'Wanted': On Women and Female Fugitives in Modern Media
Even in a current show that works against genre conventions by casting two female leads, women are still bound for one of two institutions.
Richard Bell, Rebecca Gibney
On a morning much like any other, Chelsea Babbage (Geraldine Hakewill), a primly dressed accountant in her late 20s, waits at the bus stop. Alongside her, only a bench-length away, stands Lola Buckley (Rebecca Gibney), a mid-40s grocery store cashier with a dark secret. These women are, by all accounts, perfect and complete strangers. That is, until they both witness a fatal carjacking and become party to a violent feud between crooked law enforcement officers and drug kingpins. Running for their lives, Chelsea and Lola are chased across Australia, Thailand, and New Zealand by everyone from dirty cops, to hired assassins and small-time crooks, to well-meaning detectives.
On its surface, the Australian television series Wanted relies upon a well-trod premise in the genre of crime drama, one in which seemingly ordinary people are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. This idiomatic explanation, however, privileges an ahistorical worldview in which pure happenstance is the prime, determinative factor that shapes our lives. It also begs the question: what exactly is the right place, and when exactly is the right time?
In her book You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, and Other Mixed Messages (Mariner, 2017), Carina Chocano examines the perverse ways in which women are characterized by media. In a close analysis of the 1988 French film Camille Claudel (Bruno Nuytten, 1988) about the 19th century female sculptor of the same name, Chocano posits that women are destined for one of two institutions: "marriage or the nuthouse". The former is more suited for those willing to submit to impossible and oppressive patriarchal standards, the latter for those who are unwilling to conform to misogynistic societal expectations, and are, therefore, deemed crazy. Either way, female ambition is met with institutionalization.
In the case of Wanted, both Chelsea and Lola are trying to evade law enforcement and extensive prison sentences for crimes that they have either not committed, or that they have been forced to commit to preserve their own lives, and therefore, the ability to narrate their own stories. Chelsea is also trying to outrun the possibility that she may have inherited Huntington's disease from her mother whom, a decade ago, was hospitalized after experiencing a deterioration of her mental faculties. While the first season of Wanted shies away from romantic subplots, the second season introduces love interests for both Chelsea and Lola, suggesting that even in a show that works against genre conventions by casting two female leads, women are still bound for one of two institutions.
Thelma & Louise, final scene.
One of the few movies about female-best-friends-turned-partners-in-crime, and perhaps also the most iconic, manages to completely subvert the expectation that women who refuse to conform are bound to be institutionalized. The 1991 film Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) is famous because of what it refuses: both capture and surrender. The final scene centers on the green 1966 Thunderbird convertible that has, up until this point, allowed best friends and fellow fugitives Thelma Yvonne Dickinson (Geena Davis) and Louise Elizabeth Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) to evade the long arm of the law. In that final scene, staring down the gaping maw of the Grand Canyon with an entire fleet of armed lawmen at their backs, Thelma turns to Louise and says, "Let's not get caught. Let's keep going." Louise nods, and with that, Thelma punches the accelerator and sends them and the Thunderbird flying over the edge of a cliff. Before they can fall, the screen fades to white and it seems as if, for just a moment, they might take off into the clouds -- defying gravity and death.
The film's screenwriter Callie Khouri explained that "women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough to support them." With an ending as epochal as the one presented in Thelma & Louise, it can be easy to forget the causal factors that pushed the two women over the edge in the first place. Because they were pushed, and pushed, and pushed. The film begins with an attempt at freedom from domestic life in the form of a weekend getaway, with Thelma trying to escape her abusive husband and Louise needing to get away from her drudge work at the diner. While the two friends are en route to their vacation cabin, however, they stop at a roadside bar, get a little drunk, and a flirty stranger named Harlan follows them out of the bar tries to rape Thelma in the parking lot. At this point, the two women are presented with limited options: surrender or fight. Louise, who was herself a victim of rape, responds by shooting Harlan dead. Her act is not only motivated by his attempted rape of Thelma, but also by the fear that he would likely continue to terrorize women in the future.
Wanted's Lola Buckley is, in some ways, like a modern-day amalgam of both Thelma and Louise. Much like Thelma, she too has endured an abusive relationship, and much like Louise, she understands that violence is sometimes the only viable source of resistance. Long before she meets Chelsea, Lola was trapped in a marriage with a violent husband, a marriage that she was only able to escape when she killed her husband in self-defense, then fled for fear that the police wouldn't believe what had happened. And therein lies Lola's dark secret: she has been a fugitive from the law for most of her life, a fact that has honed her distrust of the law, and therefore, her ability to survive on the margins of a structurally flawed criminal justice system. On the morning of the fatal carjacking that ultimately sets them on their journey, Lola kills one of their assailants, a dirty cop who attempts to murder Chelsea. This pattern repeats itself over the course of the series. As they are pursued by a psychopathic hitman employed by a high-ranking crooked cop, Lola makes the decision to use lethal force, not only as a means of protecting her friend, but also as a method of disrupting future violence at the hands of powerful men.
In her 2016 Atlantic article "Thelma & Louise Holds Up Well—a Little Too Well", writer Megan Garber explains that "the fundamental fact of Thelma & Louise—the one that ultimately drives its plot, and the one that makes it feel so disappointingly fresh today—is the women's recognition that they can't trust the law, because the law doesn't trust them." This fundamental fact is the same one that drives the plot of Wanted. As Garber writes of Thelma & Louise, "'no one would believe us' runs like a refrain" throughout the entire series, and similarly "underscores pretty much every decision the two women make."
Perhaps Wanted's most obvious plot element that makes it difficult for Chelsea and Lola to trust the police is that dirty cops are embedded within the system and are actively trying to kill them. In both the series and Thelma & Louise, however, the presence of distinctly recognizable villains such as dirty cops and misogynistic rapists is only one of the factors that erodes trust between women and the systems that are supposed to both protect and believe them. A far more insidious problem is manifested in the form of the nice guy who believes that the system is not broken. Instead, the nice guy posits, the system is simply inhabited by a few noticeably bad apples. In Wanted, this figure manifests in the character of starry-eyed and strong-chinned Detective Josh Levine (Stephen Peacocke), who insists that, even though cops have been trying to kill them, Chelsea and Lola should be able to trust him, a good cop with even better intentions. Despite being a nice guy, however, Detective Levine is ultimately complicit in a system that propagates violence against women, and as such, Chelsea and Lola repeatedly reject his attempts to help them. The same can be said for Thelma & Louise when Arkansas Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) attempts to talk the two women into surrendering just before they drive over the edge of the Grand Canyon.
When Garber writes that Thelma & Louise "could have been made, with its script pretty much entirely unchanged, today" she reiterates that "this is not, to be clear, a good thing." She asks, "What is Thelma & Louise, if not a parable of two women, navigating a world that was not built for them?" Because the women's world was, after all, built -- it was assembled and constructed by men with power, men with their own biases and prejudices embedded into the very foundations of the systems that govern our daily lives.
Today the same could be asked of Chelsea Babbage and Lola Buckley: What is Wanted, if not a parable of two women, navigating a world that was not built for them? It seems to be an ongoing question that extends beyond factors of time and place. As Chocano pointed out in her book, 19th century France was both the wrong place and the wrong time for Camille Claudel. The early '90s was the wrong place and the wrong time for both Thelma and Louise. So, what exactly is the right place and when exactly is the right time to be a woman in this world, to have access to a kind of freedom that isn't death?
In the finalé of the second season of Wanted, there's a moment when Chelsea and Lola are holed up in a rural house in New Zealand, completely surrounded by armed police. They sit on the floor beneath a window as armored officers approach the door. With a rifle draped across her lap, Lola turns to Chelsea and says, "We don't do anything unless we both agree." Chelsea, teary-eyed, responds, "It's always just been you and me." Then, they share a look similar to the one that passed between Thelma and Louise in their final moments. But just when it seems like they are about go out in a blaze of glory, Lola suggests that they stop running. They grasp hands and walk out into the daylight as the screen fades to white. The ending is eerily familiar, but the scene unexpectedly rolls on and Chelsea and Lola are arrested.
Whether or not this outcome is subversion or surrender is difficult to judge. There is a third season in store, so only time will tell, but as history shows, time on its own is a poor indicator of meaningful progress.