An essay worth reading by Vanessa Vaselka. [Edited to add: Read this piece too. I think I love this woman.]
I remember when I was twenty-one, and working as a graphic artists for a newspaper in Los Angeles, two of my female co-workers left for a year to travel around the world together. It was not a good time for American women to be traveling around the world, but then again, I suppose one can argue it has rarely ever been. There’s always some reason it’s safer to stay at home. I was jealous of their bravery and their financial means (although they were not traveling in anything like style — this was $5 a day hitchhiking stuff they would be undertaking.) I was astounded that they could want to do this. Weren’t they scared? What if something should happen? Were they really going to hike through India? China?
The same imagination which is so beneficial to me as a writer also would have tied me up in anxious knots about such a journey.
A few years later, I worked for a woman named Stephanie who had, years before, traveled across the length of Africa with several friends in a baby blue truck. It was not a good time to be traveling Africa, but then it has rarely ever been. Stephanie had explained to me that, since she was a New Zealander, such behavior was customary and expected. Insane, but a particular kind of insanity in which New Zealanders take great pride, the same sort of thing that has them running with the bulls in Spain or keeps them skiing on the side of a volcano that’s in the process of erupting. I was shocked and inspired by her stories of her travels, by her passion for adventure, her daring to see what was over the next hill.
I could not help but feel that these were women who had somehow been born with an instruction manual, who knew how to live a life, who had, to use a metaphor more typically reserved for men, well and truly sewn their oats. They adventured, and I can only hold them in the highest admiration for doing so.
Back to Vanessa’s essay, which makes some rather extraordinary points about the reality that we make for ourselves through our modern literary work. You don’t have to agree with every point she makes, but it’s difficult to argue that we have a wealth of literary fiction examples when it comes to the women finding themselves on the road. A woman hitchhiking can be likened to the couple having sex in a horror movie — she’s going to come to a bad end, and most people will think she deserved it for being so foolish. What was she even thinking? Was she thinking? The idea of the quest is unrelentingly male. I can count on one hand the number of examples that I can think of where a female was the one so adventuring, and Vanessa names every single one of those examples as well. I want to have a knee-jerk response to this. I want to say she’s wrong. Of course a woman can do all those things! (See above examples, for instance. In fact, my own experience has no male counterparts.) But the lack of story, the lack of literary example, leads me to the same conclusion as Venessa Vaselka: that a case can be made that our collective subconscious believes a woman’s place is in the home. If we thought women should be out on the road, we’d write about them — well, we’d write about them as something other than victims to be raped, killed and dumped on the side of the freeway.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this. I certainly don’t have anything like an easy answer. I don’t think she’s wrong, but I don’t know that she’s wholly right either. I think any hitchhiker or traveler, male or female, encounters a significant amount of risk. Male hitchhikers are raped and killed too, but maybe we shake our heads less and don’t act like they were asking for it by the mere fact that they were hitchhiking. A woman on the road isn’t romanticized the same way. She is not having an adventure; she is in jeopardy. I acknowledge her point. I also hate her point, even if I personally would never hitchhike and have never gone off on wild explorations. I want my fellow sisters to be able to without everyone assuming they must be crazy and broken, come from battered families and are battling off drug abuse and prostitution.
If there is anything I have learned from my own experience, and the author of this story is right to point this out in my opinion, its that through our literature and writing, we truly do shape reality. How we feel, how we see the universe, how we expect people to behave — all of that is nudged, word by word, through the stories we create and share among one another. So if there’s a lack of this kind of story and its subsequent effect on our perspective, there is also a solution. Write.