock and roll is that of escapism and rebellion.
A number of road movies represent a counterculture for a particular American era, through hippy, gangster and feminist representations, which reinforces a rebellion against the American Dream shattered by a loss of belief in the American Elite. This uses themes of American Exceptionalism to explore freedom and individuality. However, through the fate that befalls such rebellious individuals and through intertextual references, it can also be read that these films, to a certain extent, do still comply to a dominant ideology, reinforcing the culture of a global Americanisation.
Biskind, P. (1998) Easy Riders
Raging Bulls. London: Bloomsbury.
Bernardoni, J. (1991) The New
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Interview with Susan Sarandon. On Steve Wright's Saturday Show. Radio Two. 30 January 1999.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Dir. Arthur Penn.