Women on the Road

Today’s Vagina News is a little different. It’s an (excellent) essay rather than an article, and while it touches on things we talk about all the time, it’s framed in an unusual context… Female Road Stories. (Big thanks to Krystal for sharing it with me.)

What’s a road story? It’s a quest. Author Vanessa Vaselka mentions several, fictional and non – the stories of Huck Finn, Frodo Baggins, Jack Kerouac. You can probably think of dozens more, and most of the ones that come to mind are probably about males. It doesn’t take too much effort to come up with some that are about females – Thelma and Louise, Joan of Arc, Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road, Atalanta. But then, try to think of some that are about women in a non-imaginary world who don’t befall some terrible fate at the hands of men. That’s a stumper.

I love traveling, especially road tripping. I’ve driven up and down both US coasts, back and forth and back again across the country, and done a fair amount of exploring in the middle. I’ve gone to Canada, Europe, England and Scotland, Morocco, Egypt, and South Africa. Every place I’ve gone, I’ve been acutely aware of (and explicitly warned about) being perceived differently because I’m female. At once more and less visible, more and less valuable. Certainly more of a target, more at risk of ending up in a place or situation in which I would become one of those girls no one ever hears from again. Some of that is based in reality, and some of it is because when it comes to stories of women on the road, those are the only ones we hear.

I have long been bothered (ok, infuriated) by the role women play in stories of adventure. Author Vanessa Vaselka says it beautifully; “The woman on the road then ceases to be human… and instead becomes a barometer, a tool by which the onlooker’s (or reader’s) humanity can be measured or determined. She is an object fetishized by their compassion… and the onlooker can choose to save her, choose to watch, or choose to ignore her as her fate plays out; these choices become the heart of the drama.” The story is not about the woman, it’s about who the onlooker is by way of how s/he reacts to what happens to the woman. I hate it I hate it I hate it.

It may seem like a small thing, gender inequality in road stories, but it ends up being about so much more. This essay is long, it wanders around a lot, and there are many quotable bits… but the part that strikes me most is that we need female road stories that are not about the risk of rape and death, so women of all ages can see the possibility of a quest for themselves. So that they can imagine a world in which they – we – can “go out the door just to see what’s out there.”

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