A Journey Within. Minority Representation in Road Films
Małgorzata Mączko, Jagiellonia University
In cinema, as in life, adventure awaits the daring. Since the very beginning of film history, creators have been mesmerised by the possibility of exploring the world through the lens of a camera. Soon enough, Hollywood started developing narratives that focus on travelling and gaining new experience, with The Stagecoach and It Happened One Night as classic early examples of such themes. Road movies function mostly as a hybrid genre. They utilise motifs from comedy, drama and action features but at the same time introduce a specific type of storylines, characters and iconography. Films from that category highlight the importance of the journey rather than the destination and usually portray the protagonists’ growth and self-discovery along the way.
The trope remains popular in various iterations, from action-packed epics, through low-brow comedies to poignant, stirring dramas. At the same time, road movies seem to be a perfect vessel for patriarchal, heteronormative messages, leaving little to no space for any transgression. The male-dominated genre began to change in the 90s when filmmakers started to reclaim the motif of travel for minority narratives. Road movies about women and queer characters explored topics of female friendship, sisterhood, tolerance, mutual support and independence. The departure from tired clichés permanently changed the genre and opened up a whole new range of possibilities.
A trailblazing female-led road movie that defined the decade, Thelma and Louise, deals with the harsh realities of being a woman in a patriarchal society. The titular duo faces violence and hatred on the way to reclaim their agency. Jack Delaney rightly sees Scott’s film as a ‘feminisation of the road’ that overturns misogynistic narrative archetypes. The story of two outlaws signals themes that will play a crucial role in later entries to the genre; emotional vulnerability, comfort that women find within each other and the inescapable constraints of patriarchy. In the iconic finale, Thelma and Louise share a kiss and ultimately choose death in means to regain their freedom.
Just a year later, Gregg Araki told a similar story in a film that helped shape the New Queer Cinema movement. The Living End puts a spin on the age-old tale of male friendship forged under duress by focusing on two gay men who are both HIV-positive and deeply frustrated with the state of the world. In the 1995 film, Boys on the Side, three women follow a similar, though a less extreme path. After inadvertently killing one’s abusive boyfriend, they become unlikely travel companions and spend a few months on the run, trying to carve a new life for themselves. A black lesbian, an HIV-positive stickler and a pregnant murderer initially shock the locals but eventually find their own place.
What connects the three stories mentioned above is not only the crime the characters commit but also their deep need for being understood and accepted. All the protagonists share a sense of not belonging to the world that never treats them fairly. It pushes them into the unknown because the open road seems more inviting than their everyday lives. The outsiders need to create their own safe spaces, even if the comfort they bring is only temporary. By breaking the rigid rules of the male-dominated genre, filmmakers get the opportunity to focus on underrepresented minorities. The format of a road movie also allows them to include interactions with a variety of attitudes and situations.
It is worth noting that two features about travelling drag queens have followed a similar scheme as well. Australian The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert drew in considerable audiences worldwide and just a year later its American cousin, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, repeated the success despite receiving mixed reviews. Both films focus on the experiences of a group of drag queens and the way they are perceived by different groups of strangers. Themes of homophobic and transphobic abuse and discrimination appear in both productions, but their overall message is uplifting, reassuring the audience that a more accepting, tolerant society is forthcoming.
The road movie craze of the 90s died down in the subsequent decades, but the genre was still used to present the experiences of marginalised groups. Two notable examples from the early 00s are Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu mamá también and Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica. The former is a gentle exploration of budding male sexuality of two rebellious teens whose friendship suffers after they experience the first glimpse of homoerotic desire. The latter is a more mature study of gender identity and broken familial relations that won praise and universal acclaim for its sensitive portrayal of a trans woman’s life-changing journey.
The hybrid genre still works well as a tool of social commentary. In recent years there have been instances in which road movies were used to express the ever-increasing disappointment with the American way of life, both literally or metaphorically. Andrea Arnold’s films often focus on themes of poverty, addiction and exploitation, giving voice to young women lost within the hostile system. In American Honey, a teenage girl tries to negotiate her own meaning of the American Dream, quickly realising that - like many other things in her life - it is a scam. On a more symbolic level, the fourth instalment of the Mad Max franchise also takes up the topic of female disenfranchisement. In a dystopian world ruled by a mad tyrant, women have to rely on each other and actively fight for their lives - the blatant symbolism should not be lost on the viewer.
Overall, the general premise of road movies has barely changed in the past three decades. Self-discovery remains the central theme of such films, but the cast of characters has been increasingly diverse and inclusive of minorities. Themes of violence, discrimination and bias that women and queer people have to face daily seem prevalent in all of the examples listed above. Minority protagonists, who set out on a journey, usually have a bumpy ride ahead of them. Their uncertainty is portrayed clearly in the final scene of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, reminiscent of The Graduate’s finale. In it, three queer teenagers break out of a conversion therapy camp and get a short reprieve from the homophobia they endured there. As they ride off into their future, they’re still unsure of what awaits them there. The road is open, but possibilities remain limited, simply because of their otherness and not fitting in with the vision of a conservative nation.