Frodo goes to Mount Doom. Kerouac drives across the United States. Huck Finn rafts down the Mississippi. But where are the girl and women adventurers? Where are the books and movies about female-led quests?
As Vanessa Veselka points out in a very dark American Reader article, popular images of women on the road are few, far-between, and more often than not, end in tragedy. I wasn’t sure about Veselka’s argument, until I did this thought experiment: When you think of a woman hitchhiking, do you think of her as having an adventure, or tempting fate?
Veselka argues that the lack of women adventurers in popular media has real-life consequences. She speaks from her own experience as a hitchhiker, where the people she met had no positive image of her experience.
They had no epic character to whom to compare her. She wasn’t Huck Finn, or Odysseus — she was just a lost girl at the mercy of the world.
She was not seen as having agency, as being in control of her own experience, only as a potential victim. This is not to say that she was never, or could never, become a victim — but the lack of positive stories to which other people could relate her experience made it more likely.
As she says, “During my travels I had literally thousands of interactions with people’s ideas about what I was doing with my life, but almost none of them allowed for the possibility of exploration, enlightenment, or destiny.”
No matter what her real goal might have been, other people only saw her as stupid for having stepped out her door, and as lucky for having escaped violence and tragedy for as long as she had.
Veselka mentions a few stories that do involve female travelers, including The Wizard of Oz, and one that immediately popped to my mind, Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I did some searching, to see if I could find any others — with mixed results.
I found lists of real-life female adventurers, which mostly contained women whose accomplishments have sadly not become legendary. I googled “female hitchhiker” — the first result was a Wikipedia article titled, “Vanishing hitchhiker.” It’s telling that perhaps the most well-known female adventurer, Amelia Earhart, is known not only for her daring feats of flight, but also for having mysteriously disappeared.
We need more books, more movies, more media in general about girls and women who go out into the world to seek their fortune — and succeed. We need them because we need other people to see us, and to see ourselves, as people who control our own destiny — as people to whom the world is a playground, not a trap.
Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and participates in reproductive health and justice activism in the Boston area.