Saturday, November 2, 2013

Of Rolling Stones and Freebirds, Suns and Moons: The Gendering of Rambling

Vanessa Veselka has a piece asking why almost all of the American identity travel narratives focus on men, and it is brilliant. If you haven't yet, you should go read it. Veselka was herself a teenage runaway who spent years hitchhiking on her own. She recounts terrifying moments including the almost-constant threat of rape and a brush with a probable serial killer. She broadens from her own personal experience to explain that the toll of violence against girls and women who travel the road is high indeed. The FBI even opened a special initiative to try to solve the increasing stack of unsolved murders that took place along highways; almost all of them involved the discarded bodies of women, many of them in very public spaces. Yet no one seemed to remember them, their lives or their deaths. They had become invisible people and that made them targets. 

Veselka argues in her piece (if I didn't convince you the first time, I'm going to try again. Go read it.) that this invisibility mirrors our literary narratives on quest. She notes that there are plenty of narratives of men taking to the road to discover themselves, and they are complex journeys that involve a dynamic change for the character, usually a maturation process. Huck Finn, On the Road, Moby Dick: these men put themselves in dangerous positions for the sake of adventure and discovery, and they are rewarded through experience and literary respect. Veselka explains that women have few similar options:
The woman on the road then ceases to be human, as with many on the margins, 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 (rather than, say, the “male gaze”) 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.
So a man on the road becomes an agent in his own life. Even if the situations he finds himself in are beyond his control, his choices are the story. For women, our choice on how to read her (in print of in the flesh) becomes the tale. And that is why most narratives about women in these positions are focused on vulnerability. The danger of being raped and murdered becomes the primary narrative of the female on the road.

Hitchhiker's Thumb #1

That's the reason that our cultural symbol for hitchhiking in general is the extended thumb while the image for a woman getting a driver's attention is a bared, hiked leg. Women on the road are tied up with sex and desire, often in violent and dangerous ways. 

While Veselka does not downplay the reality of these dangers (and has, as she's shown, clearly experienced them firsthand), she notes that there are plenty of dangers with stealing a slave and running away with him, going on a whaling ship, or hitchhiking penniless across the country, but we don't make those dangers the crux of the story when the protagonist is male. His vulnerability is not exciting the way a woman's vulnerability is. Veselka theorizes that this is because a man on the road has a purpose, something to gain, while a woman on the road has only run out of options:
If we look once again at our gut response to a woman on the road we can see that its substrate is exile. A man on the road is caught in the act of a becoming. A woman on the road has something seriously wrong with her. She has not “struck out on her own.” She has been shunned.
Their decision (or non-decision, as we tend to see it) to place themselves in this danger despite the cultural narratives forbidding it makes them throwaways in our minds:
Although we have a deeper reservoir of cultural pity for women like that today, the actual concept of “the road” as a pathway to female selfhood, or a new future, or a different America, is nowhere evident in our popular songs or stories. Women on the road are like figures on a green screen. We think we see them when what we are really seeing is the cutout lines, the shadow of their displacement. We’re seeing absence. We’re reading motion sensors. Once placed upon that screen, we can throw anything up behind them behind—a meth lab or a barn or a motel—and make them into whatever we want. We can do anything to them because they only achieve agency through context and context through our projected narrative, rape and death. 
Rambling Men Grow, Rambling Women Fail

Veselka's excellent analysis reminded me of a blog topic I'd been trying unsuccessfully to tackle for months. I'd been interested in why there are so many positive (or at least interesting) narratives of "rambling" men, but not of women. The songs that came to mind shared common themes. I had kept trying to force them into some kind of commentary on our cultural stereotype that men are afraid of commitment while women come without any wild oats to sow, but Veselka made me realize why that approach wasn't working. This isn't about the ability to commit. It is about something much more essential: visibility and agency. Who gets to tell their stories and for what purpose?

Men are granted the opportunity to put themselves in danger for the sake of discovery. We don't call them stupid for doing it or insist they were "asking for it" when something goes wrong. We are wrapped up in their story to see what happens to them as a result of their choices. Most of the time, when a woman does something similar, we don't hear her story at all, but if we do, it is either as a periphery to a man's story or as a victim.

The clearest example of this to me is the movie Almost Famous. It gives us a side-by-side case study in this narrative. Our protagonist, Russell, is a young teen who gets the opportunity to travel with a rock band for a Rolling Stone story. His adventure covers the traditional quest ground. He stumbles, he falls, he redeems himself, he learns, and he grows.

Next to him, though, is another teenage rambler: Penny Lane. His adventure is presented as a one-time experience, but Penny Lane is well acquainted with the road. She is a "band aid," one of the young women who follows the band, present for sexual ambiance and good times, but always cast aside (in Penny Lane's case, traded for a pack of beer) before the girlfriends of the band show up.

Penny Lane is the one with worldly experience and knowledge. She acts as the tour guide for Russell's path away from naivety. Yet it is Penny Lane who falls victim to the treatment of the road. When she attempts suicide because of her mistreatment, the student surpasses the teacher as Russell steps in to save her. Penny Lane's story is the tragedy that operates to show Russell's growth through his journeys, but all of her journeys (much more numerous than his) only operated to set up her tragic fall. 

In the same movie, we are given yet another example of rambling. Russell's sister Anita runs off to escape her mother's well-intentioned rules and regulations. When she reappears later in the movie as a flight attendant with a wealth of experience herself, we see that her story may have indeed led to growth through quest, but--of course--her story doesn't actually make it on the screen. 

Because men have so much to gain from the experience of going on the road, many of the pop culture texts we have about them doing so revolve around the people surrounding them needing to let them go. 

The Man Has Got to Be FREE

"Freebird" Lynyrd Skynyrd

Perhaps the quintessential rambling song, "Free Bird" presents us with a protagonist who croons somewhat darkly about his inability to commit: "If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" He insists that his need to leave is just that: a need. "If I stay here with you, girl, things just couldn't be the same." Staying would break him. She wouldn't even want him anymore if he could stay because he wouldn't be worth having. 

Early on, it seems like the woman is trying to tie him down, evident by his aggressive insistence that "this bird you cannot change." But by the end, it's not about her anymore: "Lord knows, I can't change." The song suddenly becomes less an enjoinder to let him be and more a cry for help. Still, at the end of the day, he'll be "travelin' on," and it would be so un-Rock n' Roll for her to try to stop him.

"Free Fallin'" Tom Petty

The opening lines set up the familiar dichotomy of the "good girl" who just loves her parents, horses, and boyfriend and the "bad boy" who doesn't even miss her as he breaks her heart by taking off. 

His conclusion, too, suggests some remorse over the state of their respective roles. He doesn't necessarily want to be "standing in the shadows" with all the other bad boys while the girls are home "with broken hearts." In fact, he wants to "write her name in the sky." But, again, that's not the script, and he has to play his role and move on because it is through moving on that he gets the chance to grow. 

"Gotta Go" Trey Songz

In this song, the speaker is telling his female partner that he has to go even though he'd like to stay and love her a little longer. Even though he doesn't want to leave, he explains that "The streets be callin' me /They be callin' my name/And when they call I gotta go." Perhaps most interesting is his request that she remain where she is and not "change [her] position." While the implication is that he's asking her to remain in a sexual position, he is also insisting that she remain in her narrative position. Her position is static while his is dynamic. 

And Good Women Let them Be

There's a flipside to this rambling equation, and that's that good women let their men go because they know not to hold them back from their destinies. Often, their songs about this decision are full of sadness but ultimately the belief that they did the right thing. 

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough" Diana Ross

Whenever I think of this song, I tend to remember the chorus and it seems like a moving tribute to true love that can't be stopped. But that's not actually what's going on. There's this:

I know, I know you must follow the sun
Wherever it leads, but remember
If you should fall short of your desires
Remember life holds for you one guarantee
You'll always have me.

And if you should miss my lovin'
One of these old days
If you should ever miss the arms
That used to hold you so close, or the lips
That used to touch yours so tenderly
Just remember what I told you
The day I set you free.

So, it is a tribute to undying love, but it's a one-way love. She's pining for a man that has given up on her, moved on to "follow the sun."

"Bobby McGee" by Janis Joplin

In this narrative, the speaker was a rambler in her own right. She was a hitchhiker traveling the road and gaining all its knowledge and grit right along with her lover. The narrative that we focus on, though, is not what she gained but that she lost Bobby McGee, and she lost him because she "let him slip away." He left because "he's looking for that home" and despite all her pain she "hope[s] he finds it." 

"Nothing" is "all Bobby left" her, but she still pines for him and sees his decision to leave as a necessity for his quest. She was on her own quest, but that's not the story we listen to, and there's no sense in its continuation after he abandoned her. 

"Other Side of the Game" by Erykah Badu

I don't think it takes that much stretching of the imagination to extend living out on the streets with living the "street life," which might be a more contemporary narrative that explores the same themes as our more traditional quests. It has the same focus on physical instability and personal growth through dangerous interactions with a tumultuous world. 

In this song, the speaker is torn between worrying about her man's illicit street life and reaping the benefits that it brings her. Most powerfully to me, she notes that as this pattern emerged between them "he became the sun" and she "became the moon." If we, the readers of this story can be thought of as "earth," then this line essentially makes the same argument Veselka did. When we're reading the man's story of rambling, we read his own actions and agencies. We wait for his choices to dictate the course of the story. But when we're reading a woman's story, we make it revolve around us, turning our own choices about how we see her into the catalyst for the action. 

But Women Ramble, Too

"Monday Morning" by Melanie Fiona

On the surface, this song seems identical to "Freebird." The speaker is telling her love that she can't stay even though she loves him/her (unlike most of the songs from a male-perspective, there isn't the gender-marking language as she speaks to her partner). She's moving on no matter what. 

But a key difference in this song is that she doesn't insist on the element of solitude. In fact, she would prefer some company: 

This flower needs somewhere to go
No room to grow
on these dusty roads
I got two tickets and a dream
8:15 I'll save you a seat

While the songs of rambling from a male perspective demonstrate their female lovers to be anchors that tie them down, this same topic from a woman's perspective welcomes partnership and company. Rambling isn't about getting away from human connection.

"Not that Different" by Colin Raye

This song is unique among this list in that it is a male-narrated tale focused on a female rambler. The woman leaves because she feels the need to search for a more exotic life. He tries to convince her to stay by insisting that they're "really not that different." Her need to ramble takes her away, though. 

But she comes back. "Was it time? Was it truth? Maybe both led her back to his door." Her rambling did not end with growth and dynamic change. It ended with her coming right back where she started, having learned only that she should have listened to the man to begin with. Her rambling is not seen as a necessary component of questing. It is seen as the selfish act of immaturity. There's no pressure on the man to accept her need to ramble the way there was on the women above because he knows she'll come back. He is the center of the narrative, and she is like the moon, revolving around him even when she's at her most distant. 

What Does it Mean?

If Veselka is right and women are being erased from these narratives in favor of blank spaces for the audience to read our own tales onto them, there is a very real danger in this fiction. 

As Veselka explains, it's not that there aren't any women on the road to have stories. There are plenty of them. Too many of them end up as bodies in dumpsters or abandoned sheds, victims of the very invisibility we've read upon them. This is a micro-example of a larger cultural narrative that blames women for their own victimization. That makes it worth looking at in its own right, but its also more than that. 

If the idea of questing is essential to the construction of identity, denying women access to that narrative arc essentially limits who they can become. While I'm not literally calling for women to pack up their belongings and hit the road (and neither is Veselka), I am concerned about what the stagnancy of women's place in these very essential identity constructions means for women's place in a larger society. 

The moon is beautiful in its own right, but we need to be the sun in our own stories. All eyes should be on the force of our own movement; the audience does not have the right to pull us wherever is most convenient or exciting. We are more than walk-ons in our own movies. 

(If you didn't click any of the links to it because you were so enthralled with reading what I had to say, you are very kind. Now go read Veselka's piece.)

Pictures: Matt Lemmon 


  1. But Kris Kristofferson wrote and sang Bobby McGee. So "she's looking for that home and I hope she finds it." Otherwise, nice read.

  2. I didn't know that! In that case, isn't it interesting that it's the one that fits the rambling man narrative that became so famous (not to downplay Janis Joplin's role)?

  3. Yes, I actually think it confirms your observations that a guy wrote the song -- he sees the ideal woman possessing this fatal flaw of desiring home and family.