March 2006


Motorcycles as Political

Kris Slawinski

“Bikers are the doers of society.”--Mike Traynor, Chair, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation

Gender politics was an issue early on in my riding career. As a female rider my sexual orientation was questioned, and I was often treated condescendingly or ignored. “Dykes on bikes” was the moniker frequently given to women who piloted their own bike, and many people automatically assumed that I must be gay. For a woman to want to climb off the back of the bike and grab the handlebars herself, something must be terribly wrong. This was evident not only from negative attitudes within the riding community, but also from mainstream print and film media depictions of women riders, contributing to a double whammy of misunderstanding and outlandish presumptions.        

Not all riders bought into that stereotype, but they often nourished others. At a bike shop I worked at, I was once asked out by a customer, who outlined the agenda for the evening, with me riding pillion on his bike.  I am not an easy carefree passenger, and when I insisted on riding my own bike, the discussion faltered, and finally there was no date.  Another problem was becoming invisible as the female rider.  For instance, a boyfriend and I went on a ride one pleasant afternoon and after stopping to stretch our legs, we were approached by an elderly gentleman, who was curious about my Honda CB400F. He began asking my date about the bike, who quickly informed him it was mine, and that he himself was motorcycle illiterate. The stranger continued putting questions to my friend, who shrugged at me, smiling, while I answered them without any acknowledgment. Another curious situation occurred once when I parked my CB750 in a public parking garage. As I walked away, a young man excitedly approached me and anxiously began to show me his bike with sidecar.  He led me to a prime example of a “rat” ensemble, with three bald tires, black gunk caked around the tops of the lower fork legs, and the chain so stretched it swung freely just inches from the ground.  As I pointed out these obvious hazards to him, he remembered somewhere he had to be and quickly scurried off.

A woman on a bike is quite intriguing to the modern male rider, and the majority of men I meet love to talk bikes with a knowledgeable female. But if she can talk shop, look out! I’d like to suggest to female wannabes out there that if motorcycles turn you on, leave the “fuck me” shoes at home and get your own bike. And if you really want to drive men crazy, get some tools and learn how to use them.   While I have always gotten plenty of encouragement and support from the opposite sex both as a wannabe and as an actual rider, I was far more likely to hear, “But you can’t ride a bike—you’re a girl!”

From other women it was the typical, “But that’s so dangerous!”  In fact, concerned women still occasionally confront me at roadside rest stops to inform me I’m in the women’s rest room.  I usually respond, “Yes, I know,” or “That’s good!,” knowing that they can’t see past my leathers to recognize my gender because of their cultural conditioning.  These are the only legitimate instances I can think of that warrant showing my tits, but I have yet to succumb.

Feminism argues that when an inanimate object takes on a gender identity, it also takes on a certain political meaning.  In applying this concept to motorcycles, I have tried in a conscious, and admittedly forced, effort to call my bike “Randy,” and apply masculine pronouns when speaking about it. But it always comes out just an “it.”

Having failed to turn the concept upside down, let’s turn it inside out with the following exercise that resurfaces on the Internet in one form or another every so often. My favorite version is “Why Motorcycles Are Better Than Men”:

A motorcycle can go for more than one ride in an hour.

Motorcycles never develop spare tires.

Motorcycles don’t get you pregnant.

A motorcycle doesn’t care what time of the month it is.

Your motorcycle will let you know if something is wrong.

You don’t have to kick your motorcycle to get it going.

If your motorcycle is boisterous, you can buy it a muffler.

If your motorcycle smokes, you can do something about it.

Your motorcycle won’t leave the party without you.

Motorcycles don’t care how many other motorcycles you have ridden.

Your motorcycle won’t care if you have a poster of your fantasy motorcycle.

You can keep photos of your old motorcycles.

If your motorcycle is too soft, you can get it new shocks.

Your motorcycle won’t hate your friends.

Motorcycles don’t care about breast size.

Your motorcycle won’t insult you or embarrass you in public.

Motorcycles are always ready to stop when you are.

You can’t get a disease from a motorcycle.

If your motorcycle can’t fire up, you can just replace the battery.

Motorcycles don’t invite all their friends over, drink all your beer, and then fall asleep on the couch.

Motorcycles don’t beg you to have their children.

Motorcycles don’t brag to their friends.

Motorcycles don’t care what you wear.

Motorcycles don’t get pissed off if you are smarter than they are.

If your motorcycle has high mileage, you can just get a new one.

You don’t have to drink beer before your motorcycle looks appealing.

Your motorcycle won’t lie to you.

Your motorcycle doesn’t care how heavy you are.

In the morning, your motorcycle won’t poke you in the back when it wants to go for a ride.

Your motorcycle won’t shrink when it’s cold.

You don’t have to cook for your motorcycle.

Your motorcycle can’t ride around behind your back.

Motorcycles don’t pick “Desperado” as their favorite song.

Motorcycles don’t try to pick up younger riders.

If you get a new motorcycle, you can still ride your old motorcycle.

Motorcycles don’t play games before they will take you home.

You can have any color motorcycle and show it to your parents.

You don’t have to deal with priests or blood tests to register your motorcycle.

If you say bad things to your motorcycle, you don’t have to apologize before you can ride it again.

You can ride a motorcycle as long as you want and it won’t get limp.

Your parents won’t keep in touch with your old motorcycle after you dump it.

You don’t have to primp before riding your motorcycle.

Your motorcycle won’t complain when you use protection.

Your motorcycle would rather go for a ride than watch sports.

If baldness occurs, you can replace the tires.

If your motorcycle is cold you can choke it.

If your motorcycle is misaligned you don’t have to discuss politics to correct it.

Motorcycles don’t snore.

Your motorcycle won’t ask you to put it through grad school.

Motorcycles don’t have parents.

Your motorcycle won’t want a night out alone with other motorcycles.

Of course, the list goes on and on, and can be customized to fit either gender. My archives also include a collection of motorcycle-related photographs, e-mail, calendars, fashion ads, books, and magazine articles I’ve been collecting over the past 20 years. This material brings me hours of mirth mixed with irritation, as it is largely produced by non-motorcycle industry media and generally reinforces uninformed notions about motorcyclists, biker culture, and lifestyle. These stereotypes are generally unkind to riders, but are particularly unfair to women.

The print media seems to have taken its cue from bad biker films of the 1950s and 1960s (and still today!), applying a tabloid mentality in generalizing all riders as outlaws or “scooter trash.” Even articles that are sympathetic to the sport and its participants suffer from editors looking for a sensational headline that will attract attention and readers.  For example, a True Story magazine dated March 1960 features a story introduced with, “Racing the wind on wheels, we live on the edge of danger, play it for kicks all the way. We travel in fast company—the daredevil bunch people call ... THAT MOTORCYCLE CROWD.”  Written by Lynne Murphy, the allegedly autobiographical content is highly suspect. She and a girlfriend, having bought bikes on a whim, respond to an ad for a meeting of the Dust-Eater’s Motorcycle Club. When they try to duck out after realizing they are the only females present, the club president convinces them to stay, saying, “We need more girls in this club. We only have one, and she can’t come tonight because her baby is sick.” “You mean a married woman—with kids—rides a motorcycle?” Lynne responds. “Sure, why not?” Murph says, “It’s a good, clean sport.”

This logical concept is quickly betrayed by our male hero when, later in the story, after he and Lynne fall in love, he presents her with a bill of sale for her bike. When Lynne protests against signing it, Murph tells her, “A married woman with kids looks silly riding around on a cycle,” as his way of proposing marriage to her.

In the conclusion, Lynne writes, “We are a very sober, settled, earnest, busy young couple, and I’m sure that none of our neighbors even dream that we are part of ‘that motorcycle crowd.’” Thus, in spite of their own personal experience, Lynne and Murph have concluded you can’t be responsible citizens and ride a motorcycle.  It’s an unwholesome escape until the couple follows their true calling to adulthood by settling down and making babies while keeping their “reckless” youth a secret from the neighbors.

Another prize is the cover story on a November 1965 Saturday Evening Post, featuring “Hell’s Angels: The Strange Cult of Motorcycle Gangs” on its cover. Along with unattractive descriptions of gang members, their girlfriends, and their lifestyle, the story cites several instances of egregious criminal acts attributed to gang members, but for which all charges are later dropped, though it is not clear why. An editorial in the Porterville Recorder is cited as “annoyed that no credit had been given to the Porterville police department and allied enforcement agencies for having prevented exactly the sort of hell-raising the outside press claimed had taken place.” The author, William Murray, mentions the “Hollister riot of 1947 that introduced outlaw motorcyclists to the nation and had inspired the movie The Wild One,” yet fails to expose Hollister as yet another press invention of biker hooliganism. This begs the question, if there were unlawful acts committed, why was no one charged with anything? Unless, of course, the outside press fabricated these scenarios, hopefully anticipating the type of behavior expected from such miscreants.

Yet more sensational and hysterical in tone are examples featured in the “men’s adventure” magazines, which prove to be more soft-porn than adventurous.  An April 1968 MEN features “Girl-Raid Rampage of the Cycle Outlaws.” A December 1972 Man’s World touts the “true” story, “I Battled Georgia’s ‘Terror’ Bikers,” by “The cop that Broke up the Gang of Vengeance-Bent ‘Angels.’” A July 1973 Stag features “True Extralength: An Ex-Cycle Bum’s Terrible Revenge on His Betrayers—“No ‘Hangman’ Biker Will Steal My Girl!,” along with excerpts of The Happy Hooker. Other compelling stories promise illicit sex and violence to the voyeuristic reader—the same activities the immoral outlaw bikers stand accused of—and read like sensational pulp fiction. Women are either tragic victims of the bikers, or promiscuous partners to their violence and perversions.

The media’s treatment of men on bikes is obviously compelling to the general public.  But those of us who ride question the reliability of these accounts, because they so rarely describe our reality of the sport.  Bikers are exoticized, vilified, and portrayed as monstrous, becoming examples of the literary “Other.”  Themes of female predation, sexual license, animalistic behavior, and sexual perversity, usually of a sadomasochistic nature between the gang members and their girlfriends (referred to as “mamas”), are remarkable.  No examples of “good” bikers are evident, and no guidelines are offered to differentiate between “good” bikers and “bad” bikers.  Portrayed as enjoying endless promiscuous sex on demand, the biker can be deconstructed to the ultimate chick magnet, apparently without having to be clean, well-behaved, or attractive to woo his sexual partners:  the bike is the bait!  Ironically the implied warnings against the licentious biker actually become a siren song to younger generations:  “Ride a bike and get laid!”

As opposed to a covert warning, The Wild One (1954), starring Marlon Brando, opens with the overt warning, urging viewers to not let this terrible thing happen in their town!  The action begins with the heroine, played by Mary Murphy, waiting out her life in a small sleepy hamlet, hoping to be “rescued” from her humdrum existence.  Her inexperience leads her to consider Brando’s Johnny as her ticket out. Throughout the movie Johnny is told repeatedly he doesn’t know who he is, the implication being “boy on bike equals lost soul.” In spite of the melodrama and its “much ado about nothing”-ness, the movie seduced a generation of impressionable youngsters into seeking adventure and fun by becoming riders, while forever instilling fear and loathing of bikers in mom and pop of Middletown, USA. But Mary Murphy’s character is the real loser of this film. By barely escaping defilement by the bikers, she learns that to long for excitement of the senses, to dream beyond the boundaries of home, and to yearn for personal betterment will bring about her downfall. The moral of her story is that women apparently must not push the boundaries of social constraints and achieve independence of mind and body.

But we know better these days. Through the adventurous act of buying a motorcycle at the age of twenty—in spite of the protests of family and friends—a series of events were set in motion that, thirty years later, I can say have made me a more loving, moral and politically active person. I met my riding family, who, in many ways, raised me up and made me whole, by challenging and inspiring me to be more honest about who I am and what I wanted out of life.

Over the years I have met thousands of riders. They are lawyers, stockbrokers, accountants, business owners, inventors, school teachers, doctors, and judges. They are moms and dads, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, grandmas and grandpas. They are scout leaders, PTA members, ministers, politicians, and community activists. According to one source, bikers annually contribute well over $10 million, and possibly up to $20 million to charitable organizations, and have earned the accolade of “the doers of society” from Mike Traynor of The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s Ride For Kids™.

Sure, the outlaw bikers are out there. But don’t confuse that tiny minority with the millions of us who don’t stand out as salacious fodder for the media. As for women who ride, well, girls just wanna have fun, and biking is a great way to do it.


Images and text copyright © International Journal of Motrocycle Studies