Road trips can be life changing for women, so why doesn't Hollywood want us behind the wheel?

The movies present driving away from the home as a transgression, a risk — sometimes it's what we need to survive

Published October 8, 2017 4:30PM (EDT)

"Thelma & Louise" (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
"Thelma & Louise" (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

“Check this out.”

I hit send on an Instagram pic of an alpine lake in Slovenia, its center containing one lone island crowned by a medieval church. After a brutal NYC morning commute, fighting like Braveheart to board the uptown A, it looked like the Elysian Fields.

“But this beach tho!” She wrote back with a ‘gram of sandy shoreline on the Adriatic.

Our image swap was at first weekly, then biweekly. Soon, it was a daily slideshow of Croatian islands, Montenegrin fjords and rolling hills.

We’d known each other for over a decade, meeting during an undergrad semester abroad in Prague, our 20s spent flirting with disaster and highly questionable men. She was one of my closest friends — life later taking us to opposite sides of the country. She’d become a public defender in Texas, charged with advocating for those deemed most despicable by the government: illegals, drug addicts, systemic victims of poverty who had somehow fallen astray of the U.S. criminal justice system.

Fresh out of a two-year relationship, she was conflicted about whether to stay in her small border town. I was a freelance writer and editor in a field that seemed to be quickly imploding, feeling the full weight of 33 and taking on contract work making viral slideshows . . . at least through the summer.

Despite years of full-time positions, student loans and credit-card payments, the realities of life had left us unprepared for the mix of balmy June weather, lightweight dresses and long hours of sunlight with stiff chairs, overhead florescent lights that felt like soft-focus lasers in the arctic chill of the office air-conditioner.

A dip in airline prices, and a hoard of frequent flyer miles, helped procure two tickets to Zagreb, Croatia a city neither of us knew anything about. We booked a car so we wouldn’t be constricted by train schedules. We would say at cheap Airbnbs and subsist on gas-station sandwiches. In 10 days we hoped to cover the distance from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, driving the legendary Adriatic highway.

We felt an odd sense of guilt. We had adult responsibilities — as sisters, daughters, lovers, girlfriends, colleagues, tenants. I couldn’t quite explain it to my live-in boyfriend, who felt excluded. We craved adventure, female adventure — a break, temporarily, from the confines of adult womanhood.

Only my mother, a musician, understood. She called it my "'Thelma & Louise' vacation." She got that we needed to feel the vast expanse of opportunity and possibility unfurling which can only come from forward motion. She understood we needed to connect with women inside us that age and experience had suppressed. It's something we'd all seen on screens large and small.

For better, but more often worse, the female road trip holds a certain, peculiar place in pop culture. Quite often, the woman or women involved come to a tragic end as a result of Icarian attempts at self-actualization. Consider "Thelma & Louise," who’d rather drive their blue 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible hood-first off the lip of the Grand Canyon than return to limited lives grunted out under the thumb of the patriarchy.

You could also look at Mona, the protagonist of Agnes Varda’s "Vagabond," who flees the dreariness of Parisian office culture for life on the road but finds herself meeting an untimely demise, frozen in a ditch in rural France.

Add to that the real-life vagabond Isabelle Eberhardt, a French writer and socialite at the turn of 20th century, whose diaries charted her cross-dressing, sexually-liberated existence traveling North Africa and the Middle East before dying at 27 in a flash flood.

Hell, if you really wanted, you could classify Lana Del Ray’s heroine in Ride  — a  fallen singer turned wandering prostitute with “a chameleon soul” and a “fire for every experience and an obsession for freedom” — as one of these women lost on the road.

But there are also, thankfully, more positive examples of female road trips leading to personal growth: take Edith Wharton’s real-life quest to emotionally map the European countryside in "A Motor Through France," or this summer’s blockbuster "Girls Trip," rare for its portrayal not just of a positive vision of female travel but also one that includes women of color.

Yet on the whole, society — and especially Hollywood — seems intent on keeping women off the road with stories of danger and shame. “How dare you go with your sisters? You have obligations. If something bad happens, you brought it on yourself.” That last line, sadly, seems to reverberate through every facet of women's lives.

But look at our smiles, look at our photos, listen to how we just can't stop talking about what we've seen, no matter how hard we try when we get back — a road trip can be life changing for women. So why, then, are we so often dissuaded from getting behind the wheel?

“The road movie showcases an attempt to get outside the status quo, out of mainstream, conventional culture,” according to Hannah Dick, Visiting Assistant Professor at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. “It offers an opportunity to play with alternative family structures, models of romantic relationships outside heteronormative marriage, and unconventional social norms.”

A perfect example is 1992’s "Boys On The Side," the story of three women on the run who temporarily settle in Arizona and form a makeshift family. The film was prescient for its empathetic portrayal of then-taboo subjects including AIDS, homosexuality and the treatment of women in the penal system decades before Netflix turned these topics into binge watches.

“Many road movies end in tragedy because these alternatives must be contained, the status quo reaffirmed,” says Dick.

“Women aren’t granted the same access to the road men are,” adds Professor Alyx Vesey of The University of Alabama’s Media Studies Center. “They’re told to fear its uncertainties — unlit paths, seedy motels, strange men — and films often amplify that fear by representing women as victims instead of explorers. [These films] are about women struggling to have agency over their own lives, which travel symbolizes in different ways.”

Female travel, she notes, is often portrayed in three specific ways. First are the stories of women taking solo trips to process loss, like Cheryl Strayed’s "Wild" or Samantha Morton in "Morvern Callar" (2002). The second are female friendship movies — "Boys On The Side" or the highly underrated Britney Spears vehicle "Crossroads" (2002) — which depict travel as a space where women of different perspectives and experiences can gather and find strength.

“The road to queer cinema is paved in asphalt,” said Vesey, explaining the third type. “It has often represented freedom and possibility for queer subjects like Carol Aird and Therese Belivet in 'Carol' (2015), transgender woman Bree Osbourne in 'Transamerica' (2005) and the drag queens of 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert' (1994). It represents freedom to discover where you fit in the world, be surprised by your surroundings, get lost, find yourself through reorientation. That’s why it matters that so few movies depict female travel. Can we ever be free if we’re not free on the road?”

“There's been a long history of women being stuck in the home, in gender roles that they don't want and that aren't ultimately fulfilling,” suggests Ry Russo-Young, director of this year’s heartbreaking YA drama "Before I Fall," as well as other indie hits dealing with the emotional metamorphosis of young women. “The concept of escape and running off to be an alternate self that isn't defined by a man is sort of the ultimate fantasy for women, both in the past and even still today."

Catheryn Khoo-Lattimore is a lecturer, teacher and writer on the travel industry, as well as the author of "Women and Travel: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Advances in Hospitality and Tourism)." Her extensive research has shown that when women take vacations, they end up doing the bulk of the planning and care-taking.

“Holidays for women are laborious. When we travel with our families, whether children, siblings or parents, we make sure everyone is cared for. The social expectations for us to be ‘good’ bring with them social and psychological risks, perceptions of external scrutiny and judgement for failing to conform. This leads to guilt—when you dream of a small snippet of time where you don’t have to worry about somebody else, or do things you want to do.”

It makes sense that a woman traveling, untethered by responsibility, would be a threat, Lattimore asserts. Despite their need for empowering holidays, women still have limited formal options. So, women take it upon themselves.

When writer Nona Willis-Aronowitz’s mother, the legendary rock critic Ellen Willis, passed in 2006, she began to question aspects of life and feminism — turning to photographer and childhood friend Emma Bee Bernstein for solace and inspiring a three-month cross-country road trip, interviewing women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, to help move outside her bubble.

In 2009, they published a book, "GirlDrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism," detailing the experience. Now a features editor at Splinter News, Aronowitz takes frequent road trips for both personal and professional reasons and credits them with helping her and others feel unstuck. "I feel like I have my best ideas while I’m driving.”

“Throughout time, women have been discouraged from venturing on their own,” says photographer Kelsey Bennett, whose work is frequently inspired by road trips, bringing her from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans to shooting Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga on the tour with her grandfather, the iconic singer Tony Bennett. “There’s a protectiveness that family and society impose that can be suffocating and ultimately limits character by depriving women of access to adventure. When you travel with other women, through unfamiliar towns and cities, you’re forced to use instincts that aren’t exercised on a regular basis. To be a pioneer in your own life, discovering parts of yourself that would only be triggered by unexpected situations that aren’t provided by the routines of traditional family life.”

Bennett points to her grandmother, who in the '60s drove her five children cross-country to Reno to take advantage of a divorce-law loophole, cementing for her the tie between cars and freedom.

“I’ve often gone on the road with my sister or fellow women filmmakers and collaborators,” says Rémy Bennett, Kelsey’s sister, an actress and director known for "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013) and "Buttercup Bill" (2014). “Getting lost in a journey that is often messy and imperfect and filled with strangers and adventures and moments of fear and hysterical laughter are the times in my life I feel most content and fulfilled.”

Back on the road in Croatia, we made a rule. To pass the Bechtel test, we’d go 24 hours without talking about men. It was hard, but 24 hours turned to 48, and it felt great. Instead, we discussed careers, dreams, our families, fears, the coming decades, the unexpected voraciousness of the aging process.

We made a pact to do this trip again in 10 years, maybe even every decade. We were excited by the prospect of our 40, 50, even 80-year-old selves on the road. We watched sunsets over mountain vistas, drove through a flash storm that shook the car so badly I prayed for the first time since Hebrew school, got lost and ended up at the Bosnian border, dazed, laughing and scrambling for our passports — an entire lifetime compressed into 10 days.

There’s a sequence in "Thelma & Louise" when the pair, accepting their status as outlaws, stand in the desert looking at the stars. It’s meant to convey emotional tectonic plates moving and shifting within the pair. Thelma turns to Louise. “Something’s crossed over in me . . . and I can't go back.” She fails to elaborate on whether this is a geographical statement, metaphor, or both, or if that even matters. Either way, the road has awakened her.

In a society that teaches women that a partner is more important than a good friend, that aging signals a decrease in desirability and an increase in expectations of responsibility, that women, alone, can (and have to) maintain the family unit, there's a benefit to keeping women scared and home-bound. But this only forces them to work harder to feel free — if just for a week.

By Laura Feinstein

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