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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Out of the WILD

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Out of the WILD

The
explorer is, often problematically, a part of America’s cultural heritage. We
still revere early American colonizers like Christopher Columbus in the same
way that we idolize the modern American cowboy. The explorer is portrayed as an
admirable adventurer in America’s literary landscape too, from Henry David
Thoreau’s Walden to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. We cheer on the male leads
in films ranging from Indiana Jones
to Lord of the Rings, from children’s movies like The Lion King, to dark dystopian
landscapes like The Road.

What
does it mean to be a woman in this largely male-dominated history? In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell
argues that the hero’s journey is universal and serves a fundamental
psychological purpose, in that it allows us to overcome our demons, to pursue
our passions, to become who we need to become. But Campbell also argues that
women have a distinctly different journey, one that is turned inwards, rather
than outwards. He attributes this to basic biology—that boys need to do
something external to symbolize the transition to manhood, while girls simply
don’t have to. He argues that a girl’s natural biological changes are the only
ushering she needs into womanhood.

I
deeply resented reading Campbell’s descriptions of what it meant to become a
woman when I first read The Power of Myth
in high school. I didn’t feel like changes in my body made me any more prepared
for adulthood. I longed for experiences that would catapult me out of my
childhood and into the world.

Attitudes
about girls and women have changed substantially since I was a young girl
hungering for female characters with agency. The influx of female heroes during
the past several years has ushered in a kind of mainstreaming of female power.
Today we have heroes like The Hunger
Games’
Katniss Everdeen, and shows like Orange
is the New Black
, where the lives and experiences of women are central.

Still,
many female travel narratives are often presented as the domain of the
pampered. Movies like Eat, Pray, Love
and Stealing Beauty showcase the
female journey as pure escapism, in which a privileged white woman gets to take
a journey of personal fulfillment, a voyage that is often maligned in our
popular culture for being vapid and self-absorbed.  

Wild, though still tinged with a soft Oprah self-help glow, is
doing something fundamentally different—reimagining the female journey as
existential quest. 

Based
on her memoir by the same name, Wild
is about a woman who takes risks and makes choices in struggling to find a way
out of her grief after the death of her mother, the self-described love of her
life. Along the way she develops a heroin habit, cheats on her incredibly
patient and loving husband, and decides, ultimately, to walk the Pacific Coast
Trail alone as a symbolic gesture to try and reclaim a sense of self. The story
is often told in flashbacks—scenes from when Strayed was a child and a teenager
and early twenty-something, scenes from her young marriage and its
disintegration, scenes of Strayed’s ensuing addiction to casual sex with
strangers and drugs—with moments in the present as Strayed overcomes hurdle
after hurdle of being alone in the very literal wild.

Strayed,
the real life author, is a fantastic writer, and while the director of Wild, Jean-Marc Vallee, strives to
capture her tone through voiceover, I found myself longing for Vallee to translate
Strayed’s experience to film with a greater emphasis on the images she
encounters on the way. Vallee’s storytelling throughout tends to be overly
directive, from the opening scene where we hear Strayed’s heavy breathing in
the background and assume she is having sex, only to find her struggling to
remove an injured toenail at the top of a cliff, to the use of an elusive,
beautiful fox following her around her journey. In scenes like these, Vallee
directs how we should feel emotionally and how we should view Strayed’s
character, as well as her journey. Witherspoon is a talented actress and
Strayed’s memoir is so ripe with emotion that I felt the film could benefit from
more subtlety and a greater focus on the landscape itself. Often I wanted us to
be given the space to really discover ourselves in Strayed’s journey.

Of
course, this was probably a challenging film to make, not least of all because
of the gender of its brave protagonist and the fact that we often don’t see
female characters as being naturally relatable. Many film reviewers, myself
included, could not see Wild without
considering the novelty of the solo female traveler. In “Why Every Man Should
See Wild
,” Julianne Ross talks about ways in which the film is instructional in
showing men the way that sexism and micro-aggressions from men impact the
experience of solo female travelers. And I was impressed by the nuance with
which male reviewers like Andrew O’Hehir noted how the experience of travel is still
very gendered in today’s world. “There
are times in every woman’s life where her safety depends on the goodwill, or
just on the whims, of men. That can only be exhausting and depressing,” he
reflects in his review for Salon. 

Some reviewers have still struggled with empathy. David Denby, in his New Yorker review, focuses on the shock
at how small Reese Witherspoon is, how she “doesn’t have the muscular legs of a
hiker,” even though it’s clear from the film that Strayed outlasts several more
experienced male hikers on the trail. (And he also, unnecessarily, fixates on
the fact that Witherspoon’s Strayed is tiny, while the real-life writer Strayed
seems “big-boned.”)

That a woman could be at the center of that kind of narrative is
exciting, but the way we talk about that narrative is also still relatively loaded.
I sometimes worry that we simply don’t have a vocabulary for talking about this
type of narrative without positioning woman as the “other.” Today’s Internet
culture has created rich discussions about the ways in which white, male
protagonists have historically been positioned as the default, but the creation
of special interest groups on the web also seems to play directly into that
belief. When my Facebook newsfeed is covered with articles telling me what 10
female writers I had to read in 2014, I am proud that women are getting the
attention they deserve, but I also can’t help but feel disappointed that women
and minorities still need to be separated out in order to get the recognition
they deserve.

One of the reasons that Strayed’s Dear Sugar column at the literary
magazine The Rumpus was so successful was that it was anonymous—we
couldn’t be sure of the gender or age or ethnic background of the columnist,
even as those details slowly emerged over time, over the course of every
column. In the end I don’t want Strayed’s story to get attention because it
could be seen as instructional or representative of women’s experiences more
broadly. I want us to tell women’s stories because they have teeth. 

While viewers may be surprised to see a petite woman on the trail alone
in Wild, Strayed’s arc is less about
portraying the female experience specifically, than showing us how the female
experience is a human experience. The
most poignant scenes in Wild showcase
Strayed’s regrets. In flashbacks, we consider her sadness about moments when
she was dismissive towards her mother, or treated her with condescension or
disrespect. We empathize with Strayed about whether she should have shot her
mother’s beloved horse, when they had no money to take it to a vet. I wanted
Strayed’s journey into the wild and back to civilization to interrogate these
moments more fully, for us to spend less time thinking about how a petite
blonde could survive on the road, and more time thinking about the ways we are
each forced to contend with a world that takes away as much as it gives.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.

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