Consumer Behavior Meets the Nouvelle Femme: Feminist Consumption At the Movies

ABSTRACT - The consumer behavior of heroines in three recent motion pictures is analyzed for clues regarding women's evolving social roles. The three films, Aliens, Terminator 2, and Thelma and Louise, suggest that women may consume-and behave-like men more successfully in science fiction narratives than in those depicting 'real life'. Some thoughts on the messages such films send women, and men, are discussed.


Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1993) ,"Consumer Behavior Meets the Nouvelle Femme: Feminist Consumption At the Movies", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 41-47.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 41-47


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University


The consumer behavior of heroines in three recent motion pictures is analyzed for clues regarding women's evolving social roles. The three films, Aliens, Terminator 2, and Thelma and Louise, suggest that women may consume-and behave-like men more successfully in science fiction narratives than in those depicting 'real life'. Some thoughts on the messages such films send women, and men, are discussed.


Gender roles and feminism are emerging as significant new avenues for inquiry in consumer research during the 1990's (see Bristor and Fischer 1991; Fischer and Arnold 1990; Hirschman 1991; Holbrook 1990). However, empirical studies based on popular culture materials, e.g., advertisements, television shows, have been relatively scarce thus far (for exceptions, see Stern 1991, 1989). The present study extends feminist inquiry in consumer behavior into a previously unexplored popular culture domain, that of motion pictures. Women in American films have usually portrayed traditional female roles (e.g., wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter) and conformed to traditional sex role expectations, e.g., they are nurturant, submissive, emotional, and unaggressive.

However, in the late 1970's and early 1980's a new type of female character began to appear. First noticeable in roles played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979) and Linda Hamilton in The Terminator (1984), this nouvelle femme combined masculine and feminine qualities and emerged on the screen as an androgynous superwoman-resourceful, competent and courageous, while at the same time caring, sensitive and intuitive.

This new form of female heroine proved so compelling to audiences that she was reprised and given even greater depth in Aliens (1986) and Terminator II (1990). The central women characters in these two films were shown originating as nouvelle femmes, however. Few textual clues were offered as to how they became that way. Further, both films in which they appeared were science fiction dramas and not intended as realistic portrayals of everyday life.

And then came Thelma and Louise (1991), a film in which two very traditional women in very traditional roles (i.e., housewife and waitress) are transformed into resourceful, competent, courageous-an ultimately doomed-outlaws. This film taught audiences a great deal about the feminist view of male-female relations, as well as providing a forceful warning to feminists of the extraordinary costs extracted from women who strayed too far from traditional female behaviors.

The present paper closely examines the roles of 'Ripley' in Aliens, Sarah Conner in Terminator II, and Thelma and Louise in Thelma and Louise as consumers. As I shall show, their apparel, hairstyles, and product usage characteristics (especially of traditionally male goods, such as liquor, guns, tobacco, cars and machinery) is a semiotically rich avenue for understanding their meaning in current American culture.


In the interest of providing historic context for the discussion, and because the present author is a firm believer in the auteur concept of filmmaking (see Wollen 1985), some background information on these three films is appropriate. Aliens, Terminator II, and Thelma and Louise, are the most recent additions to a corpus of feminist films by two male directors: Ridley Scott and James Cameron. The first contribution to this significant body of work was the film Alien, written and directed by Ridley Scott in 1979. This film introduced the character of Ripley, a warrant officer aboard a doomed space freighter. Ripley, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, originated an iconic female character in American film who was strongly androgynous. Capable of functioning creatively and courageously in a barren, ultra hi-tech environment, Ripley none-the-less maintains her feminine side, mourning for dead crew members and rescuing the sole surviving representative of a human space colony-a yellow tomcat. Ripley was the first woman in film to confront a monster, technology, and violence and survive, through ingenuity and will. For female consumers, her appearance on the screen was an important cinematic, and cultural, milestone.

The years 1984 and 1986 saw two additional significant events in feminist films, both due to the directing and screenwriting efforts of James Cameron: Aliens (1986) and The Terminator (1984). Aliens, which we shall discuss in depth subsequently, reprised the character of Ripley and developed in much greater detail her iconic status as a feminine warrior. Two years earlier, Cameron's low budgeted science fiction film, The Terminator, had been released and originated two iconic figures: the Terminator, a robotized, completely destructive man, (played quite credibly by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Sarah Conner, an evolved Everywoman whose task it becomes to save humankind from machines. Sarah Conner, played by Linda Hamilton, begins the narrative as a common female character-the innocent victim-who must be protected from the Terminator by a courageous male figure (Michael Biehen). However, by the end of the narrative a significant shift in her status has occurred. Her male protector has been killed and Sarah, using ingenuity and technology, kills the Terminator by herself. The narrative closes with Sarah, pregnant with the (male) future savior of humankind, driving into the desert to seek shelter from the oncoming nuclear conflagration.

In 1990, James Cameron completed his triptych of the Nouvelle Femme, with the motion picture Terminator 2: Judgement Day. As will be discussed in depth subsequently, the character of Sarah Conner is enlarged and enriched, making her a woman warrior remarkably similar to Ripley, but with a different mission.

A year later, Ridley Scott returned to direct his first feminist-voiced film since Alien, twelve years earlier. The screenplay for Thelma and Louise (1991) unlike those of the other four films discussed, was written by a woman, Callie Khourie. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because it is intended as a real life narrative and not a science fiction epic, Thelma & Louise is both more explicitly feminist in its ideology, and also more depressingly honest about its heroines' fates. During the course of the story Thelma and Louise do "cross over the line" to become women warriors, and like Ripley and Sarah Conner they display ample ingenuity, courage and competence with technology. But unlike these other two female characters who survived their encounters with monsters and machinery, respectively, Thelma and Louise confront the more formidable foe of entrenched misogynist cultural norms and perish.

Let us now examine these women heroes more carefully and see what their behavior as consumers can instruct us about the current construction of gender.


At the opening of the narrative, Ripley, in suspended animation in a small space craft, is discovered by a salvage team and taken to a space station hospital near earth. A corporate representative, Burke, dressed in a business suit, tells her that she was adrift in space for fifty-seven years. Ripley has recurrent nightmares of alien monsters, recalling earlier events that led to the death of her crew.

Ripley is interviewed by corporate executives who do not believe her story of alien attacks on her ship and crew and are angry she destroyed their expensive space craft. A woman in a suit and tie, smoking a cigarette, interrogates her harshly. Burke tells Ripley that seventy families have been living for twenty years on the planet Ripley claims is inhabited by aliens. Ripley's hair is short, she wears no makeup, and dresses in a tank top and pants.

A few days later, Burke comes to see Ripley, who has been working as a cargo loader on the docks, and promises to reinstate her to flight officer status. All contact has suddenly been lost with the colony and the company wants Ripley to return to the planet with Burke and a unit of marines to find out why. At first, Ripley refuses: "I'm not a soldier", because she fears returning to the planet. However, her nightmares persist and Burke assures her that the alien organisms will be killed, not brought back.

Ripley (in gray cotton underwear), the marines, and Burke fly to the planet. Their space craft is highly mechanized, metallic, and spare. Two of the marines are women, who are highly masculinized, (i.e., they are heavily muscled, have short hair, wear aviator glasses, do pull-ups, and curse). There is also an android named Bishop.

Upon their arrival, Ripley assists by working a large, mechanical loader. Ripley wears gray work overalls. The marines suit up for a search mission wearing helmets and combat gear and carrying huge rifles. They land on the planet, which is dark, barren, and wet.

They enter the colonist's station, but find no people-only signs of an intense fight. They discover some alien larvae in preserving jars. (The larvae resemble amphibians with insect-like features.). They discover a sole surviving child, a nine year old girl named "Neut". After the Marines fruitlessly attempt to interrogate her, Ripley compassionately gives Neut hot chocolate and cleans her face softly.

The marines locate a huge, slimy nest in which the colonists have been stored for use as food and incubators by the aliens. Ripley realizes that if the marines fire grenades, the station will be destroyed. The creature attacks the marines and kills several. As the lieutenant panics, Ripley drives an armored personnel carrier to their rescue. Ripley advises that they take off and "nuke" the site. But Burke, realizing the profit potential of this new species and of the site, refuses. The marines support Ripley. However, their pick-up vehicle crashes when an alien attacks the pilot.

Ripley, smoking a cigarette, calms Neut, as the men around them panic. The lieutenant is injured, and Ripley emerges as the natural leader of the group. She and the marines review their ammunition. She devises a plan to barricade their building until a rescue ship arrives. She makes intelligent, creative use of the available technology. Ripley puts Neut to bed; she is gentle and nurturant (i.e., a good mother). She gives Neut a locating device and kisses her.

Ripley, smoking cigarettes, argues with Burke, who wants to save alien specimens for profit. Ripley realizes that it was Burke who sent the colonists to investigate the aliens, causing them to be killed, after he had heard about the aliens from Ripley. Ripley tells Burke she will have him arrested when they return.

The android, Bishop, heroically patches a communication link enabling them to call in a landing ship.

Hicks, a brave marine who has been supportive and admiring of Ripley, shows her how to use the hi-tech rifle.

Neut and Ripley sleep together. Ripley awakens and realizes that Burke has put an alien larvae in their room, intending to kill them. Unable to escape, Ripley cleverly uses a lighter to turn on the sprinkler systems. This alerts the marines, who rescue her and Neut. Burke had hoped the larvae would embed itself (impregnate) in Ripley and Neut, so that their corpses could be used to bring the species back to earth. Burke would have also killed the marines to hide his crime and make profits. Ripley: "At least the (alien) species doesn't fuck each other over for a goddamned percentage".

The group barricades itself inside the operations building, but the creatures enter through the ceiling. There is a horrific firefight. Burke attempts to sabotage them, but Neut discovers an escape route through an air duct. Neut falls down a shaft and is captured by an alien creature. Hicks and Ripley search for her. Hicks is injured by an alien; Ripley helps him. The two remaining marines, Vasquez (a woman) and Gorman (the male lieutenant) die heroically fighting the creatures.

The android, Bishop, arrives with the landing craft. Ripley loads the wounded Hicks aboard and then goes back by herself to rescue Neut. She loads herself with weapons and prepares for battle. She discovers Neut alive in the creature's slimy web. Using a flame thrower, Ripley destroys the alien's eggs and larvae. The mother creature rips herself loose from her egglaying apparatus and pursues Ripley and Neut. The planet begins to self destruct. Ripley and Neut make it to the escape ship and leave the planet as it explodes. Ripley hugs and holds Neut. They arrive at the large space craft. Ripley tends to Hick's wounds and thanks Bishop, the android. Suddenly, Bishop is torn in two by the female creature, which had gotten aboard the space craft. The creature comes after Ripley and Neut. Ripley protects Neut and attracts the creature to herself. But the creature stalks Neut in revenge for Ripley's destruction of her own young. Ripley, encased within a mechanical loader, confronts the creature: "Get away from her (Neut), you bitch!"

After a fierce fight, Ripley opens the hatch causing the creature to be swept out to space. Bishop, only a top torso now, heroically saves Neut from being swept into space. Neut and Ripley embrace. At the closing of the narrative, Neut and Ripley prepare for hypersleep to return to the Earth station.


Sarah Conner's voice narrates the opening: "Three billion people died on Judgement Day... a nuclear holocaust; the survivors had to fight an even worse terror... the machines." The world is engulfed by conflagration. The remaining humans struggle to survive against superior, self-aware computers, robots, and armored vehicles. Images of a children's playground in flames are used to convey the loss of innocent human life.

Two terminators (robot warriors) are sent back from the future to the present time. One, an early model Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is sent back to protect the young John Conner, who will grow up to become humankind's savior in the war with the machines. The other, more advanced Terminator, is sent back to destroy John Conner. The first Terminator is dressed in black "outlaw biker" leather and rides a Harley-Davidson. The second, composed of liquid, malleable metal, assumes the form of a policeman and drives a patrol car. Both go looking for John Conner who, at age eleven, is a young, smart juvenile delinquent residing with foster parents.

John's mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) is confined in a maximum security mental hospital after she attempted to blow-up a computer company. Sarah knows that the future (see Terminator 1) includes a nuclear holocaust caused by machine/computer dominance. Now in the present, she is struggling to prevent this future from occurring. In her cell, Sarah does pull-ups to strengthen her body. She wears a tank top, sweat pants and unkempt hairstyle. She wears no make-up or bra.

John and a friend ride their motor-bike to a bank machine where they use John's Atari game to steal $300. John tells his friend that his mother is a "psycho", he does not believe her wild tales of nuclear destruction and terminators.

Sarah, smoking cigarettes, tries to convince her psychiatrist that she has recovered from her "delusions" about robot warfare. The doctor does not believe her recantations. Furious, she attacks him and is put into restraints.

Both Terminators search for John at a video arcade where he is (ironically) playing computer war games. They find John and shoot at one another. John escapes on his motorbike, and is pursued by both Terminators. The "good" Terminator rescues John on his motorcycle. The "evil" Terminator kills John's foster parents.

John, realizing that the good Terminator is there to protect him, orders him not to kill humans and to help him free his mother.

Displaying substantial ingenuity and mechanical competence, Sarah uses a stolen paper clip to free herself from restraints and her locked room. She beats-up a guard with a mop handle and uses a poison-filled syringe to hold her psychiatrist hostage. John and the good Terminator rescue her. As they drive away, they are pursued by the evil Terminator. Sarah and the good Terminator both shoot at him.

Sarah reprimands John for risking his life to free her. She tells him that his life is very important to the future; further, "I didn't need your help. I can take care of myself."

They seek shelter in a closed gas station. The good Terminator stitches up Sarah's wounds; she in turn removes bullets from his back. The Terminator tells them he "is a learning computer. The more contact I have with people, the more I learn". In the morning, they drive South in a station wagon. Sarah smokes a cigarette.

They drive to a remote junkyard, where Sarah has stashed a large supply of weapons. Sarah talks in Spanish to a Mexican friend who has assisted her and gulps tequila with him from a bottle. Sarah is dressed in combat gear; her hair is tied back; she wears aviator sunglasses. She directs the good Terminator and John to prepare themselves for a battle. John: "One thing about my Mom, she always plans ahead."

Sarah loads her guns and smokes cigarettes. She watches John playing "HI-5" with the Terminator and decides that it will serve as a good father-figure for him. She dreams of a children's playground engulfed in nuclear flames. She decides to go kill the scientist, a black man named Tyson, who is destined to invent the super computer that causes nuclear war. In full combat gear, she arrives at Tyson's house. She shoots at him with a laser-scoped assault rifle, but misses when he bends down to get his son's electric toy car. She pins the family to the floor with death threats, but is unable to bring herself to kill Tyson, realizing that he is a good father and husband. Her son, John, and the good Terminator arrive. They tell Tyson of the future nuclear war. Sarah tells John she loves him. Sarah tells Tyson that it "is men like you who will lead to the destruction of the world" because they value power and technology above human love and life. Sarah smokes a cigarette. Tyson agrees to help them destroy all his files at Cyberdyne, the computer company.

The four go to Cyberdyne and destroy all the computer files. John uses his Atari game to gain entry to the site. A huge police force is sent to subdue them. They escape in a truck; Sarah covers John with bullet proof vests to protect him. The evil Terminator pursues them in a helicopter. Sarah is shot in the leg. The evil Terminator then pursues them in a huge truck carrying liquid nitrogen.

They arrive at an enormous iron foundry. The evil Terminator at first disintegrates in liquid nitrogen, but then reassembles itself and continues to pursue them. The good Terminator heroically battles it, but is crippled. Sarah sends John to safety and shoots at the evil Terminator with a rifle. However, the Terminator impales her arm. Before he can kill her, however, the good Terminator shoots him with a grenade. The evil Terminator falls into a vat of molten metal and disintegrates. The good Terminator then has Sarah lower him into the vat of molten metal to destroy his C.P.U., so that it cannot be used to create the supercomputer. John is upset by the suicide of his father figure. Before he perishes, the good Terminator hugs John and shakes Sarah's hand.

At the close of the story, Sarah says: "The unknown future rolls toward us; for the first time I face it with hope, because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."


Louise Sawyer is a thirty-seven year old unmarried coffee shop waitress in Arkansas. Thelma Dickinson is a housewife in her late twenties married to a philandering car salesman, Daryl. Thelma prepares breakfast for Daryl, who treats her as a household servant. He leaves for work in his red Corvette. Louise calls Thelma and tells her to pack for their weekend fishing trip. Thelma, in hair rollers and eating a candy bar, packs for the trip; unable to ask Daryl's permission, she leaves him a note, a beer and dinner in the microwave. She gingerly packs a gun in her suitcase, does her hair and makeup, and puts on an attractive outfit.

Louise comes to pick her up in a borrowed green Thunderbird convertible. Like Thelma, Louise is also nicely dressed, made-up and coiffed. At Thelma's request, the pair stops at a Country Western bar. Thelma, who never drinks, orders a "Wild Turkey (bourbon) straight up", telling Louise: "My hair is coming down!" Louise orders a Margarita, with Cuervo on the side. An attractive man, Harlan, flirts with Thelma. She drinks and dances with him. While Louise is in the bathroom, Harlan takes Thelma, who is drunk and dizzy, to the parking lot and attempts to rape her. When she resists, he beats her. Louise arrives and puts a gun to his head: "You got a real fucked up idea of fun". Harlan: "Suck my cock!" Louise shoots and kills him. They hurriedly leave in their car. Louise looks at the gun in her hand. Thelma wants to talk to the police, but Louise insists the police will never believe them.

They stop at a coffee shop. Thelma is distraught: "This is some vacation!"; Louise smokes a cigarette as Thelma combs her hair. Thelma calls Daryl, but he is out (with another woman).

They next stop at a hotel. Thelma is still distraught; Louise calls her boyfriend, Jimmy, and asks him to send her money. He agrees to do so. Louise drinks a beer; Thelma, wearing a walkman and bikini, sunbathes by the pool. Their appearances have begun to become unkempt; their hair is disheveled, makeup gone.

The police begin a search for them. The FBI is called in. Thelma and Louise drive to Oklahoma City to pick up the money. Louise decides to run to Mexico. Thelma buys several 'airplane size' bottles of liquor.

Daryl is at home drinking beer and watching a football game. Thelma calls him; Daryl tells her to come back immediately: "Have you lost your mind?... get your butt back here now, goddamnit." Thelma: "Daryl, you're my husband, not my father.... Fuck you!"

At a gas station, Thelma sees a young cowboy; she is attracted to him. She puts on eyemakeup and lipstick, but Louise tells her they cannot take him along. Thelma swigs from a small liquor bottle. Louise tells her they cannot drive through Texas. (She had been raped there once).

They re-encounter the young cowboy; this time they pick him up. Louise stops to pick up the money and discovers that Jimmy is there, waiting for her. She spends the night with him, telling him nothing of what has happened. Jimmy gives her an engagement ring, but Louise declines: "Let's chalk it up to bad timing." Thelma spends the night with the cowboy, and becomes sexually awakened. The cowboy is a robber, and tells her how to rob stores.

The next morning, Jimmy and Louise have breakfast. He promises not to say he saw her and offers to go with her. They kiss emotionally, he leaves. Thelma walks in, happy from her night of passionate sex; her buttons are undone, her hair disheveled, Louise: "What happened to your hair...?" They discover, however, that the cowboy took all their money. Louise is crushed.

A horde of male FBI agents descend on Daryl's house in black government sedans, wearing khaki raincoats. They set up elaborate phone tapping equipment Thelma drives the car and holds up a convenience store to get money. Louise, disheveled, waits in the car, smoking a cigarette. She sees an older woman in a nearby window and, looking at her own face, throws away her lipstick. Daryl and the police view the videotape of Thelma's store holdup and are amazed. In addition to money, Thelma took several bottles of Wild Turkey. Thelma: "We needed money; now we have it!" Louise: "Oh shit, Oh shit, Oh shit!"

They now view themselves as outlaw women. Thelma sips whiskey from a big bottle and tells Louise: "I feel the call of the wild!" They throw all their trash in the back seat, so they won't create litter. They drive up behind a large truck with nude women on the mud flaps. The driver sucks his tongue at them. Louise: "That's gross; he's a fucking pig." They stop at a remote truck stop and wash up. They are very disheveled. Louise removes all her jewelry, including her engagement ring, and gives it to an old man for his cowboy hat.

Louise tells Thelma to call Daryl, to see if the police are trailing them. She calls; Daryl is so polite they realize the police are there. Louise calls and talks to a detective, Hal Slocum, of the Arkansas State police. He is trying to help them and pleads for them to give up. They decide against it, fearful they would be jailed or executed.

Thelma and Louise drive through the desert at night, it is very beautiful. Thelma: "I always wanted to travel. I just never got the opportunity." Louise: "Well, you got it now." They share a whiskey bottle, wear no makeup, and put-up their disheveled hair. The lewd truck driver comes up behind them; they pass him.

A policeman pulls them over for speeding. Thelma pulls a gun on the cop and forces him into the trunk of his car. She tells Louise to take his gun and shoot the radio. They also take his beer and extra ammunition. Thelma tells him: "My husband wasn't sweet to me and look how I turned out! They apologize to the policemen. They reload their guns; Thelma: "I think I have a knack for this shit!"

Louise calls Detective Slocum. He wants to help her, but she declines. They will be charged with murder. The FBI traces the call. Louise, drinking a beer, tells Thelma: "I think I fucked up; I think I'm going to get us killed." Thelma tells her not to worry, she would have been raped and Harlan would have gotten off, because they had been drinking and dancing together. Thelma: "Something's crossed over in me and I can't go back. I just couldn't live." Louise: "Yeah, I guess we don't want to end up on the damn Geraldo show." Thelma: "I feel awake.... I'm gonna get a job... work at Club Med."

They reencounter the trucker: "Baby, you ready for a big dick?," he asks. They stop. The trucker gets out expecting sex, but instead is reprimanded for sexually harassing women. They demand he apologize. Trucker: "Fuck You!" They blow up his truck by shooting it. Trucker: "You bitches from hell!" Thelma takes his cap and they drive off.

The police begin closing in, terming the pair "armed and extremely dangerous." Thelma and Louise have become outlaws. They wear a cowboy and trucker hat, no makeup, and are sunburned and dirty. Thelma: "No matter what happens, I'm glad I came with you." They both light up cigarettes; they tell each other they are good friends. After a wild ride in which they elude several police cars, they arrive at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Louise: "This is the first chance you've had to express yourself." Thelma: "Good driving!" Police cars and a helicopter surround them.

Realizing there is no escape, they clasp hands and speed the car forward: Thelma "Lets keep going!" The car flies over the canyon rim. A shot shows the back seat on which are their jewelry, scarves, makeup and the photograph of their former selves. The narrative ends with their car suspended over the canyon, before its inevitable plunge.


We learn about the female heroines of Aliens, Terminator 2 and Thelma & Louise not only by what they do in the narratives, but also by what they consume-and do not consume. The behavior of the four women-Ripley, Sarah Conner, Thelma and Louise-as consumers is consistently defined by their use of products commonly viewed as masculine and their nonuse of products commonly viewed as feminine. Thus, the four characters not only display the unexpected presence of masculine consumer behaviors, they also exhibit the absence of expected feminine consumer behaviors. My analysis will focus first on the exhibiting of masculine consumption by these four female characters.

Masculine Consumption

Perhaps the most semiotically explicit aspect of all four characters-and the factor that most vividly defines them as nouvelle femmes-is their engagement in many forms of masculine consumption. The women repeatedly do things that only men are conventionally expected to do in our culture; they curse, fight, smoke, and shoot. They master and control complex technology; they destroy property; they commit crimes. They all have "crossed over" to masculine modes of consumer behavior. Let us consider seven specific examples.

Cigarettes: In all four films, the female heroines are shown smoking cigarettes. The use of tobacco, including cigarettes, is culturally viewed as masculine behavior. When women smoke, they are seen as tougher, more worldly and less feminine. Further in these three films, the female characters do not smoke in a seductive fashion; rather they smoke as men do-casually, taking in deep drags of smoke. In a particularly telling scene at the outset of Thelma and Louise, Thelma, wanting to emulate Louise's more liberated image, sneaks a cigarette from her and practices smoking it in the car mirror. By the end of this film, both women, now clearly outlaws, draw reflectively on their cigarettes while discussing their probable deaths.

Liquor: There is no liquor present in Aliens; however, in Terminator 2, Sarah Conner gulps down tequila from a bottle she shares with her Mexican friend, Enrique. As a tough man would, she grips the bottle by the neck and drinks effortlessly. Thelma & Louise displays a brilliant progression of alcohol use that mirrors the characters' transformation from a waitress and housewife to liberated, outlaw status. At the Country Western bar, Thelma "lets her hair down" by drinking a bourbon straight. Louise reiterates by having a Margarita with a "Cuervo on the side". On the run after they have killed Harlan, Thelma buys several small bottles of bourbon at a convenience store. When she later robs a store at gunpoint, she steals two large bottles of bourbon, as well. Both women drink from the bottles continuously once they have "crossed over" into full-fledged outlaw status. When the women lock a policeman in his own car trunk, they steal not only his ammunition, but also his six-pack of beer. By the end of the film, alcohol has become a mainstay of their consumption.

Motorized Vehicles: In our culture (and virtually all others), men drive the motorized vehicles, while women ride as passengers. This pattern is purposely flouted in all three films. In Aliens, Ripley competently flies a space craft and an armored personnel carrier. Further, she drives them at high speed in combat situations, both of which are atypical for women. In Terminator 2, Sarah Conner drives cars, trucks and a motorcycle at high speeds over dangerous courses. And in Thelma and Louise, Louise drives their green, convertible Thunderbird over highways, back roads and desert flats, often at speeds of 110 m.p.h., and successfully eludes police pursuits on several occasions. Women are not supposed to be able to drive like this, but these women do, and their example creates new images of what women are capable of performing.

Technology/Machinery: Closely related to this is the competence exhibited by these four female characters in dealing with technology and complex machinery. Ripley in Aliens is perhaps the most compelling exemplar of this. Over the course of the narrative, Ripley exhibits technical skills superior to those of the male characters. She warns that the use of grenades in a certain area will destroy their building; she devises a plan to barricade the survivors of the creature's attack by sealing off entrances to the building; she develops a communication linkage with the command ship which provides a rescue craft; and in one ingenious scene, she signals danger by using her cigarette lighter to set off the fire sprinkler system. Finally, at the end of the narrative Ripley straps herself into an enormous mechanized loader and uses its mechanical might to battle the beast. Similarly, Sarah Conner, in Terminator 2, uses a paper clip to free herself from restraints and pick the lock on her door, and a hypodermic needle filled with drain cleaner as a weapon to escape from a mental hospital. In Thelma and Louise, there is less opportunity for hi-tech competency, but Thelma does have Louise shoot the police radio in the patrolman's car and does shoot two air holes in his trunk, before locking him in it.

Guns: These last two acts lead us to a fifth category of masculine consumption-guns. Guns are the most masculine of all products, because they symbolize not only the male genitalia (e.g., he banged her), but also the power and violence associated with men. Guns are associated with war-like violence in Aliens and Terminator 2, and with sexual violence in Thelma & Louise. The character of Ripley, verbally declining to become a warrior at the outset of Aliens, has become a magnificent Amazon by the narrative's end. She is instructed by the marine Hicks in the use of his large complex, rifle midway through the story. In the climactic scenes, she single-handedly rescues Neut from the monster armed with a flame thrower, grenade launcher, flares, and automatic rifle-a one-(wo)man army.

Similarly, Sarah Conner is completely comfortable with a variety of artillery. In the course of Terminator 2, she effectively uses an automatic pistol, police baton, hunting knife, laser-scoped automatic rifle, shotgun and grenade launcher. And Thelma and Louise, too timid to touch a 38 pistol at the outset of the film, become adept at using guns to shoot rapists, overwhelm policemen, rob convenience stores and blow-up the trucks of offensive drivers over the course of the story. This is a very powerful message conveyed by all three films: that women can shoot guns; that they can defend themselves with powerful, violent weapons. So often in films women have been depicted as helpless victims who must be protected by armed men. It is indeed a cultural transformation to see images of women taking this right, and responsibility, onto themselves.

Commit Crimes/Destroy Property: Just as these films depict women using guns in a masculine fashion, they also portray women engaging in crimes that are typically associated with male behavior. Thelma and Louise hold-up a convenience store, shoot-up a police car and evade police cars chasing them, causing several to crash. Ultimately, they drive their car off a cliff. Sarah Conner blows-up an entire computer company to prevent it from manufacturing super-computers for the Defense Department. She, her son, and the good Terminator also steal several cars, break into a service station, and destroy many police vehicles. Ripley, in an effort to prevent a human-devouring creature from returning to earth, blows up an entire planet and its (vacant) research complex.

One significant difference, however, between the property destruction engaged in by these characters and that usually exhibited by male characters in films is that these acts were undertaken generally for a "higher purpose". Thelma and Louise engage in crime only to elude police and survive; Sarah Conner is obsessed with saving the world from thermonuclear war; and Ripley acts to protect humans from a voraciously predatory species. As I shall argue in the closing portion of this paper, these female characters are distinguished from their male counterparts by their commitment to typically feminine agendas-the preservation and nurturance of life, rather than the acquisition of power or money.

Killing People/Monsters: Perhaps no act of consumption is more profound than the consuming of a life. Of course, to survive, all of us consume others' lives-for example, those of cattle, chickens, and pigs. Even vegetarians consume plant life. But people also consume lives by killing other people to gain material objectives or by displacing other species to expand their own species' habitat. In the three films discussed, several lives are consumed. In Aliens, Ripley-in a clear act of female-to-female species competition-destroys the creature's eggs and larvae, while protecting her own adopted offspring, Neut, and the human species, at large.

In Terminator 2, Sarah Conner beats a hospital guard and threatens the life of a psychiatrist (also breaking his arm), while escaping from a mental hospital. She also attempts to shoot an unarmed computer scientist, because he is the future inventor of a destructive super computer. However, she is unable to do so when he is protected by his terrified wife and son. (Sarah then realizes that it is morally wrong to kill a man for a crime he has not yet committed).

In perhaps the most morally troubling of the acts of inter-personal violence in these films, Louise shoots and kills a man who has beaten and attempted to rape her friend, Thelma. The man, Harlan, is clearly manipulative and brutal toward women, and we learn later that he has had many similar encounters. Further, we learn also that Louise was raped earlier in Texas and that her attacker was not punished. Thus, in a sense she was repaying two acts of sexual violence with a man's death. But, because it was her and Louise's self-respect which had been violated-and not life, itself-her willful killing of Harlan may be read as an overextraction of payment. As I will discuss later, this unfortunately confuses the ultimate message of Thelma and Louise. Did the women die because they were the hapless victims of a misogynist, patriarchal society, or did they die because they had overstepped the boundaries of justified vengeance?

Feminine Nonconsumption

Traditionally in films women have not only failed to consume in masculine ways, they have also consumed in markedly feminine ways: female heroines are typically beautiful; they have attractively styled hair; they wear lovely clothing that enhances their sexual attractiveness; they wear lipstick and eye makeup. Just as they broke the rules regarding masculine consumer behavior, the heroines in Aliens, Terminator 2, and Thelma & Louise also break the rules regarding feminine consumption: Their hair is unkempt, faces bare of makeup, clothes are disheveled or purposely utilitarian. Unlike most women in film, these characters sweat, get dirty, and function without regard to their appearance.

Make-up: Feminine consumption norms dictate that women use makeup to decorate their faces in order to make themselves more attractive to men. The heroines in the three motion pictures discussed here act counter to these norms by either never using makeup or by abandoning its use. Ripley and Sarah Conner are presented to us initially, and throughout the entire narrative, without makeup. Their faces are bare and plain; they make no coy or suggestive facial gestures toward men. Their faces are simply faces. Conversely, at the outset of Thelma & Louise, both the central female characters are lavishly made-up. Their faces are signboards of feminine attractiveness and availability-mascaraed lashes, rouged cheeks, painted lips, powdered skin. However, over the course of the story, their efforts at maintaining these facial facades are slowly abandoned, giving way at the end of the film to the bare-skinned, sunburned, dirt-creased honesty of their newfound status as female outlaws. In perhaps one of the most poignant scenes signalling this transformation, Louise begins to apply lipstick to her parched lips outside a convenience store. She glimpses an older, completely passive woman entrapped within her rural house wearing lipstick. She glances at her own worn, dusty face in the car mirror and in a moment of epiphanic self-recognition ("I am no longer what I once was"), tosses the lipstick out the car window.

Hairstyling: After their faces, traditionally perhaps women's most decorated feature is their hair. Women's hair, especially hair that is long, soft and flowing, is a distinctive cultural sign of their gender and communicates their availability to men. When Thelma told Louise she was "letting her hair down" by drinking straight bourbon and dancing with a handsome stranger, she metaphorically implied that she was seeking to make herself attractive to men other than her husband; that she was not going to behave as a proper wife should. Hair styles were an important semiotic device in all three films. At the outset of Aliens, Ripley's hair is shoulder length and somewhat feminine. But after she agrees to return to the distant planet and assist the search for the creature, her hair is cut short, signalling her coming evolution to warrior status. Sarah Conner's hair is shoulder-length and straight; she wears very long bangs which she uses to hide her eyes (and escape attention) from the psychiatrist. Preparing to kill scientist Tyson, she ties her hair back away from her face so she can better aim her rifle. And it remains this way for the rest of the film. Thelma and Louise begin their adventure with beautifully styled, curled hair worn draped over their shoulders. By the film's end, their unkempt, dirty hair is pinned-up in a utilitarian fashion to cool their necks. No longer viewing themselves as decorative objects, their hair styling has been relegated to functional status.

Clothing: Clothing is another highly significant gender marker. Women are culturally expected to wear dresses and skirts, and undergarments such as hosiery and brassieres. Once again, these four female heroines disregard social expectations. Ripley wears a white tank top and gray sweatpants at the outset of Aliens. Upon arriving on the creature's planet, she wears gray industrial overalls. She remains bra-less throughout the entire film. Similarly, Sarah Conner wears gray sweatpants and a white T-shirt at the mental hospital; she wears a black tank top and black work pants with combat boots after escaping, and puts on combat fatigues when she embarks on her mission to shoot the scientist. She remains in this apparel for the rest of the film. Like Ripley, Sarah Conner wears no bra. [The bralessness of both Ripley and Sarah Conner is worth commenting on. In both films, their breasts are clearly outlined beneath their shirts, which would normally have sexual connotations. However, in both films these women's breasts are treated in a very matter-of-fact manner, simply as normal components of the female chest, rather than as sexually charged objects.]

Thelma and Louise initially wear highly decorative, feminine apparel. They have on earrings, scarves, fringe and form-fitting clothing, all of which strongly signified their status as traditional, men-pleasing women. By story's end their apparel, like themselves, has become transformed to functional, utilitarian status. They are trying to survive, not decorate. They go over the cliff (and into iconic status) in torn jeans, rolled-up shirt sleeves, bandannas, sweat bands and wearing, fittingly, a trucker's cap and cowboy's hat.


The commercial and critical success of these three films suggests that their presentation of the nouvelle femme struck a responsive chord in contemporary culture. That consumers viewed these characters as acceptable exemplars of female behavior is encouraging to those having feminist values and provides a provocative glimpse into shifting cultural beliefs regarding women's roles in society. Two of the films, Aliens and Terminator 2, present women as competent, but compassionate, warriors who struggle selflessly against horrific threats to human life. The character of Ripley actually stands in opposition to two evil foes: a violent, predatory space monster that devours human life and an inhumane, profiteering corporation that is willing to sacrifice people for money. Ripley-an androgynous female figure-is depicted in the narrative as the appropriate choice to overcome both evils. She is courageous and intelligent enough to defeat the monster; she is also compassionate and sufficiently moral to resist the lures of material gain.

Similarly, the character of Sarah Conner in Terminator 2 is pitted against a machine-monster and the corrupt, money-hungry computer company that permits machines to dominate humans. In their roles as strong, heroic mothers, Ripley and Sarah both metaphorically protect all humankind as their "offspring". The films teach us that women-because they value life more than power-are more to be trusted than men in securing humankind's survival.

While the underlying ideology of Aliens and Terminator 2 is implicitly feminist, that of Thelma and Louise is explicitly so. Embarking on a holiday away from their abusive husband and disinterested boyfriend, respectively, Thelma and Louise set forth on a journey through virtually every misogynist locale on the map of contemporary man-woman relations: the smooth pick-up-artist turned violent rapist, the unwillingness of the justice system to extend credulity to women who are sexually abused, the swiftness of the patriarchal police system to punish women who act aggressively against men and property, the smooth talking con men who ingratiate themselves and then vaporize with one's money, the macho men who see all women as eager recipients of their lustfulness. On their road trip to oblivion, Thelma and Louise pass all these highly gendered markers of the inequality between the sexes.

Although it ends in the women's deaths, the film also shows us moments of female revelry, of true comradeship, of genuine freedom in the sense that Janis Joplin meant it: "just another name for nothing left to lose". These two women show us that by losing it all, they ultimately found themselves. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future our society will support a film that shows the outlaw heroines riding-off happily into the sunset, just as the men do.


Bristor, Julia M. and Eileen Fischer (1991), "Objectivity and Gender in Consumer Research: A Feminist Deconstructionist Critique," in J. A. Costa (ed.), Gender and Consumer Behavior, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 115-123.

Fischer, Eileen and Stephen J. Arnold (1990), "More Than a Labor of Love: Gender Roles and Christmas Gift Shopping," Journal of Consumer Research, 17, (December), 333-345.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1991), "A Feminist Critique of Marketing Theory: Toward Agentic-Communal Balance," in J. A. Costa (ed.), Gender and Consumer Behavior, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 324-340.

Holbrook, Morris B. (1990), "The Role of Lyricism in Research on Consumer Emotions," in M. E. Goldberg, G. Gorn and R. W. Pollay, (eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 17, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 1-18.

Stern, Barbara B. (1991), "Deja Vu: Feminism Revisited," in J. A. Costa (ed.), Gender and Consumer Behavior, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 341-349.

Stern, Barbara B. (1989), "Literary Criticism and Consumer Research: Overview and Illustrative Analysis," Journal of Consumer Research, 16, (December), 322-334.

Wollen, Peter (1985), "The Auteur Theory," in G. Mast and M. Cohen, (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 553-562.



Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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