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Chen Hooft van Huysduynen: Gender on the Road

August 16, 2013

A look at the carefree travel guys and the lost-and-lonely journeywomen who populate the road-movie genre.

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Image from Flickr via quicheisinsane

By Chen Hooft van Huysduynen

This time of the year we all want to jump in our car with nothing but our driver’s license and credit card and see where the road takes us. While we may dream of different destinations, fantasies of the road trip share some defining qualities: we may meet exciting people, have a fling, or reinvent ourselves. All these possibilities are typified in the cinematic representation of these spontaneous journeys. Yet, within this ideal, road movies have shaped very different expectations for men and women on the road, and given them different sets of freedoms as they head across the country.

Throughout the years, road movies have represented the American dream of freedom and independence, and have blossomed in American cinema especially since World War II. The boom in automobile production and the growth of youth culture created a fascination with the hero who goes on the open road with his fast car, searching for adventures. Today women in cinema are also associated with these ideas of mobility and transformation, but this seemingly light genre of entertainment reveals a significant gap in degrees to which Hollywood allows men and women the freedom to be independent, adventurous and—above all—funny.

“Before we went out, I slipped something in our Jägermeister” Alan (Zach Galifianakis) admits to his beaten up “wolf pack” in The Hangover. “It wasn’t ecstasy Alan! It was roofies,” Stu (Ed Helms) shouts back at him. His panic is comical rather than alarming—“I lost a tooth! I married a whore!”—and the audience bursts out in laughter when realizing they cannot remember what happened the night before. It’s hard to imagine a similar scene with a group of women waking up after being drugged and blank on the details of last night could be considered funny by any audience. It is a harmless and funny joke only when the protagonists have distance from such experiences in real life.

Movies that focus on female travelers usually portray a much more serious, emotional path—not a road trip but a journey.

Road movies in particular display the contrast between “masculine humor” (vulgar, sexual and filled with body fluid jokes and pranks) and “feminine humor” (self-deprecating, comforting, prank-free and mostly “clean”). Other issues such as mobility, family, freedom and stability, surface as well in the old gender stereotypes of the road-movie genre. Movies like Road Trip, The Hangover and Harold and Kumar see men setting out on a humorous and spontaneous adventure; movies that focus on female travelers, such as Eat Pray Love or Under the Tuscan Sun usually portray a much more serious, emotional path—not a road trip but a journey.

This categorical division of gender in the genre—the carefree travel guy and the lost and lonely journeywoman—exemplifies the ideas of the post-structuralist feminist philosopher Judith Butler in “Critically Queer” (1993). Butler argues that language is a medium of power that divides the world into unnatural categories. Language both reflects and strengthens the public’s perspective—it is “that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains,” she writes. It creates a hidden assumption about a universal male and female identity. The term “road trip” is synonym with a carefree hero who parties and gets into absurd situations, whereas “journey” suggests a gradual transformation of a heroine who often feels lost, especially in her love life. Through her travel she rediscovers herself, learns how to be independent and of course eventually falls in love.

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The differences between the sexes are already reflected in the circumstances that trigger the protagonists’ trips. Women’s incentives are usually emotionally motivated, whereas men are often driven by sex or drugs. This basic formula is apparent in most modern films from the last decade, many directed by Todd Phillips, who became the leading voice of the genre with Road Trip, The Hangover and Due Date. His first movie, Road Trip, set the course for the genre; it follows a group of young men who decide to travel from Ithaca to Texas after one of them cheated on his girlfriend and accidentally sent her a tape documenting his betrayal. Together with his good friends, the protagonist (Breckin Meyer) goes on an adventure to retrieve the incriminating tape in order to prevent his girlfriend from viewing it. Throughout their travel south they are forced to overcome comic obstacles, such as exploding cars, drug dealers and maxed-out credit cards.

In contrast to the packs of men who bond over marijuana and sex tapes, women often travel alone, accompanied only by voice-overs. Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) depicts a woman named Frances (Diane Lane) who is going through depression after the dissolution of her marriage. Reluctant at first, she decides to take a trip to Italy, where—symbolism alert!—she renovates a dilapidated villa. During time spent in the pastel landscapes of Tuscany, she slowly starts to appreciate the beauty of the simple life and to celebrate the tastes of Italian cuisine. While in Road Trip Meyer’s character ends his adventure with the arrival at the physical location he set out to read, Lane’s character concludes her trip with finding love.

That women have become courageous, freedom-seeking heroines of road movies instead of being relegated to secondary roles might be taken as a victory. Yet the cinematic representation of female road trips has been repeated with dwindling energy, reducing women to lost, self-involved characters who can only be saved by love.

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The self-discovery of the heroines is often intertwined with their relationship to food. Like the delicacies Frances discovers in her new life in Under the Tuscan Sun, food plays an integral part in Liz’s (Julia Roberts) journey in Eat Pray Love (2010). Based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir, it tells the story of a woman unsatisfied with her daily life and marriage, who sets out on a journey of soul-searching and self-discovery, through Italy/food, India/spirituality, and finally—inevitably—Indonesia/love.

Liz’s newfound freedom is expressed through long shots of her walking in the streets of Italy while eating pasta, pizza and ice cream. Her self-image relies heavily on her ability to eat carbs without guilt. When she later has dinner with a friend who hasn’t achieved the same level of self-acceptance, Liz tries to convince her to let loose as well. Her male road movie counterparts may fight drug dealers, drink themselves into a coma and spend the night in jail; for Liz “letting loose” means eating pizza. She explains how tired she is from “counting every calorie I consumed so I know exactly how much self-loathing to take into the shower.” When her friend complains about having gained a few pounds, Liz presents her irrefutable logic: since men have never asked her friend to leave their bedroom after she got naked, it means they don’t care about some extra weight.

Food may be inseparable from joy and satisfaction, but depicting it as a necessary means for self-realization further narrows the image of women. This becomes especially clear when looking at the depiction of food in the male-centric road movies. Meals in male narratives aren’t vehicles for self-realization, but catalysts for other adventures.

Perhaps the starkest comparison comes from the comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), the two friends (John Cho and Kal Penn) go on a surrealistic adventure after getting high and seeing an advertisement for White Castle. “Are you hungry?” asks a seductive female voice from the TV screen, “Don’t you like food that is tasty and delicious?” The men whisper “I do” and rush out the door: the hamburgers do not satisfy any spiritual hunger or evoke any life-changing experiences, but simply fulfill their munchies and rocket them into a series of silly events.

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Despite the repetition of characters and jokes, several movies did manage to narrow the gap between the representation of men and women in the genre. Instead of traveling solo, the heroines in Thelma & Louise (1991) escape together from social constraints and obligations from work, home and a controlling marriage. Instead of merely reflecting on their lives, throughout the movie Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) encounter real threats and real adventure (though far from comical); their short vacation quickly turns into a nightmare. Instead of chasing love, they are chased by the FBI for shooting the man who attempted to rape Thelma. In the emotional closing scene they decide to drive their car over a cliff. “Ok. Then, let’s not get caught” says Thelma and, with tearing eyes, they hold hands as Louise steps on the gas pedal.

A few film critics, including Pauline Kael, loved this “doomsday finish,” in which “the women punish men by killing themselves, they are heading for an all-girl heaven.” But many modern feminists see this ending as the ultimate punishment for the women’s defiant journey for emancipation. Butler presents a similar notion in her book Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life & Death (2000). She examines Antigone, Sophocles’ renowned rebel, who hanged herself after defying her uncle the King, as a feminist icon of defiance and argues that women like Antigone represent how feminist behavior is loaded with risk. Like Butler’s Antigone, Thelma’s and Louise’s deaths are a critique on how social norms determine which types of life are worthy and can continue to exist. Having no desire to fulfill their social roles as women, society could no longer accept them.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) also subverts stereotypes about gender and sexuality which borrows both from the comic road-trip and the emotional journey categories. The Australian comedy-drama follows two drag queens (Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) and a transsexual woman (Terence Stamp) who set out in a large tour bus on a journey through the Australian Outback to perform at a hotel casino resort. While on the road, they meet a variety of characters. Some are accepting and kind, others abusive and violent. The movie blurs both the common road movie formulas by combining the fluidity of the characters’ sexual identities with elements from both comedy and drama. While women and humor rarely go together in road-movies, transsexualism allows the movie to portray a journey that is funny and entertaining but at the same time, dark and emotional.

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Hollywood recently found a viable place for women in road movies: The heroine is a mother who takes the entire family on a road trip to help her child attain his/her dream. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) centers on Sheryl (Toni Collette), an overworked mother, and her daughter, 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) who dreams about winning the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Sheryl convinces the whole family to go on a trip from New Mexico to California and fulfill Olive’s dream and her duty as a mother. A similar pattern is seen in the 2012 road comedy-drama The Guilt Trip. The heroine is a widowed mother (Barbra Streisand), who only decides to go on a cross-country road-trip so her son Andy (Seth Rogen) can sell a product he invented. Predictably, throughout the trip the mother and son confront their long, simmering family tensions and eventually understand that their lives have more in common than they had originally thought.

But by allowing women into the road-movie genre mainly as mothers, Hollywood maintains their domestic roles and keeps them at safe distance from any comical input.

The mothers are often the glue that keeps the family together and they are the ones who try and save everyone else from the absurd situations they got themselves into. But by allowing women into the road movie genre mainly as mothers, Hollywood maintains their domestic roles and keeps them at safe distance from any comical input. Why is it almost impossible to find a cinematic representation of women who, like in real life, travel together, party, and enjoy random sexual risk-free encounters?

Hollywood still associates women with domesticity—even the success of the funny, raunchy “female humor” in the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids centers around a wedding, a domesticity pinnacle. Kirstin Wiig’s single-gal character does have casual sex, but it is partly responsible for her complete meltdown, and the film ends not just with all parties reunited at another character’s wedding, but with Wiig beginning a promising relationship with a nice man. The recent We’re the Millers follows the same path. While the script allows Jennifer Aniston to have some fun as a cynical stripper who sets out on a road trip to make money, after pretending to be a mother and a partner she realizes the importance of having a family and turns the one into a real one.

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While all these road movies are perceived as light entertainment, they reflect social values that affect and shape our individual and collective identities, and our views on gender in particular. In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, Butler coined the term “gender performativity,” explaining that gender is an act that has been rehearsed, much like a script. We, as the actors, make the script a reality through repetition. For Butler, gender is not an expression of what one is, but rather of something one does.

In relation to popular culture, Butler’s views on performing as men or women, and the freedoms and obligations that come with each gender are shaped by the cinematic models set by Hollywood. Since humor is not a part of the lives of Liz in Eat Pray Love, Frances in Under the Tuscan Sun and the heroines of Thelma and Louise, it is not surprising that movie-women are not funny. This vicious circle seems to be the inspiration for Christopher Hitchens’ much buzzed about 2007 piece where he concludes that “women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, [are] not funny.” Yet, this catch-22, by its very nature, leaves out many real women and their full spectrum of humor who don’t fit with the studios’ narrow idea of a funny—and profitable—female character.

While male road-trips continue to flourish and gain success, the women in the genre still have a long road ahead to prove they can also engage in a spontaneous, careless and most of all, humorous trip.

Chen Hooft van Huysduynen (@ChenHooft) is a freelance writer and NYU journalism graduate student. Her work has been published in Hyperallergic, Salon and Haaretz. She lives and writes in New York City.

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