A good friend directed me to this thought-provoking article: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters from The American Reader.
The author’s basic premise seems to be that compared to the number of male adventure books, female adventure books don’t really exist. And that this lack of narratives means that women who venture out on the road are seen as exiles and freaks instead of individuals out to discover themselves, as men are seen to be. She also makes the case that this comparative invisibility of women on the open road creates a defacto narrative for them that they our outcasts marked to be raped and murdered. And she makes a, not entirely unconvincing claim, that this assumed narrative makes it more likely to come true.
I guess I had a lot of thoughts when reading this. My first and clearest response was that her premise is flawed. She is, quite simply, reading the wrong books. She says that when women are portrayed as traveling, they are generally fleeing something. She also says that if other portrayals exist, they aren’t part of the popular culture.
Now maybe my reading choices are skewed because I am a woman and a traveler, but I instantly was able to call up half a dozen female travel narratives where the young woman is essentially inspired by adventure. The Witch of Blackbird Pond probably won the Newbery 60 years ago. Now true, Kit Tyler is fleeing an arranged marriage. But she’s from Barbados, loves to swim in the ocean at a time when only witches are thought to float, and she sells all her finery to get back out on the open sea. Similarly Charlotte Doyle from The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle might have been fleeing something, I can’t quite remember, but she gave away everything to get back on her boat.
The basic restlessness and longing for individual growth that this author claims is missing from female road narratives has been alive and well for a long time in the world of children’s and YA literature. To her Huck Finn, I say, what about Pippi Longstocking?
Other girl-trip novels that instantly leaped to mind were: The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Now Harry was stolen in the former, but it was clear before her abduction that she loved traveling and when she got the chance, she escaped on her own to do some more. And Aerin in the latter undoubtedly escaped the castle out of restlessness and a desire for adventure.
In The Talking Earth she ends up having to fend for herself on a quest through the everglades when she is separated from her tribe. For that matter, Frodo and Huck Finn, two of her main male examples did not entirely choose their tripping, either. An essential part of the Hero’s Journey is the denying of the quest. My favorite male-trip, Whirligigs, is forced upon him as penance for drinking and driving and getting another young person killed.
Looking through my shelves, I came across these other favorite girl-trip books:
- Eat, Pray, Love
- The White Darkness
- Picture of Hollis Woods
- Walk Two Moons
- The Tales of Alvin Maker
- The Dream Hunter Duet
- The Lunar Chronicles
- The Golden Compass
- Jellicoe Road
- and the fabulous recent movie Beasts of the Southern Wild
- and now that I think of it, also the female half of Moonrise Kingdom
Some of these characters leave out of restlessness and a need for adventure. Some leave to understand a family tragedy or unravel a mystery. Some to find a home. Their reasons are complex and multi-faceted, their characters are complex and multi-faceted. Just like male characters. Maybe we’re doing better in the children’s book world than in the wider world of literature. Or maybe this woman was writing about a time period in publishing that is passing away.
But all that being said, do I really think that she’s wrong? A cursory survey of the books I am currently writing uncovers at least four heroines on the brink of womanhood who set out on a physical quest. And each one of them is fighting against the social expectations of her time and place to do so. And in fact that struggle is one of the character’s main struggles in most of those cases. In each case, my heroine doesn’t know that leaving is an option. And because these are all fantasy worlds and I’m creating them, in fact, these characters don’t have the option. Because none of them have seen or been handed a narrative where that was an option. Each of these women creates it.
As did many of the young women in the books I mentioned above. And that is not the case for the young Che in The Motorcycle Diaries or Siddhartha or the characters in On the Road and The Alchemist. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. In true open-road novels, the character is seeking transformation. Now Che and Siddhartha obviously wound up pretty amazing people, but maybe they didn’t have as far to go. I really enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love both the book and the movie–maybe because it was so novel to see a woman traveling to transform her life when her ability to do so wasn’t even questioned.
But the fact is that a woman’s journey to full maturity is not the same as a man’s, and maybe it won’t ever be, and maybe it wouldn’t even be great for it to be. Rilke says in his Letters to a Young Poet:
Women, in whom life dwells more immediately, more fruitfully and more confidently, must surely have become fundamentally riper people, more human people, than easygoing man, who is not pulled down below the surface of life by the weight of any fruit of his body . . .. This humanity of woman, borne its full time in suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she will have stripped off the conventions of mere femininity in the mutations of her outward status . . . Some day there will be girls and women whose name will no longer signify merely an opposite of the masculine, but something in itself, something that makes one think, not of any complement and limit, but only of life and existence: the feminine human being.
I talk on here all the time about providing narratives so that young people can recognize themselves and feel seen. I talk about the healing power of self-reflection in books. But there is another side to the issue that is maybe just as true that I don’t talk about much because it’s harder to grasp. But that is that there is true value in seeing no narrative to follow and having to make it up.
Many fall by the wayside in this scenario, though. I remember reading The Dollhouse and The Awakening and The Children’s Hour and The Well of Loneliness and being absolutely heart-broken by each in turn. Because those characters suffer and find no redemption because they are living out narratives that have not been written. Some of them even die.
But here’s the catch, and it’s not pretty. We will all die eventually. What is at stake in the journey is our very souls while alive. And hardship does more in the task of soul-making than ease ever has. If what lifts our spirit in the journey novel is its potential for real and lasting change and growth, then maybe it’s ultimately not horrible that women aren’t given an easy narrative for self-fulfillment.
The new female narrative of fiscal and employment empowerment has done very little from what I can tell, to actually make women fuller and deeper people.
When we create a narrative, we make something easier because we provide a roadmap. And for kids who are struggling, that can be a Godsend. I know that it was for me. But maybe there are some things that shouldn’t have a map, some journeys that need to be struggled through. And perhaps the journey of ultimate becoming is one of them.