Join 3,440 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
March 15, 2013 6:35 PM   Subscribe

The lack of female road narratives and why it matters Whereas a man on the road might be seen as potentially dangerous, potentially adventurous, or potentially hapless, in all cases the discourse is one of potential. When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants (74 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
What about Thelma and Louise?
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:42 PM on March 15, 2013


They're dead.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:45 PM on March 15, 2013 [16 favorites]


Their journey didn't last all that long.
posted by missmerrymack at 6:45 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read through that whole thing wondering how the author had missed Sissy in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, but she does mention the book - then dismisses it because she "is protected by abnormally large…thumbs". Lame.
posted by mannequito at 6:46 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, there's Lyra Belacqua and Arya Stark, but they are rare and recent exceptions to the rule. Interesting that neither of them are adult women.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:56 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't really think Sissy's that protected. She gets the "ass, gas, or grass" treatment right off the bat.

You have to really question the idea that "positive, transformative experiences are so rare." It just doesn't hold true in my experience. I, and most of my good women friends, have had great, extensive road trips. Almost all them reasonably safe ones. I've done innumerable epic multiday jaunts, lots of weeklong driving trips, and one 8-week cross-country road trip, all without major incident. Some of my roadtrip experiences are the peak experiences of my life. I know I"m not a rarity. And I'm put in mind of the sigificant history of women's journeys by automobile, which I recently had occasion to learn more about when I made this recent FPP.

So it's not that women don't go on road trips and don't have great experiences. Those hypotheses just don't hold water.

I think first we have to think about what we mean by a road narrative. Then we have to separate it out from the general problem of lack of female protagonists in all narratives - like, The Grapes of Wrath is a road narrative, but women aren't the central characters from whom we get reflections of interior monologue. Then third, we might have to acknowledge that women's road narratives might not really be all that rare, but simply have been far less celebrated in literary culture than men's road narratives. Fourth, we have to account for the reality that for a lot of history women did not go on unchaperoned adventures reflecting their own choices. Finally, I think there's a legitimate discussion about whether road narrative, as a genre, should be considered an important form to which all kinds of authors should naturally aspire. "Send your characters on a journey" is a perfectly fine and ancient literary trope, but combining but our narrow understanding of road narrative as, essentially, defined by Kerouac and his "no girlz allowed" gang might be pretty flawed.

Googling around, I found this academic paper with a wider range of reference. This nice piece of work offers a lot of antecedents and really addresses my latter point: that our expectation for "road narrative" as a genre of escape and rejection of social mores does not easily jibe with the social roles ascribed to women, particularly the connotation, by their very presence, of domesticity. Here's another good looking paper on the topic.

tl;dr there's more here than meets the eye, and much more than a simplistic explanation like "women don't write these books because they don't take these trips because they aren't safe."
posted by Miko at 7:01 PM on March 15, 2013 [61 favorites]


Even Cowgirls Get The Blues

More than a couple of characters like that across the TomRobbins books IIRC.
posted by Artw at 7:01 PM on March 15, 2013


Eat Pray Love? I've never actually read or seen it, so I couldn't say if it really fits.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:01 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Eat Pray Love does have a lot of the characteristics of a road novel.
posted by Miko at 7:02 PM on March 15, 2013


It's a thin line between clever and stupid. What was so wrong with watching TV? Why was I doing this? What the fuck was this myth that you have to leave your job, your wife, your tear-stained woman waving goodbye with a kitchen towel behind the screen door so you can ride all over the country with a sore ass, battling crosswinds, rain, arrogant volvos, and minivans?

This is stupid. This is very, very stupid. I don't even have a tear-stained dog to wave bye to me. But I told everyone I was going to do this so I gotta do it . . . or I will be living a life of feminist-sounding somedays. And I will be more responsible, powerful, and amazing afterward. I will be able to do anything and not self-consciously stare at elevator numbers when the doors close. I will look the other person right in the eye and nod hello.

Ever since I was a kid, I tried to live vicariously through the hooker-in-the-wind adventures of Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Henry Miller. But I could never finish any of the books. Maybe because I just couldn't identify with the fact that they were guys who had women around to make them coffee and wash the skid marks out of their shorts while they complained, called themselves angry young men, and screwed themselves with their existential penises.
--from Flaming Iguanas: An Illustrated All-Girl Road Novel Thing by Erika Lopez
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:04 PM on March 15, 2013 [22 favorites]


Roads of Her Own: Gendered Space and American Mobility, 1970-2000: Women writers have participated in this powerful American myth, yet at the same time also have rejected that myth as fundamentally based on gendered and racial/ethnic hierarchies and power structures, and modified it in the process of writing back to it. The book analyzes stories about female runaways, outlaws, questers, adventurers, kidnappees, biker chicks, travelling saleswomen, and picaras and makes theoretical observations on the debates regarding discourses of spatiality and mobility

Women Traveling Alone discussion on roadtripamerica forums.

A Girl's Guide to the Open Road

posted by Miko at 7:06 PM on March 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


The Bean Trees?
posted by murfed13 at 7:07 PM on March 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Amazon sells a book called "Indiscreet Journeys: Stories of Women on the Road." Anybody read that?
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 7:12 PM on March 15, 2013


There are a couple of road/quest stories in feminist SF&F:

from Tamora Pierce (YA Fantasy)
- Alanna of Trebond gets a quest narrative in The Lioness Rampant, though maybe that's more of a D&D style quest, because she leads a group
- Daine travels alone at several times
Marion Zimmer Bradley has four women on a quest in City of Sourcery - that one's kind of boring.

Also, just saw a nice film - Dirty Girl - about two teens (girl and boy) on a road trip.

But who says that being on the road is always hitch hiking? When I was 20, I travelled the country - but by greyhound bus and hiking. I never felt unsafe - well, the logging trucks near Spanish, Ont were pretty huge and fast.
posted by jb at 7:12 PM on March 15, 2013


They're dead.

So are those guys from Easy Rider. Drive safe, folks.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:16 PM on March 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


Previously, by the same author (referenced in the first para).

Curiously without even clicking the link I was playing the same "what about..." game everyone likes to play and thinking of her book Zazen - not a lot of road action in it at all, but it has that kind of feel.
posted by Artw at 7:17 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think Shutterbabe possibly qualifies as a road novel...

From Zimbabwe to Romania, from Russia to Haiti, Kogan takes her readers on a heartbreaking yet surprisingly hilarious journey through a mine-strewn decade, seamlessly blending her personal battles—sexism, battery, life-threatening danger—with the historical ones—wars, revolution, unfathomable suffering—it was her job to record.




posted by blaneyphoto at 7:18 PM on March 15, 2013


I like her point about the importance of being able to draw on diverse narratives to empathize with people more. It would be great to see more strong women having adventures on the road.

The "what about..." game is hard to avoid. When I travel long distances in the US, I always think of Linda Manz's character in Days of Heaven (she's the one doing the voiceover) and Linda Ronstadt's version of Willin' (even though I know now that it's a cover, I still think of it as a song about an adventure-having lady truck driver with a girlfriend named Alice).
posted by bubukaba at 7:26 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Interestingly there are a lot of great "go there to live" books by women. I grew up loving Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille, still a personal hero.

It's also true there are myriad travel songs by and about women.

I really think it's more an issue of the particular construction of the road genre by American beat writers than a problem of women's experience or women as authors.
posted by Miko at 7:29 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a corny "chick-lit" type of film, but what about Boys On The Side?

There is a fun nonfiction book for women on the road - or, should I say, Bad Girls on the road. It manages to be empowering and informative without actually feeling like it's doing that - because it's got the flat-out perfect amount of irreverence and total "what the fuck, why not" sass to keep you from noticing it (but not so much that it's all twee). It was one of the three books that came with me on my solo "Kitsch Hunt" road trip to Vegas.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:35 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


This reminds me, I need to see if Netflix has started carrying Xena.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:36 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't really think Sissy's that protected. She gets the "ass, gas, or grass" treatment right off the bat.

It occurs to me that many of the counter examples are pretty sex driven, descendants of Moll Flanders blended with a very 60s notion of sexual liberation - Terry Southern's Candy comes to mind.
posted by Artw at 7:37 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the lack of female road narratives has to do with the fact that throughout history women have had a less straightforward development of identity than men. So often "the road" is a metaphor for linear progress, the bildungsroman where a man leaves on a literal and figurative journey with a fairly clear end goal. The female bildungsroman is much more complicated because the societal expectations for a woman's "success" are either absent or multiple and contradictory. In Unbecoming Women Susan Fraiman says "the way to womanhood is not a single path to a clear destination but the endless negotiation of a crossroads." In a lot of literature female development is less linear than male development, and thus the metaphor of the road is abandoned or subverted.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 7:39 PM on March 15, 2013 [22 favorites]


Y Tu Mama También
posted by haricotvert at 7:43 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


And yet in real life, I think the road does function in the same way as it does in literature featuring men - it bonds relationships through the shared crucible of travel experience, it creates a temporary liminal zone where there is an openness to change and spontaneity, and it divorces the requirements of everyday life in a given social context from the possibilities of any day outside that context. So it's still a bit weird that there's not greater visibility of the real, lived experience of the road, which does all this, and which as I've noted many women have had and do have.

It may be that it's the metaphorical dimension that's missing there. Even if all that is true, the fact that the resulting effects of any trip are then woven into a complex, interpersonal continuing existence makes them seem less remarkable as stories in and of themselves. They are just more moments in a wide life experience to stitch in.

It occurs to me that many of the counter examples are pretty sex driven

Even Cowgirls is also by a male author, as is Moll Flanders. Both male and both working to subvert sexual mores in their own times, a little lasciviously and self-interestedly at that. I'm not that enamored of the counterexamples so far. There are a lot more in memoir and reportage than there are in fiction, interesting in itself, but I'm not sure Tom Robbins, who though I was enamored of him for a time in my 20s is still a male author with an ingenue thing, is the heroine of the fictional women's road narrative.
posted by Miko at 7:45 PM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wendy and Lucy is one of my favorite movies. A woman, a dog, a quest...
posted by ChuraChura at 7:46 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Manny & Lo
posted by eviemath at 7:51 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read the GQ article talked about in this article on Metafilter, anybody else remember that?

"And they hadn’t been seen partly because there was no cultural narrative for them beyond rape and death. As such, women on the road were already raped, already dead. "
That's because for the last _____ years women have been objects, to whom things are done. Not being seen as an object is the only thing that prevents you from being raped or killed. But how can an object affect a change in how it is seen unless it becomes a subject? A woman presenting as a subject, who does things to objects, is still a radical idea for some reason.

An is Jane Eyre. Her whole life is a journey and her character arc is literally made up of the choosing of her own adventure as opposed to the parts where she doesn't get to choose.

"When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends." And her story is the opposite of this. And when Jane Eyre came out critics said Jane was immoral and anti-Christian. Because she was bold enough to present herself as a subject and not as an object.
posted by bleep at 7:56 PM on March 15, 2013 [9 favorites]


Did no-one read Sisterhood of the Travel in Pants?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:57 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Naomi and Ruth is a bit of a road trip, though the bible gives few details. There are many narratives of women traveling due to refugee status or capture or fleeing with a lover. Do they count?

But the best road trip book I ever read was Homecoming by Cynthia Voight. Four abandoned kids make a very fraught journey to find their grandmother when their mom has a mental breakdown. Led by oldest girl Dicey, who is tough but believably naive.

Maybe there just aren't many stories about women wandering for the hell of it.
posted by emjaybee at 7:59 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Robyn Davidson; from wiki It has been suggested that one of the reasons Tracks was so popular, particularly with women, is that Davidson "places herself in the wilderness of her own accord, rather than as an adjunct to a man".
posted by adamvasco at 7:59 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wrote my dissertation on 18th-century English adaptations of Don Quixote, and I see a lot of parallels. The males were heroes, maybe a little odd, but admirable, while the female versions were always pitiable.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:02 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Even Cowgirls is also by a male author, as is Moll Flanders. Both male and both working to subvert sexual mores in their own times, a little lasciviously and self-interestedly at that.

Going more biographical in that vein and with a female author there's Erica Jong, but we're straying even further from the road.
posted by Artw at 8:05 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


haricotvert , yes, but remember what happens in the end/postscript.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:09 PM on March 15, 2013


"But none of these share the element of quest or quality of restlessness that define the male road narrative."

This is the essence of the argument, I think. Even in the example I linked, the female characters who are travelling (sisters Manny and Lo) are fleeing a lurking problem. Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (I've only seen the movie) has more a sense of the potential and restlessness that the author talks about as characterizing male road narratives, though it isn't a quest or road narrative exactly. That reminds me, though, of one of my peeves, which is that there aren't a whole lot of girl coming of age stories that don't involve seriously traumatic events; whereas there are a slew of lighthearted boy coming of age stories. Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants was one of the first more lighthearted girl coming of age stories that I saw/read, in fact, and it's pretty recent. These are related: the quality that the author isolates as definitive of male road narratives I think is a subset of - or at least has lots of overlap with a part of - the genre of male coming of age stories.
posted by eviemath at 8:09 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Victorian ethnographers? Edith Durham? I guess they mostly went places to live.
posted by subdee at 8:16 PM on March 15, 2013


I can't get too het up about this lack because "road narrative" is a bit of a bankrupt genre to begin with.
posted by subdee at 8:17 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just dropped by to give kudos for the Dylan reference - one of my favourite songs.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:18 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Counterexamples: Britomart in The Faerie Queen. Demeter, when she searched the world for her lost Persephone. The last unicorn, in The Last Unicorn.

Counter-counterexample: D.H. Lawrence's "The Woman Who Rode Away," who rides away to be sacrificed by the knives of an Aztec sun cult.
posted by Iridic at 8:18 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can't get too het up about this lack because "road narrative" is a bit of a bankrupt genre to begin with.

Why so?
posted by eviemath at 8:19 PM on March 15, 2013


Maybe there just aren't many stories about women wandering for the hell of it.

Agnes Varda's 1985 film Vagabond, as I remember it, is about a woman wandering for the hell of it. She's also flipping off mainstream society in the process. But she ends up dead. Thanks, Agnes.
posted by scratch at 8:19 PM on March 15, 2013


I can't get too het up about this lack because "road narrative" is a bit of a bankrupt genre to begin with.

I agree with this.
posted by Miko at 8:22 PM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you think about "road narrative" in the narrow sense then yes, but if you think about it in the broad sense of "men have epic quests on which they learn about themselves and become themselves and women don't" I think that's a valid concern. Especially when you zoom all the way out to show that when women are objects everyone loses.
posted by bleep at 8:31 PM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you think about "road narrative" in the narrow sense then yes, but if you think about it in the broad sense of "men have epic quests on which they learn about themselves and become themselves and women don't" I think that's a valid concern. Especially when you zoom all the way out to show that when women are objects everyone loses.
Yeah, I think we need to rewind a bit and consider all of the descendant of Homer's Odyssey, perhaps the first "road narrative".

The next critical point is not that no quest narratives exist with female protagonists, but that there are too few of them and they are too sparsely read. The whole point about a woman's story ending when she arrives at the road is the woman-as-protagonist isn't part of the broad cultural touchstone of the quest/road narrative.

Essentially all of Gibson's novels after Neuromancer address this issue to some extent, but SciFi is still a niche genre, and cyberpunk (where Gibson is popularly pigeonholed) is a niche within that niche. And Gibson himself is a dude - we should probably be looking for woman quest writers and getting society at large to read them.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:47 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wild by Cheryl Strayed has done pretty well (though Oprah probably had a lot to do with that).
posted by frogmanjack at 9:01 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Regarding the bankruptcy of the road narrative genre

When you look at road narratives in fiction, or narratives about motivation for travel in pop culture (travel blogs, gap years, the whole industry around "authentic" travel experiences to "exotic" countries), there's definitely one highly problematic strain where the protagonist goes on a journey of self-discovery where the local people and places and cultures are mere props, in much the same way that a manic pixie dream girl is.

But there's also a tradition and a narrative, in the US at least (*), of the hobo, the tinkerer, the travelling salesman - men who interact with the locational communities that they pass through in a less exploitative way (at least, the mid-century narrative of the travelling salesman was of a man who was making a hardscrabble living, not a killing off of the people he sold to). And some of these stories fall into the genre of road narrative too, I would say. Taken as a whole, the Little House on the Prairie series is sort of the second-hand road narrative of Laura Ingalls Wilder's restless father, for example.

There's a question, I guess of: if the protagonist of the story is a member of a nomadic community, is their story a road narrative, or does a road narrative require the protagonist to leave their community and interact with many different communities as a solo foreigner or outside observer? The quintessential example of road journeys are definitely the latter, and are in many ways more focused on the internal journey that parallels the external, physical journey. But I'm not sure that a road journey is a quest entirely. The destination is not so important in a road journey narrative; restlessness itself is the driver. As opposed to the journey in a quest story, where the goal is the narrative driver. While it may be quite easy for a road journey (actual or fictional) to fall into exploiting the people and places along the route merely as a prop, and this is highly problematic; I don't think the idea of restlessness as motivation is, itself, bankrupt. And I agree with the author of the first FPP link that the fact that restlessness is not often a culturally acceptable motivation for women is a bad thing.


(* A journey "to look for America" as the Simon and Garfunkel song says is a long-standing tradition, I'd argue. Even non-Americans have engaged in it, eg. de Tocqueville. Steinbeck had some interesting reflections on the role of the idea of travel and portability in the American narrative and imagination in his road trip book, Travels with Charlie. (Wherein he came to realize that, as a successful writer in late middle age travelling with his own shelter and with means, he was in a different category of traveller than he had been in his earlier hobo days, and had different interactions with local people as well as his journey having a different effect on him as a result.) I don't really know anything about road narrative traditions in other parts of the world though. There's Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries probably. Anything else? Are we missing interesting examples of female road narratives - simultaneous internal and external journeys motivated by restlessness - from other cultures? Am I defining road narrative too narrowly?)
posted by eviemath at 9:06 PM on March 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think another important component to a road narrative is that it's about choosing outsider status. That can be done in a clueless way that is kind of insulting to people for whom outsider ststus is forced on them unwillingly. But it can also be a very radical way. And that intersects with gender issues in a variety of interesting, complex, and important ways too, though my thoughts are getting too fuzzy to elaborate due to needing sleep.

Also related to this idea of restlessness as motivation: to me, the physical restlessness that impels a road narrative is just a different outlet for the same sort of drive to creative restlessness in artists, scientific exploration, and of course more socially acceptible forms of physical restlessness such as mountaineering or, in an earlier era, exploring. I relate it to ambition. I suspect that the reactions the author described to her younger hitchiking self are not unrelated to societal discomfort with ambition in women.
posted by eviemath at 9:53 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's because she's not on a bicycle.
posted by Sphinx at 9:59 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


In terms of personal growth narratives, I find that I am much more drawn to the internal, local journey than the literal road trip. I'm not sure if that's because female narratives tend toward the lesser movement end of the scale, and I prefer the female narratives, or because I'm just not that enamored of the "road narrative," gender aside. I do think that many female narratives reflect the static over the dynamic, in terms of geography quite frequently. It certainly plays out in the coming-of-age novels, like a Catcher in the Rye vs. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Adventures of Tom Sawyer v. Anne of Green Gables, or even David Copperfield v. Jane Eyre.
posted by murfed13 at 10:13 PM on March 15, 2013


Xena is on Netflix in Canada, all seasons. Still as cheesily awesome as ever.
posted by jb at 10:21 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Speaking of the Xena genre: Sintel^, one of the Blender Foundation's freely-licensed/free-to-watch "Open Project" animated short films, about a heroine on a journey.
posted by XMLicious at 10:56 PM on March 15, 2013


Wim Wenders' flawed "Until the End of the World" is a road movie with a female protagonist who does not die, although Claire needs to be rescued by a man. She does end up on the space station, though.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:01 PM on March 15, 2013


eviemath, you're killing this thread, in the best way, but...

And I agree with the author of the first FPP link that the fact that restlessness is not often a culturally acceptable motivation for women is a bad thing

Why is that a bad thing? We all get that everyone is entitled to their own motivations, regardless of everyone else's baggage, and that much of the canon doesn't get that. More precisely: why must male and female discontent (which is a less gendered way to say "restlessness," I think) be expressed in the same way, actually or narratively?

I think what I'm getting at is: so what if women are under-represented in bildungsroman and road stories? Women are tossing aside all the old shackles. Toss aside the old tropes, too.

As to the linked post (The American Reader? So Bookmarked!), I think the author "over determines" narrative, as we used to say. She herself is a woman wanderer who survived, nevermind what those she met thought of her prospects, however informed they were by cultural stories. She should go ahead and write that story about Goldenberry and stop worrying about how to explain what she and GB were doing on the road. We'll catch on.
posted by notyou at 1:48 AM on March 16, 2013


It's because she's not on a bicycle.

Nobody, male or female, stays on a bicycle for very long on the Interstate.
posted by notyou at 1:56 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why is that a bad thing? We all get that everyone is entitled to their own motivations, regardless of everyone else's baggage, and that much of the canon doesn't get that. More precisely: why must male and female discontent (which is a less gendered way to say "restlessness," I think) be expressed in the same way, actually or narratively?

But why couldn't it be expressed in the same way? Why shouldn't women be allowed to act on their restlessness in the same way? As you say, eveyone is entitled to their own motivations, so I'd rather it come down to individual characters, rather than drawn along gender lines. I mean, I don't want every road story that's motivated by discontent to start the same way and end the same way, but why shouldn't there be a female character whose sole motivation for a road trip be restlessness?

(Also, how is discontent less gendered than restlessness?)

I think what I'm getting at is: so what if women are under-represented in bildungsroman and road stories? Women are tossing aside all the old shackles. Toss aside the old tropes, too.

Well, toss aside old tropes should be applied to all new works, unless the tried and true seems to work for the narrative. But, again, if someone wants to rewrite the Odyssey with a female protagonist - I say, go right ahead!
posted by crossoverman at 4:35 AM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath was My favorite "on the road" story.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:10 AM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Old tropes matter because they're what we've grown up with, and so they influence us still. We can throw them aside in the here and now, and in the future. But not in the past.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:16 AM on March 16, 2013


Romancing the Stone was, in a way, all about gender and the road adventure (which is a little different than the pure road trip, which I'd call a nihilistic subset of a quest story). It has fun both affirming and subverting cliches left and right. Quests are dangerous, and Kathleen Turner's character isn't exactly prepared for one, whereas Kirk Douglas's character seems to have dropped out of his own aimless road movie, living on the road questing for nothing. At the start of the movie she is a fool and he is a coward, and--well, it's a light movie--on the journey they figure out how to be more complete themselves. Younger me didn't even see it as a romance, but as an expression of the idea that if you were brought up heavily in one gender role, you had something to learn from the other one.

Anyway, in reality the road isn't safe. It's especially unsafe for women, but men don't all feel safe on the road themselves. (This is not a "what about the menz/status quo is working fine" comment.) When you're vulnerable out on the road, you want people either to leave you alone, or, if they have to interact with you, it be a pretty formalized encounter where both players know each others' roles. If you're a little bit strange, people are going to shut you out, and you might draw the attention of someone else's crazy. The author is incredibly brave, but the people she was meeting were not. When she approached people, they probably did not see it as gender-relationships-incident-#23771831, but as a case of "who is this person and what do they want from me?" You don't want them to act unusual; you don't want them to even look unusual. She says she was "cogent and approachable" but

The author makes that point too, but reading her article I feel like she keeps coming back to what is basically a bad premise. She wants to know why she can't be Kerouac on the road, but there really aren't any Kerouacs on the road. She sees the myths for men, then looking at reality and asking where are the myths for her in there? It's a flawed question, like if she joined a motorcycle gang and wants to know why she can't be James Dean, losing site of the fact that none of the men in the gang were exactly James Dean either. Her line about "So are you helpless, tragic, or stupid?" is great, (and skewers my example; that line could have come right out of the mouth of Douglas's character). (I'd add "or crazy" in there too.) But the thing is, to be on the road is to be out of place, and that is the question everyone is asking. I think Twain, for example, makes no bones about presenting Huck and Jim as all three of helpless, tragic, and stupid.

That's all aside from the danger women really are in on the road in reality, and how invisible, like the subject of the previous FPP about this author, which mixes strangely with talking about movies and books, and the semantics of "solitary" versus "alone" when one is applied to mythological men and the other to real women. No one should read this stupid comment but I'm going to post anyway, to hell with it.
posted by fleacircus at 7:36 AM on March 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


She sees the myths for men, then looking at reality and asking where are the myths for her in there? It's a flawed question, like if she joined a motorcycle gang and wants to know why she can't be James Dean, losing site of the fact that none of the men in the gang were exactly James Dean either.

This is true, when we drill right down into myth vs reality, of course reality rarely matches up. I bet there's male road travelers who are sexually assaulted, given bad drugs, bad advice, put in bad situations, beat up, etc. But when you imagine a woman on the road, you go first to the dangers and you wonder just how stupid/crazy she is. When you imagine a man on the road, you might think of how uncomfortable it might be but I think your mind tends to wander to the more heroic, golden version. Why does it matter? Because the imagination is a powerful thing and we are simple creatures. Why do I feel pride and inspiration when I see a woman doing big things? Coaching basketball? Creating a successful business? Leading in the military? Arguably, another woman's success has nothing to do with my life or abilities and yet, it does change my perspective. And I think it changes men's perspective, too. A woman with agency shouldn't be assumed to be damaged for exhibiting her agency. Which is one of the author's points. A damaged person is someone people keep at arm's length and are often left unprotected.
posted by amanda at 8:34 AM on March 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think it's interesting to ask, though: Why is the road dangerous? Relatedly, why is the road viewed as "liminal", as Miko eloquently put it in the quote below?
And yet in real life, I think the road does function in the same way as it does in literature featuring men - it bonds relationships through the shared crucible of travel experience, it creates a temporary liminal zone where there is an openness to change and spontaneity, and it divorces the requirements of everyday life in a given social context from the possibilities of any day outside that context.
There are people who spend their life on the road - migrant laborers, Romanii, retiree RVers, anarchist traveller kids. They have communities that move or travel with them. The quintessential road narrative is a male, solo, transformational/liminal one, yes. And I would argue that the genre of road narrative differs from that of (autobiographical or fictional) travelogue (which has many, though still minority and somewhat marginalized, examples of female authors and protagonists) in that a road narrative contains a parallel internal journey. But that's not the only experience of being "on the road", and real life road experiences aren't necessarily transformational or liminal.

While one can have a tourist journey that is completely safe, for many people I think the experience of being on the road is marginal to dangerous. Certainly for the groups I mentioned in the last paragraph, life is marginal and their mobile status present additional dangers. In our society, people with means tend to have a fixed address; there's a rather narrow range of socially acceptable reasons for being on the road (mainly relating to coming of age personal journeys, or the let's see America trip); and those without a fixed address are generally on the economic margins (and often other margins as well), and tend to be viewed with suspicion. I think that Veselka makes a good case for there being extra suspicion applied to solo female travellers, and the range of what are considered socially acceptable reasons for women to be on the road alone is smaller - there's a lack of common, socially acceptable road narratives for women. The danger seems to be a result of the marginalization, rather than the other way around. (As I think a number of folks have pointed out upthread, and as Veselka seemed to be getting at in the link.)

I think that this suspicion with which locationally stable people view those with a more nomadic lifestyle has to do with assumptions and myths around how community is formed, and ideas around community relate to who people trust. That's maybe getting a little farther from the FPP, but I think is an interesting and important topic of discussion.
posted by eviemath at 9:21 AM on March 16, 2013


Michael Douglas, fleacircus, Michael. Kirk Douglas would've been about 150 at that point.
posted by jonmc at 10:06 AM on March 16, 2013


Here's a summary of Helga and Clara's walk across America in 1896. It was a quest to win $10,000 to save the family farm.

I don't remember if the book was 100% history or if there was also some fiction, but in any case it was an excellent book.
posted by aniola at 10:42 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


> The author makes that point too, but reading her article I feel like she keeps coming back to what is basically a bad premise. She wants to know why she can't be Kerouac on the road, but there really aren't any Kerouacs on the road.

There may not be now (though I seriously doubt it), but there sure were back in the day. Leaving home and hitting the road with no particular place to go was a big thing back in the '50s and '60s, but (obviously, and this is the author's point) only for guys. That wasn't a narrative available to gals. (Which is the author's point.) And yes, as several here have said, bad things happened to some of those guys, but that's not how most people viewed them; they were daring young men out for an existential adventure, to whom, yes, bad things might happen, but that's life, everything is a risk, etc. But not gals. If a woman was seen on the road, she was not out for an existential adventure, she was a crazy person who would inevitably get raped/murdered and probably deserved it. (Which is the author's point.)

This is a pretty depressing thread in the usual MetaFilter way—everybody wants to find "counterexamples" or point out how self-absorbed/uninformed/annoying the author is; hardly anybody wants to engage with what she's saying, which is actually pretty interesting. As a sampler for those who might want to read the whole thing if they had a sense of it, here are a few bits:
My search for stories about the young woman in the dumpster led me back through many of the truck stops I’d known as a teenager. Covering a fourteen-county area, I asked every senior truck-stop employee I could find about a hitchhiker found in a dumpster, but no one had ever heard of her. I broadened the scope of my questions: Had they heard of any homicides in any area truck stops over the past thirty years? They didn’t remember a thing. But what I was learning from the FBI painted a landscape of extreme violence, one that matched the world of my memory. By 2004, so many women had been found dead along the interstates that the FBI started the Highway Serial Killers Initiative to keep track of them. There were girls found in dumpsters, behind truck stop diners, off the side of the road on truck turnarounds—the national database listed over five-hundred Jane Does in or near rest areas and truck stops alone. Some of these were the very truck stops I was now passing through, and yet I couldn’t uncover even rumors of past murders. The strangeness of this crystallized when I visited a Pennsylvania truck stop where I knew for a fact that two women had been killed, one found only yards from where the woman I was speaking to worked. Still, she “had never heard of anything like that.”

* * *

During my travels I had literally thousands of interactions with people’s ideas about what I was doing with my life, but almost none of them allowed for the possibility of exploration, enlightenment, or destiny. Fate, yes. Destiny, no. I was either “lucky to be alive” or so abysmally stupid for hitchhiking in the first place that I deserved to be dead. And, while I may have been abysmally stupid, my choice to leave home and hitchhike was certainly no stupider or more dangerous than signing onto a whaling ship in the 1850s, “stealing” a slave and taking him across state lines, burning through relationships following some sketchy dude around the U.S., or accepting rides from drunk people while on hallucinogens. These tales are fictions, yes, but they deeply affect how we see people on the road. And the shadow cast by these narratives—one that valorizes existential curiosity, adventure, individuality, and surliness—does not fall over women. In a country with the richest road narratives in the modern world, women have none. Sure, there is the crazy she-murderer and the occasional Daisy Duke, but beyond that, zip.

* * *

I am not suggesting that women wrap themselves in male quest narratives and go penniless out onto the highway. But I am suggesting that women on the road deserve to be painted with a more complex palette, and that there is a profound difference between how we as onlookers respond to someone we perceive as motivated by a sense of adventure, versus someone we fear may have been shunned.
posted by languagehat at 11:26 AM on March 16, 2013 [14 favorites]


Jack Kerouac's daughter Jan Kerouac wrote her own road narrative called Baby Driver, that I re-read countless times as a teenager, loving it and finding it much more real and compelling than her father's.

Responding to a point upthread -- I think the narratives of women's road journeys are simply always going to be more sex-driven than men's because the threat of rape and sexual assault is omnipresent (it is for men too, sometimes), and because if you get down to your very last dollar, you just might have the option of turning a trick or two to get food and shelter.
posted by jfwlucy at 11:56 AM on March 16, 2013


Languagehat, I agree with your point completely, and I also want to add that a point about how different the narratives are for male and female orphans, in much the same way.

Female orphans (Snow White, Jane Eyre, Cosette, etc.) are always in the position of being cast out from the locus of power and protection, and the line of their narrative is always about a transfer of dependence to a newer, kinder protector. Whoever their "true" family is remains unimportant -- it is the new family that will lead to their recovering safety and protection.

Male orphans (Oliver Twist, Simba, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, etc.) have been cast out as well, but the line of their narrative is always about returning to their "true" family and discovering their "true" selves.

Just as in these road narratives -- it is as if only the male protagonist possesses a portable sense of self that can survive a trauma or a relocation. A female protagonist is inevitably thought to be seeking a new "self" whenever she ventures out or is tossed out from her first one.

It's maddening.
posted by jfwlucy at 12:04 PM on March 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


Who is Fuckhead? She repeated that name more than once, but didn't really connect them to a book.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:15 PM on March 16, 2013


He's the lead character in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.
posted by goofyfoot at 12:34 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's missing dimension in some of this discussion: solo vs. accompanied travel. Kerouac didn't travel solo. The perceived dangers the author talks about are not dangers of gender acting on its own (plenty of women - a greater proportion, I'd wager - get hurt and killed hanging around home, too) - they're dangers, first and foremost, of traveling alone. If traveling with a companion or in a pack isn't a road narrative, then a lot of what we're thinking of as the defining works of that genre don't qualify in the first place.

I still think there is something really important in the gap between lived and experience and representation, because as I will keep stating, women do travel - they do go on the road - they do sometimes go alone. It's not that women never do this that accounts for the lack of narratives authored by and/or featuring women protagonists. I'm much more interested in the gap between the fact that there is no shortage of actual women solo travellers and the fact that there's a noticeable shortage of "road narratives" by those very women.

Honestly, I still think it's more about the genre. My travel as a 20something met pretty much every qualification of the rambler, with the exception that I knew I could and most likely would end up in a specific place at the end of it. It was summers between school years, when I was a teacher, or gaps between the beginnings and ends of seasons, when I was an outdoor educator. I traveled a lot solo in betweeen points, with one companion cross-country, or, at times, up to a dozen. This travel was non-goal-oriented, or vague enough to be like "have adventures," "see America," "get to Michigan and back in 3 days." It was not plotted in advance and all about seeing where the road led. I read Blue Highways as a teen, Travels with Charley, On the Road, and in my mind I was partaking of all that with really not a critical thought as to why those books weren't written by women.

At the same time, if you asked me to write a book about my travels, I'd probably shrug and decline. I had some transcendent moments, I've seen most of the country, I love feeling free and seeing what might happen and having chance encounters and writing and sketching and taking pictures of what I did and saw. I've had almost no creepy moments despite being out there a lot. And yet I don't think any of my experiences really deserve to amount to a "narrative," especially without the application of Kerouac-style poetically exalted prose. I don't perceive an important narrative in them. Even the other road books I mentioned: I loved the texture, the detail, the accounts of experiences - but I always found them weak, lacking in a major raison d'etre other than a slack "...so I did this thing." I think that the thematics of "road" are somewhat weak. When a "road narrative" is any good, it's also because it's also some other kind of narrative - a coming of age narrative, a quest narrative, a triumph/overcoming obstacle narrative, a fate-in-action narrative. Perhaps part of the issue is that the road is just a setting, not a theme, and so disparately treated as to be barely a genre.

However, I had totally not made this connection until this moment, but one the first short stories I ever wrote, which actually one a couple of prizes in student competitions, was entirely a road narrative, about a teenage girl leaving her home and travelling from her messed-up mother's home to her relatively-unknown father's home to start her after-high-school life. It was based on choices made by my best friend at the time, but it started, ended, and took place entirely on the road, with the center of action being a roadside market in a rural town experiencing a drought. So, there's that. I have one. It's horrid juvenilia but shows I was certainly influenced enough by the genre to feel completely natural writing my own. And my friend did do a life-uprooting trip like that, so there's that too.

In short, the reason the books don't exist is not that women don't travel, and though I think safety plays a part in why travel has been perceived to be unsafe for women in particular, it's a big, big red herring. Ask instead why the millions of women who complete road trips, solo and otherwise, every single year haven't created work about those actual, lived trips.
posted by Miko at 1:08 PM on March 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


My search for stories about the young woman in the dumpster led me back through many of the truck stops I’d known as a teenager.

That was a chilling, excellent read. That article, as well as the one linked here, reminded me of when I first started reading longform non-fiction back in the late 90's, picking up copies of "Best American Essays". For whatever reason, some of the magic has been lost for me with non-fiction over the years, but these articles brought it back. Great post.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:44 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


my choice to leave home and hitchhike was certainly no stupider or more dangerous than signing onto a whaling ship in the 1850s

This was actually one the very safest occupational choices available at the time. The risk of death and injury on a whaleship was much lower than that for people in farming or industrial work ashore and also quite a bit lower than other maritime work like fishing or cargo shipping.

/maritime history geek
posted by Miko at 2:09 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hmm...
I can't remember the name but several years ago I read a novel set in Czechoslavakia with a woman protagonist. I really like the book. It may have been this one: Truck Stop Rainbows: A Czech Road Novel. Though I am not positive about that.
posted by evilDoug at 2:40 PM on March 16, 2013


There is a wonderful, B movie from the 80s called "Blue Deville," which is about two women who leave their homes (and in one case one of their's engagement) to go on a summer road trip. I personally prefer it to Thelma and Louise, even with the B movie aspects, because it really is about their relationship and it has a happier ending.

I also loved the travelling tales of Tarma and Kethry by Mercedes Lackey from the same period of time, and she recently wrote a book about a female Knight Errant on her first Quest as well. From my childhood, there was also Daughter of the Stars, which is all about the travel of a woman and a girl due to the woman's job. I don't know how long it will take these narratives to rise from their marginalized places to a more general awareness in the world, but they are wonderful and help build the framework of my life.

I love stories of women travelling to accomplish quests and discover themselves, but like a lot fo things with gender I find even concieving of what a pure gender swap would be daunting. Now and then I consider trying to write a story with a male protagonist, and then go back through and change the gender without changing anything else, and seeing how I feel about it. One of the problems with narratives and tropes is that they are formed in us not from a single shining, rational example, but rather from the overlay over the years of many overlapping narratives, where what is not said is often as important as what is said.

By and large, in those overlapping narratives, the protagonists are male.

Honestly, for the last five years or so I've been in a major internal backlash where it is a rare book with a male protagonist that I will pick up, much less read through. I don't know exactly what is motivating it, but I know I got very sick of only finding my heros in men because they were the only heros available.
posted by Deoridhe at 3:36 PM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Another male road narrative/journey from another thread.
posted by eviemath at 11:41 AM on March 18, 2013


As a female who has hitched since 1969, when I was 15, in the US, all over Europe, from Greece, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan (even hitched there too) and in India, in Kashmir and in the Himalayas, I am happy to read the article of the post. Thank you Charlemagne In Sweatpants.

Thanks also languagehat for your excellent comment.
posted by nickyskye at 3:38 PM on March 18, 2013


« Older Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of in...  |  Tenacious Irish journalist dem... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments