March 2006



Getting Past the Stereotypes: Women and Motorcycles in Recent Lesbian Novels

Sarah Boslaugh

If you asked the proverbial “person on the street” to name three well-known motorcyclists, alive or dead, who do you think they would come up with?  My first thoughts are T.E. Lawrence, James Dean and Malcolm Forbes, but you might have said Bob Dylan, Steve McQueen, Robert Pirsig, or any of a number of famous men whose public image is associated with motorcycles.  Ask most people to name three well-known female bikers, however, and they will probably draw a blank. Try the same questions restricted to actors who played bikers in the movies, and the situation is similar: names like Marlon Brando (The Wild One), Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson (Easy Rider) and Robert Blake (Electra Glide in Blue) come immediately to my mind, but it’s much harder to think of actresses who have played biker roles. I’ve been watching a lot of biker movies lately so I was able to come up with Nancy Sinatra as Peter Fonda’s girlfriend in The Wild Angels, Cher as practically everyone’s girlfriend in Mask, and the two leather-clad babes who speak in unison in Beach Blanket Bingo. Note that although in all cases the characters may technically be bikers, they really should be called biker chicks since they occupy quite a different place in the social order from the male characters in the same films. Indeed, I would say they are more appendages to their biker boyfriends than independent characters, or, as Suzanne Ferriss put it, “leather-clad sexualized accessories.”

This virtual absence of independent women bikers from popular culture is puzzling because in fact many women in America ride motorcycles.  According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, as of 2004, almost 10% of motorcycles in the United States are owned by women (“MIC Releases”). American women also have a long history of motorcycling: for instance, in 1916, two women rode their motorcycles coast to coast (Ferrar x), and motorcycle clubs for women have existed at least since 1940, when the Motor Maids were founded (Ferrar xii). Recently, several books have been published attesting to the fact that women ride motorcycles, and not just in the pillion seat, including Ann Ferrar’s Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road, Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles,and Barbara Joans’ Bike Lust: Harleys, Women and American Society.  Alice Stone’s 1995 documentary film She Lives to Ride profiled five women motorcyclists. So I'm not trying to argue that American women don't ride motorcycles, or that a female motorcyclist has never appeared in an American book or film. My point is that the predominant image of the motorcyclist in American culture is male. Unfortunately, many people take their impression of motorcycle culture primarily from the conventions of exploitation biker movies such as The Wild Angels and The Born Losers, and from Hunter Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Those conventions, which are both masculine and misogynist, are so entrenched in the popular imagination that they function as a barrier discouraging the creation and dissemination of stories about female bikers.

One reason women and motorcycles are infrequently associated in American popular culture is because most stories involving motorcycles fit into one of two genres, both of which reserve the major roles for men: the macho world of biker gangs and the road trip journey of discovery. In the outlaw or biker gang genre, it’s a man’s world and women exist primarily as sexual objects of use. Biker movies from The Wild One to current films such as Biker Boyz are remarkably consistent in their adherence to this principle. In the biker exploitation films which enjoyed a burst of popularity in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, women were primarily confined to the roles of, as David Stidworthy puts it, "the 'taken for granted old lady,' the 'naïve small town girl' or the 'spunky chick' who could get down and dirty" (1). Indeed, the misogyny expressed in the biker exploitation genre was remarkable: portrayals of the rape and degradation of women seemed to have been part of the formula. In this regard the biker exploitation films show their kinship with another type of exploitation film, the “roughie” movies such as The Defilers whose primary subject matter was the violent degradation of women (Muller and Faris 94-99). Perhaps we should be grateful that this genre is associated primarily with men, given the limited and unfortunate choice of roles it offers women.

In contrast, the road trip/journey of discovery story is essentially benign and focuses on a lone individual or several friends who take a journey which leads them to realize important things about themselves and the world. However, these journeys of discovery are taken, at least in American popular culture, almost exclusively by men. This may not be surprising since road trip stories are a modern version of the hero's quest, and in Western mythology, the hero is always male (Segal 34). Women's place in most road trip stories is either as objects of desire who make themselves remarkably available to the journeying males, as in the commune and bordello episodes in Easy Rider, or as symbols of domesticity who are seen by the male protagonists as an obstacle to their freedom (Laderman 48). Women who take part in road trips are usually treated as appendages to the male characters, and serve the additional function of reassuring the audience that the male protagonists are not gay (Laderman 21). Unfortunately, this pattern holds for motorcycle road trips as well, both in fictional movies such as Easy Rider and in non-fiction accounts of such journeys, such as Odyssey to Ushuaia and Notas de viaje, the source for the film Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries).  Again, I am not arguing that women don't go on road trips (I've been on a few myself) but that the road trip stories told most often in American culture concern men who go on a journey to find themselves, with women serving as either obstacles or items of use along the way.

American culture doesn't include many stories about women and motorcycles, apart from some unpleasant exceptions noted above. The weight of misogyny in these dominant stories has made it difficult for other stories to be heard. There is one exception, however, and it comes from a subculture of women who can step outside these stereotypes and simply get on with telling their own stories. I am referring to lesbian culture, where women take their own road trips and don't need to worry, as the cartoon character Hank Hill famously did in an episode of the television program King of the Hill, about who will ride in the “bitch seat” (“Queasy Rider”). I don’t know what percentage of women bikers are lesbians, or what percentage of lesbians ride motorcycles, and I'm not trying to answer those questions. Instead, I'm going to discuss how lesbian culture has produced some useful and creative re-interpretations of popular motorcycle mythology.

I haven't taken a poll, but I'm pretty sure anyone conversant with lesbian culture could quickly name several female bikers. For instance, the singer K.D. Lang has often discussed how much she loves biking (Brown; Bowers) and Martina Navratilova was presented with a motorcycle at her retirement ceremony in 1994 (Araton B11). Lesbian creative artists such as the filmmaker Barbara Hammer (Haug) and singer Chabela Vargas (Yarbro-Bejarano) have used motorcycles and leather motorcycle clothing as symbols of female power and sexuality in their art. Sharp-eyed viewers of The Times of Harvey Milk will remember the San Francisco politician Anne Kronenberg pictured on a motorcycle. And everyone who knows anything about Gay Pride knows that some of the largest parades have been led for years by women’s motorcycle clubs, including The Sirens in New York City, Dykes on Bikes in Portland, and the Women’s Motorcycle Contingent in San Francisco.I believe that lesbian culture is able to explore stories about women and motorcycling because it is less burdened with the masculinist stereotypes prevalent in that culture. The remainder of this essay will explore how motorcycling has been portrayed in some recent lesbian fiction. The novels discussed below acknowledge popular mythology about women and motorcycling, but also question and contradict that mythology. In Elizabeth Sharp’s Shy Girl, the protagonist Alta Corral rides a motorcycle for transportation around San Francisco.  The bike is much more than simply a means of transportation, however: it is a symbol of her lesbian identity, which she has embraced and which her mother wishes her to conceal. As can be seen in this passage, a motorcycle triggered the epiphany in which she found her place in the world:

Alta had fallen in love with her life.  She could trace it to the moment itself, one late-August afternoon, two years after she had come to San Francisco. . . . Alta saw the motorcycle, a Honda 450, parked on a slight incline, by a lamppost covered in flyers, and as she stood reading the FOR SALE sign, everything around her . . . encouraged her to live.  Maybe other people, straight people in a straight world, get this feeling all their lives. . . . But that summer afternoon was the first time since her father died that Alta  had felt that way.  (56)

Unfortunately, her mother does not accept Alta as a lesbian, and views the motorcycle as a sign of lesbianism which she asks Alta to conceal when she visits: “Oh, and Alta, don't ride your motorcycle into the neighborhood.  It draws a kind of attention to yourself that isn't right. I still have to live here, you know" (5).  In another theme which will be echoed throughout these novels, motorcycle rides serve as occasions for flights of philosophical thought and poetic observation, as in this example:

The darkened streets of their hometown had turned gray with the night. Alta's bike seemed to roar against all that quiet. Once they were heading into the City, Alta felt buoyed up.  Clouds of fog reflected rows of bridge lights. . . . The City, lights covering the velvet hills, opened up before them. (99)

Buying a motorcycle is also associated with self-realization in Laurie R. King’s with child, a detective novel featuring Inspector Kate Martinelli of the San Francisco Police Department.  As the novel opens, Kate has been left by her longtime partner, and some of her friends accuse Kate of causing the breakup. This and various other events, the last of which was the total breakdown of her car, drive Kate almost to despair. She was planning to solve her transportation problem by buying a replacement car, but she makes a different decision when she wakes up in a sort of enlightened state after a long night of soul-searching about her failed relationship: “She watched the dawn, and as the sky lightened, her inner decision dawned as well, until, with a peculiar mixture of bitter satisfaction and gleeful mischief, she knew what she was going to do” (66).  What she did was buy a motorcycle rather than a car, and this leads to her psychic recovery.  She starts to live again, resumes a social life, enjoys rediscovering her physical abilities, and gets her career back on track. 

Sandra Tate, the protagonist in Frankie J. Jones’ Midas Touch is also in a turbulent situation at the beginning of the novel. Several crises have erupted almost simultaneously: she has a major anxiety attack due to overwork and her doctor orders her to take at least a four-month vacation; a disgruntled male employee “outs” her as a lesbian which causes several clients to cancel contracts with her firm; she throws out her live-in girlfriend of eight years after catching her with another woman and is then sued for support; and she discovers a twenty-year-old letter in which her mother begs her father to let her see her daughter. This latter discovery, which throws doubt on her father's story that her mother deserted the family, motivates Sandra to try to find her mother and get the true story about what happened.

In the midst of this turmoil, Sandra decides to reclaim a dream from many years ago, “the one about buying a motorcycle and riding all over the country” (88). She buys a 1997 Honda Valkyrie, learns to ride it and sets off on a road trip to try to find her mother.  Along the way she finds her mother, a lesbian who had been trying to contact her for years, but was unsuccessful due to Sandra’s father’s severe disapproval of her sexual preference. She also finds a new lover and they decide to live together, and she pays off her old girlfriend and closes that chapter of her life.

Midas Touch would be a conventional road trip story with only the details changed to fit a female-centered story, except for one thing: the trip lasts only 275 miles. This isn't much of a road trip in the Easy Rider sense.  In fact the absurd shortness of the trip (the heroine doesn’t even cross the Texas state line!) serves as a critique of the cultural convention of the road trip as a macho undertaking. In the alternative view expressed in Midas Touch, the value of a road trip is not determined by how much distance you cover but by the relationships you form along the way.

Shy Girl and Midas Touch are both conventional novels. In contrast, the three novels which form the “Tomato Rodriguez” trilogy, by author and cartoonist Erika Lopez, combine text and graphics so that their stories fairly leap off the page with exuberance. The first and last novels of the trilogy, Flaming Iguanas: An Illustrated All-Girl Road Novel Thing and Hoochie Mama: la otra carne blanca, even more than the two novels discussed above, simultaneously embrace and deconstruct the cultural mythology surrounding motorcycles.  The trilogy relates the adventures of a young Hispanic woman named Jolene Rodriguez, who prefers the nickname "Tomato." Central to their action is her cross-country motorcycle trip.

At first glance, Flaming Iguanas appears to embrace the fantasies of a road trip journey of discovery, with only the pronouns changed. The main action of the story gets underway as Tomato sets out with her girlfriend Magdalena Perez to ride their motorcycles from New Jersey to California, in order to visit Tomato’s father. The novel’s preface presents Tomato's imagined version of the trip, embracing both road trip and biker film conventions:  “Magdalena and I are gonna cross American on two motorcycles. We're gonna be so fucking cool, mirrors and windows will break when we pass by.  We'll have our own hardcore theme music that makes us throw our heads back and bite the sky.”  However, the novel quickly delineates the difference between the mythological trip of Tomato's imagination and the real one she is experiencing. Tomato starts by critiquing the whole male-centered mythology:

Ever since I was a kid, I'd tried to live vicariously through the hocker-in-the-wind adventures of Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Henry Miller.  But I could never finish any of the books.  Maybe because I just couldn't identify with the fact that they were guys who had women around to make the coffee and wash the skid marks out of their shorts, while they complained, called themselves angry young men, and screwed each other with their existential penises. (27)

Even more to the point, Tomato is not a very good biker. In fact, she met Magdalena after accidentally running over her cat with a rented Vespa. She’s also not riding a very good bike, and she and Magdalena part company early in the trip. The “motorcycle gang” mythology is also parodied in Flaming Iguanas: at first Tomato and Magdalena planned to form a gang called The Flaming Iguanas, but they quarrel and each forms her own gang of one. Tomato does not manage to properly outfit herself in gang regalia either: when she encounters difficulties in embroidering “Flaming Iguanas” on her leather jacket, she gives up after four letters, and is left to ride cross-country with a jacket bearing only the name "FLAM."

However, despite not conforming to the ideals of the macho road trip, the ride to California served its purpose as Tomato’s voyage of self-discovery. By the end of the trip, she has discovered her lesbian identity and is ready to settle down in California. Just as in Midas Touch, the road trip is re-imagined and reinvented, so that the macho trappings of the masculine version of this story are discarded while the essentially human story of self-discovery remains.

Tomato begins Hoochie Mama, the third novel of the trilogy, living in San Francisco without a motorbike and with a failing business. She still embraces bikes and their mythology, however, as shown in how she describes one of her friends: “Jean has a great big blond ponytail and is so cool she has never had a motorcycle without a kickstart” (54). So, it’s no surprise that when Tomato gets a loan of $10,000, she decides to embrace freedom and buy a motorcycle rather than sensibly investing in her business, because “if there’s a chance you may lose it all in the near future, it’s better to get the bike and run because houses can’t move and you’re never homeless if you’ve got a bike. You can always go somewhere else and do something better without wondering if the bus even stops there” (79).  Then Tomato decides that what she really needs to get her head on straight is to take a road trip, but again it doesn’t work out quite the way it does in the movies. This is her departure at the start of the trip:

I closed the door behind me, turned the house keys in the lock, and decided to just leave them dangling in the door, like a metal ponytail.  I loved my western sunset good-byes—the kind where you flicked your last cigarette into the horizon and mounted your bike like a UPS driver mounting the stairs or a receptionist.So I flung my right leg over the seat, flicked up the kickstand, and well, there aren’t too many bikes out there for shorter folks, and my yellowing bike is so big, I tiptoe when straddling it.  What happened was I lost my footing on the cat litter on the sidewalk I had put down to soak up the oil from my last bike.  My bike fell on my ankle before I could move it out of the way, and I was pinned to the ground.  (117)

Three homeless men help lift the bike off her and she is able to continue on her trip, but doesn’t quite manage the planned twenty hours of nonstop riding either due to knee cramps and her hands falling asleep.  This leads to reflection and her realization that being cool is not always compatible with everyday reality: “Cool is like high heels, uncomfortable because it’s always a balancing act” (119).

Mainstream American popular culture presents a severely limited view of those who rides motorcycles, and how and why they ride. However, anyone willing to look outside the mainstream will be rewarded with a view of bikers and biking which is far more varied and interesting.  The lesbian community includes many avid bikers, and they bring a point of view to motorcycling different from that which is commonly expected or represented. Several contemporary lesbian novelists have incorporated motorcycling in their work, and in so doing have both embraced and critiqued the mainstream image of the biker and the road trip genre.

Works Cited

Araton, Harvey. “Martina Exits Smiling.” New York Times 16 November 1994: B11.

Beach Blanket Bingo. Dir. William Asher. Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello. American International productions, 1965.

Biker Boyz. Dir. Reggie Rock Bythewood. Perf. Laurence Fishburne, Derek Luke. DreamWorks, 2003.

The Born Losers.  Dir. Tom Laughlin. Perf. Tom Laughlin, Elizabeth James. American International Pictures, 1967.

Bowers, Gina. “k.d. Lang’s Love Sweet Love.” Curve 10.6 (2000). 29 Jan 2006 <http://www.curvemag.com/Detailed/170.html>.

Brown, Glyn.”Home on Her Range.”  The Times (London) 1 Oct. 2004.

Carlstein, Andrés. Odyssey to Ushuaia: A Motorcycling Adventure from New York to Tierra del Fuego.  Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2002.

The Defilers. Dir. Lee Frost, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Perf. Byron Mabe, Mai Jansson. Sonney Amusement Enterprises, 1965.

Diarios de motocicleta. Dir. Walter Salles. Perf. Gael García Bermal, Rodrigo de la Serna. Focus Features, 2004.

Easy Rider.  Dir. Dennis Hopper. Perf. Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson. Columbia Pictures, 1969.

Electra Glide in Blue. Dir. James William Guercio. Perf. Robert Blake, Billy Green Bush. United Artists, 1973.

Ferrar, Ann. Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road.  New York: Crown, 1996.

Ferriss, Suzanne. “Girl on a Motorcycle.” Popular Culture/American Culture Association, San Antonio, Texas, April 2004.

Guevara, Ernesto. The Motorcycle Diaries. Trans. Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1995.

Haug, Kate. “An Interview with Barbara Hammer.” Wide Angle 20.1 (1988), 64-93. 29 Jan 2006 <http://muse.jhu..edu/journals/wide_angle/v020/20.1hammer.html>.

Joans, Barbara. Bike Lust: Harleys, Women and American Society.  Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 2001.

Jones, Frankie J.  Midas Touch.  Ferndale, MI: Bella Books, 2002.

King, Laurie R.  with child. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.

Laderman, David. Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Lopez, Erika.  Flaming Iguanas: An Illustrated All-Girl Road Novel Thing. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

---.  Hoochie Mama: La Otra Carne Blanca. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Mask. Dir. Peter Bogdanovich. Perf. Cher, Eric Stoltz. Universal Pictures, 1985.

“MIC Releaases New Motorcycle/ATV Owner Survey.” 18 Nov. 2004. 29 Jan 2006 <http://www.motorcycles.org/>.

Muller, Eddie & Faris, Daniel. Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of "Adults Only" Cinema. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.

Pierson, Melissa Holbrook. The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

“Queasy Rider.” King of the Hill. Written by Kit Boss, Dir. Wesley Archer. Perf. Mike Judge, Kathy Najimy. Fox Network. Original airdate 16 Feb. 2003.

Segal, Robert A. Joseph Campbell: An Introduction. New York: Penguin, 1987.

She Lives to Ride. Dir. Alice Stone. Perf. Jo Giovannoni, Dot Robinson. Independent Television Service, 1995.

Stidworthy, David. High on the Hogs: A Biker Filmography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003.

Stark, Elizabeth. Shy Girl.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999.

The Times of Harvey Milk. Dir. Robert Epstein. Perf. Harvey Fierstein, Harvey Milk, Anne Kronenberg. TC Films International, 1984.

Thompson, Hunter. Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. New York: Random House, 1966.

The Wild Angels. Dir. Roger Corman. Perf. Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra. American International Pictures, 1966.

The Wild One. Dir. Lászlo Bénédek. Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy. Columbia, 1953.

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Crossing the Border with Chabela Vargas: A Chicana Femme’s Tribute.” Lola Press 29 Jan 2006 <http://www.lolapress.org/artenglish.chabe13.htm>.