In Lana Del Rey’s new music video, Ride, Del Rey explores the pleasures and pitfalls of the American west. The video, directed by Anthony Mandler, depicts Del Rey cavorting with a gang of rough and tumble bikers for a life of sex, danger and free ranging passion on the open road. Del Rey’s video, like all her videos, reinvents and reinterprets cliché, which triggers reflection on what about these motifs continues to captivate us. Del Rey is especially interested in exploring the iconography behind the beautiful woman as both victim and femme fatale. The image of Del Rey in costume, which seems both especially real and especially artificial against a backdrop of faded images and video footage from the past, is designed to provoke, to cause the reader to consider the implications of the myriad ways that artful renditions of the past drift into our perception of the present. Ride subverts our expectations of a particularly American narrative; it features a female performer commanding the Wild West, a landscape that has historically been used to designate and explore the drive for male power and pathos. Del Rey is a first person protagonist throughout this ten minute video; her narrative poetry bookends a bizarre unfolding tale of her life as a singer/prostitute/biker/free-love child and ruptures our ideas and attitudes about the American drive for freedom and its curious designation as a masculine ideal.
Ride is a portrait of a very old-fashioned kind of American ethos—where being on the open road means being unattached to anyone or anything. This idea of freedom is also found in the most complex and interesting examination of masculinity in our current cultural landscape—Breaking Bad. Throughout the series, the wide, empty open expanses of the Southwest are both intoxicatingly beautiful and dangerously deserted. Men inhabit these empty highways, driving cars, dealing meth, forging alliances, and killing off their enemies. Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) meth production is often necessarily nomadic, constantly shifting locations, from the first RV that he and his friend, partner, and former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) use to cook, to his use of Vamanos Pest Control as a front for moving from house to house. The few times when Walt settles into a routine, as when he has a stable job cooking for kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), are the times when he feels most restricted. Walt’s journey from zero to anti-hero is driven by a desire for freedom, making the series, in a sense, a beautiful ode to an America where the world is yours for the taking, where you are never under someone else’s thumb.
One of the reasons Breaking Bad is such an appealing show (and there are many) is that there is an allure in the concept of breaking bad, in taking a risk and going off course. America’s obsession with staunch individualism has made this particular narrative an acceptable mainstay in cultural discourse. We admire men who do what they have to do to preserve their own self of self-worth and integrity. For women, however, breaking bad tends to be more loaded. Throughout Breaking Bad, women rupture scenes of male escape. The women throughout Breaking Bad are firmly planted in the domestic sphere. When Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) tries to assert herself, she kicks Walt out of their home. Skyler’s sister Marie’s (Betsy Brandt) primary vice is stealing cute and pretty things from department stores. As an accountant, Skyler ends up being in charge of the money, but her taking charge of the car wash means she is almost never on the road. Even the women Jesse ends up dating, complex and varied, symbolize comforts of the home front. Jane (Krysten Ritter) is Jesse’s landlord. The time they spend together is most often in their duplex. One of the most powerful images of their bond is sitting together in two separate chairs in Jesse’s living room, when Jane reaches over to touch Jesse’s hand. Jane dies in bed in her own home from an overdose, before she and Jesse have the opportunity to hit the open road together, as a pair. Likewise, Jesse’s newer girlfriend, Andrea, is often seen with her son Brock at home, cooking (food!), or playing video games.
The male anti-hero has become a staple of storytelling in 2012, but the female anti-hero is still considered relatively taboo. The show is more forgiving of Walt’s bad behavior than of Skyler’s bad behavior, for example. Indeed, in one of the most uncomfortable moments in Breaking Bad, Skyler, a prisoner in her own home and feeling completely powerless to either turn Walt in or else save her family by escaping him, tries to commit suicide by walking into the family pool.The image of Skyler vacantly walking into the water and resolutely staying under while her family panics is striking because it feels so familiar. The scene conjures a particular type of female suffering and despair, one charted through the lives of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. It is a striking image precisely because it still resonates with a modern viewer: in a “post-feminist” landscape where gender rules are supposedly less restrictive than in the past, we still understand female suffering as something which is fundamentally passive.
The way we think about masculinity has undoubtedly shifted since the 1960s, but, in many ways, our concept of what it means to be a man has stayed relatively static. We respect loudness more than quiet, violence more than measured resolution, silence more than gentle talking. The mask of masculinity is compelling precisely because in recent years it seems like so much more of a mask than femininity. While femininity is perceived as a construct, an outfit that can be removed, replaced, strengthened or destroyed completely, masculinity is increasingly perceived as a fixed kind of attitude. In our culture, female characters learn to take off the artifice of “femininity” in order to find strength (perhaps this is why Del Rey’s insistence on continuing to play dress-up frustrates some viewers) while male characters, from an early age onwards, learn to put “masculinity” on.
This is clearly evident in Walt’s transformation. He starts out the series as a symbol for castrated modern masculinity and becomes a definitive alpha male character. For much of the series we are supposed to rally behind Walt, regardless of his myriad flaws. But Jesse, plays an interesting foil to this one-dimensional type of masculinity, which is still strongly lauded in our culture. Though Jesse is consistently awash in swagger, delightfully adding “bitch” to the end of every sentence he utters, he is also the show’s heart and moral compass. Jesse is a small-boned, vulnerable kind of dude, gentle in the smallest, most heart-warming ways, whether calling Skyler “Mrs. White” and trying to make conversation at the dinner table or worrying about the extent to which the drug-dealing business is hurting those around him. While Walt seeks freedom, Jesse seeks comfort, family and security, those things that Walt purports to love but ultimately leaves behind in pursuit of his own greatness. In many ways, Walt and Jesse represent opposite ends of the spectrum of masculinity—the old school domineering alpha male versus the more modern, tentative kind of masculinity, that sees strength not as the need to domineer, but in the need to protect and love.
The American West is perceived in both Breaking Bad and Ride as sensual; the open road is seen as a path to conquer. The female place in this enticing and forbidden landscape is still unsure. Del Rey’s vision of freedom is centered on a fantasy of finding a community of outlaws where she can feel at home. Critics often view Del Rey’s desires as self-abnegating, rather than self-fulfilling. The L.A. Times music blog claimed that her stage persona is a “…put-on, and a transparent plea for attention, and a little bit sad to watch in a cute kind of way.” Many dismiss Del Rey’s potential to have complete agency as a moral actor and cast her off as a mere passive and pretty image. In contrast, Walt’s transformation is portrayed as if it is entirely of his own volition. But the catalyst that triggers Walt’s transformation is cancer, an illness entirely outside the realm of his control. While Del Rey’s actions are often interpreted as self-objectifying, throughout Ride Del Rey makes it clear that she has made deliberate choices about her self-presentation and the way she interacts with the world around her. The femme fatale figure she presents is threatening precisely because she doesn’t eschew femininity; she uses the motifs of femininity to her advantage, to get what she wants regardless of the cost.
We tend to read male responses to trauma as choices and female responses as necessary outcomes. In her spoken word monologue in Ride, Del Rey describes how her mother always told her she had a chameleon soul, “no moral compass pointing due North, no fixed personality, just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide and unwavering as the ocean.” For men, the chameleon soul refuses to be tied down to anything or anyone, a pure badass. For women, the chameleon soul is an empty vessel waiting to be filled, an image to project all your hopes and desires onto. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Femme Fatale tropes are dangerous not because women shouldn’t be wild, but because the untamed image of the girl who got away is always told from the perspective of the man she left behind.
The New York Times argued that “Ms. Del Rey generates so much anger precisely because she does so little. People don’t know what to do with this unformed thing they’ve been told they need to care about; crushing it is easy, almost humane.” Del Rey’s greatest critics argue that her work is, at best, derivative and, at worst, a complete sham.The extent to which Del Rey’s image is authentic highlights our disbelief in the idea that female artists can conceive and construct their own identity. Lots of male artists come from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, but we balk when twenty-something privileged female artists like Lena Dunham or Emma Koenig get impressive book deals. The assumption that Del Rey is somehow not responsible for crafting her own image is part and parcel of a culture that automatically casts off the feminine as something intrinsically fragile and helpless.
Both Breaking Bad and Ride depict an American West which is ultimately a fantasy. There are no more open roads left to be discovered in America. The American cultural landscape of today is shaped more by the desire to meet public approval than the need to upset social order. But the continued fixation on the freedom of the open road is a deeply embedded American desire, a characteristically male longing for individual autonomy. The female characters in Breaking Bad rupture the male fantasy of escape, but Del Rey’s video for Ride complicates this type of longing, taking a page from the American fable of the egoism of the open road while ripping apart its very fabric.
Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at George Washington University and American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, and South Loop Review, and she has twice been listed as a finalist in Glimmertrain‘s Family Matters Short Story Contests. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.