Being born a woman is an awful tragedy… Yes, my consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery… I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…
Sylvia Plath, Journals, 1950-1962
Yesterday, I went to see Wild at the cinema. Reese Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, the troubled young woman who’s set out to explore the deepest recesses of her stricken mind, and on whose bestselling autobiographical book the film is based. Following the death of her beloved mother and a turbulent period of grief involving hard drugs, casual sex and a painful divorce, Cheryl decides to walk 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail – which stretches from Mexico to Canada up the west coast of America – alone.
The film is set in 1995, and evokes a few charming throwbacks: the coiled cords of home telephones; a tribute event in memory of the recently-deceased Jerry Garcia. But one thing which remains as relevant as ever is the potential danger in which Cheryl finds herself as a 20-something solo woman. Travelling in this way comes with a whole heap of baggage, and I’m not just talking about the enormous rucksack Cheryl can barely lift.
When I was in Istanbul with my girlfriend last summer, we both fell in love with the city. It was a fierce, vibrant metropolis with a uniquely contagious energy, food fit for the gods and beautiful architecture and people. We knew it would be more conservative than what we’re used to in London, however, so we made no ostentatious displays of our relationship status, and dressed modestly. Yet we were forced to be objects every day – we were shamelessly stared at, followed and called out to wherever we went, especially in the evenings.
One particularly ominous Saturday night, we were followed through the busy streets for almost an hour by a drunken man. He clearly got a thrill out of scaring us, because he would jump out from behind corners and refuse to leave us alone when we confronted him. Eventually, I felt so shaken by it that I insisted we run away and wait it out in a shop. My girlfriend was exasperated with me for not standing up to him – but I was just terrified. I wished more than anything that I could have turned around and faced him down – the way Cheryl tries to in Wild. But the truth is, it just isn’t that easy.
Jodie Foster Wallace put it best when she paraphrased a friend in her recent Vice article about life in Istanbul: “This city is wonderful—you can do everything you want here. But whatever you do, there will always be a guy looking at you while you do it.” And it’s true – as unaccompanied women, we were under threat; we were ostensibly permitted free movement, only to find that the space we had entered had a stubborn, possessive occupant: male privilege. Male privilege to walk down a street without fear of harassment, male privilege to dominate a space, male privilege which still means that women would rather stay inside than go out alone come nightfall.
My independence as a woman is either permitted or denied by the omnipresent, implicit threat of harassment, attack or rape. After all, consider for a moment that harassment encompasses cat-calling, leering, and unwanted attention of any kind: it happens all the time. My movements are governed by what is acceptable in a male-dominated space, and if I choose to challenge this status quo, well then I’d better be strong enough to deal with the consequences.
Wild addresses this by exploring the notion of a traveller’s sixth sense – that is, knowing instinctively who’s trustworthy and who’s not within minutes of meeting them. For women, this is a particularly weighty toss-up: it means the difference between enjoying easy company and enduring intensely uncomfortable situations, or worse. At one point, we’re given a glimpse of Cheryl’s nervous state of mind when a farmer who comes across as increasingly dodgy – he’s got a flask of alcohol, a gun and, supposedly, a motive – actually turns out to be a married, hospitable guy who’s happy to help her out. It’s precisely this which exemplifies the perennial problem for women: because most men are decent, and it would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. But it’s very easy to scare yourself because you know what could happen. You know that if he decides to hurt you, there’s very little you can do.
There’s another deeply uncomfortable scene in the film where Cheryl is confronted by a couple of other (male) backpackers as she’s purifying some water to drink. She offers them some of her iodine tablets, but it quickly becomes obvious that they’re after more than just refreshment. When one of them returns later as dusk is falling, terrifying her in the half-darkness, Cheryl struggles to hold her nerve as he makes a move towards her, commenting menacingly on the shape of her hips in her sweatpants. Needless to say, she takes off like a bat out of hell as soon as he’s gone, aware that she’s just had a lucky escape.
Compare this to Into the Wild, an absolute all-time favourite film of mine also inspired by real-life events in the 1990s. Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) is a college graduate who decides to check out of his current existence and become a minimalistic, elusive traveller. Totally alienated by consumerism, warring parents and societal expectations, he cuts up his credit cards, gives all his money away and sets out down the Californian coast to reestablish whatever connection with the natural world he feels he’s lost. As with Cheryl, his journey isn’t about the people.
And yet it seems a lot easier for Chris to shake them off. Sexual advances by a 15-year-old (played by Kristen Stewart) are gently rebutted; sex won’t solve his innate disconnect with his surroundings. People who do try to love him are, at times, cruelly rejected; he’s generally left to his own devices, and is in complete control of himself, despite being emotionally unstable. Cheryl, on the other hand, is tough but physically vulnerable: picked out by men seeking something sexual, and subjected to constant questioning: “what’s a young lady like you doing all alone on the PCT?” and “I wouldn’t be letting my wife do what you’re doin’!”
Cheryl also, bravely, hitchhikes. Much as I would love to travel this way, à la Jack Kerouac, I’ve decided (for now, at least) that it’s not worth the risk. It’s another example of returning to the mindset of fear; of being controlled by what I’m afraid of, rather than what I actually want to do. And it saddens me that I’m not yet able to confront that in the way I really want to – by doing precisely what I want, and by being strong enough to wheel around and defy the source of my discomfort. Cheryl’s thinly-veiled unease during the encounter with the man in the woods is all too familiar.
Ultimately, though, Wild is a film about women, not men, and about self-discovery, not external governance. There are moments of “strong female protagonist” bliss: a conversation in which Cheryl is sweetly told by a Hobo Times reporter that she “sounds like a feminist”; her fleeting bond of independence with the farmer’s wife; her comparative strength against the irresponsibility of her brother when their mother is close to dying. She’s been hurt beyond belief, but she’s certainly not a victim. Cheryl Strayed is a woman with her own agenda, and her grief, ultimately, is for nobody but herself.
And now my own adventure awaits, and I’ll be heading into it optimistically, safely and full of wonder at the world. As I ponder the odyssey ahead, I’ll consider all the things Cheryl faces in the film – and most of it excites me. Everything that’s brilliant and beautiful about travelling remains untainted. But I’m aware of the perceptions people may have about a young woman travelling alone, and I’m prepared to keep myself safe from prying eyes and worse. While it’s common for young people from Western Europe to travel alone these days, it’s still seen as more risky as a girl – so I like to think that my travelling alone amounts to conducting my own quiet rebellion against expectations. I’m fully expecting to have the time of my life – I just hope I won’t have to be looking over my shoulder while I do it.
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