Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

On the Asphalt Frontier: American Women's Road Narratives, Spatiality, and Transgression

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

On the Asphalt Frontier: American Women's Road Narratives, Spatiality, and Transgression

Article excerpt


In this article, I am going to analyze the concept of "gendered space" as it appears in select post-1970s US-American road narratives produced by women writers of various ethnic and social backgrounds. Drawing on recent re-mappings in cultural geography, I will cross disciplinary boundaries and argue that for female literary protagonists, the "open road" appears as a dangerous frontier--in which women's physical and emotional well-being is always at perilous stake--rather than as an adventurous playground. In women's road stories, the American highway does not maintain its mythical, iconic status, signifying freedom and the heroic quest for identity, which has been ascribed to it at least since the legendary accounts of the flight from domesticity by Jack Kerouac and his fellow (anti-)heroes of the Beat generation.

Female protagonists, too, it will be shown, feel the luring of the road, or see cross-country travel as a way out of the ideology of separate spheres--and, from a socio-historical perspective, they indeed have much more reason for doing so than their male counterparts. However, more often than not, women come to realize that they are "prisoners of the white lines of the freeway" (as Joni Mitchell puts it in her famous road-song "Coyote"), and as such are not liberated by mere motion, but confronted with spatial limitations not much different from those encountered at the hearth. Nevertheless, by embracing these multiple confrontations for the challenges they present, and by deliberately transgressing gendered boundaries of public vs. private and cultural vs. natural space, the itinerant protagonists of the texts under discussion eventually re-appropriate their share of the road.

Keywords US-American road narrative, public/private space, frontier

   Ever since I was a kid, I'd tried to live vicariously through the
   hocker-in-the-wind adventures of Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and
   Henry Miller. But I could never finish any of the books. Maybe
   because I just couldn't identify with the fact that they were guys
   who had women around to make the coffee and wash the skid marks out
   of their shorts while they complained, called themselves angry
   young men, and screwed each other with their existential penises.
   --Erika Lopez, Flaming Iguanas


In literary and cultural criticism, the analysis of gender relations and constructions is, by now, a more or less established approach to works of literature, film, music, and other cultural texts. (2) The concept of gendered space, as developed in cultural geography, (3) on the other hand, is addressed rather rarely in these analyses, perhaps because space is not a traditional lens through which cultural articulations are looked at in critical discourse. (4) Like race/ethnicity, class, and gender, however, space has the potential to function as such a lens, though it probably does not focus as much on the subject (and thus on issues of identity) as on a certain socio-political and cultural system of subjectivity (patriarchal societies, for example, order space around certain principles that sustain these societies' status quo along with the lines of hegemonic constructions of subjectivity). Thus, I would like to argue for the general integration of a spatial analysis into literary and cultural studies in this article.

In this context, the notion of the gendered-ness of various spaces provides a rewarding theoretical device for the study of women's literature in general and of women's road-narratives in particular. Any such analysis rests upon the intersections and cross-cuttings of all kinds of spaces: textual and contextual space (i.e., fictional/imaginary and social space), the physical space of embodiment, as well as the mental space of textual characters and readers. In cultural texts, these spatial webs intersect; they create and potentially restrict each other; exterior(ized) and interior(ized) spaces appear in various configurations, sometimes dissolving into each other, sometimes affirming separation. …

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