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Wander Woman

On Nomadland and the cinema of peripatetic women

The film opens with a widescreen shot of some awe-inspiring American landscape—Monument Valley, perhaps, or the Badlands, or the craggy California coast. A man enters the frame, seemingly materializing out of the ether; he might be riding a horse, or a motorcycle, or maybe he’s behind the wheel of a beat-up convertible, bopping along to a tune that matches the feeling of the wind through his hair. It doesn’t matter where he’s going or where he’s been: he simply likes the freedom of the road. Eventually, he stops for a hot meal offered by a woman he’s known for some time, or one he meets at a roadside diner—the kind with fluorescent lights and bitter coffee. When he tells her that he’s “just passing through,” it sounds hopelessly romantic, and when he rides off into the sunset without a goodbye, it feels somehow heroic.

Lone cowboys and rebels without causes have long been staples of the silver screen, emblazoned onto the cultural imagination by the likes of John Wayne and James Dean, Gary Cooper and Peter Fonda. From Shane to The Searchers, Easy Rider to Five Easy Pieces and Paris, Texas, there is no shortage of men on the move. But what about the wandering women? Thelma and Louise got to live out their desperado joyride fantasy, but it famously ended with the two of them driving off a cliff into the Grand Canyon: the cost of female freedom in mainstream cinema.

The recent release of Chloé Zhao’s poetic film Nomadland has given the solitary female drifter a turn under the cultural spotlight. The film took home top prizes at Venice, TIFF, and the Golden Globes and has been riding a wave of critical praise and Oscar buzz since it premiered: both for writer/director Zhao and for actress Frances McDormand, who inhabits the peripatetic protagonist, Fern, with naturalistic grace. Living out of a rusty white van she’s converted into a barely habitable dwelling—and lovingly named “Vanguard”—Fern winds her way across America, traversing landscapes any cowboy would envy.

Thelma and Louise got to live out their desperado joyride fantasy, but it famously ended with the two of them driving off a cliff into the Grand Canyon: the cost of female freedom in mainstream cinema.

She didn’t get there entirely on her own. While these figures may not have had the cultural impact of their male counterparts, there are a handful of indelible women who have wandered through American cinema over the years. Ellen Burstyn takes her son on the road after her no-good husband suddenly dies in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Goldie Hawn springs her hubby from jail and hightails it across Texas in Stephen Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express. Sissy Spacek gets a whirlwind trip through the Dakotas by way of her boyfriend Martin Sheen’s murder spree in Terrence Malick’s Badlands. And who can forget Claudette Colbert hiking up her skirt to hitch a ride in It Happened One Night—with Clark Gable in tow. But more often than not, the female experience of being on the road is filtered through the lens of romance. The subgenre in which women seek self-actualization by taking a luxurious trip (or buying a villa) is even more prominent: Eat Pray Love, Wild, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Under the Tuscan Sun. (2019’s Juanita is the first example of this genre to feature a Black woman since 1998’s Stella). These women are neither especially adventurous nor particularly relatable: they are impossibly beautiful and have unlimited time, bottomless budgets, and often a steamy relationship waiting in the wings.

Fern’s closest spiritual predecessors can be found in three films from the art-house fringes—Barbara Loden’s forgotten-then-reclaimed feminist landmark Wanda (1970), Agnès Varda’s tour de force Vagabond (1985), and Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist masterwork Wendy and Lucy (2008)—as well as in Andrea Arnold’s more recent exploration of youth culture on wheels, American Honey (2016). Like Nomadland, all are written and directed by women working outside the Hollywood system—in Varda’s case, far outside it, in France—their stories brought to life with modest budgets and de-glamorized stars: the leading characters are played respectively by Barbara Loden herself, Sandrine Bonnaire, Michelle Williams, and Sasha Lane in her first-ever acting role (Arnold discovered Lane sunbathing on a beach). With the exception of Wendy and Lucy, they all feature supporting casts of largely non-professional actors—another characteristic they share with Nomadland, which is predominantly populated by real-life migrant workers, McDormand aside.

These films unfold patiently, rhythmically, making the most out of wide shots and finding meaning in mundane moments. Glimpsed through windshields and rear-view mirrors, their iconography is familiar: buttes and mesas, gas stations and silos, slick pavement and strip malls. But these women’s stories are not hero’s journey in the grand tradition of classic Hollywood or Joseph Campbell. When they enter the frame, it’s almost certainly not out of nowhere. When they say, “I’m just passing through,” as Wendy does in Wendy and Lucy, or leave without saying goodbye, as Fern does in Nomadland, their faces don’t express stoic valor, but rather the vicissitudes of loneliness and freedom, desperation and determination, hardship and the hope that something better is just around the bend.

Fern, Wanda, Mona, Wendy, and Star are all poor—with the exception of Star, they are also notably all white—dispossessed by society because of their economic status, which is compounded by their gender. Their circumstances are similar, but not identical: while wandering might be a choice for one, it’s a necessity for another, or an escape perhaps—from a miserable life, a bad husband, a painful memory. Maybe it’s an act of rebellion or, conversely, a submission to despondency. Wanda leaves her spouse, her children, and her desolate Pennsylvania coal-mining town behind for whatever comes her way, which happens to be a petty criminal planning a haphazard bank heist. Wendy is en route to Alaska in search of work with nothing but a few bucks and her loyal dog Lucy when she’s waylaid by a series of troubles in small-town Oregon. Varda’s vagabond Mona hitchhikes her way through rural France for the joy of it, flipping off society and any truck driver who gives her a hard time. Sasha Lane escapes her abusive stepfather to join a traveling sales crew of feral youths.

In Nomadland, Fern’s journey is shaped by a particular set of circumstances: she belongs to the subculture of migrant baby boomers created by 2008’s economic crisis, a movement the journalist Jessica Bruder’s chronicled in her non-fiction book of the same name. The opening title card announces that the gypsum factory in Fern’s hometown of Empire, Nevada closed in 2011, forcing an entire area code to move out and on. And move on Fern does—following the ebbs and flows of seasonal work. She packs boxes for Amazon during the Christmas crunch and cleans bathrooms at campgrounds in the summer. In the fall, she harvests sugar beets and flips burgers. When it’s dinner time, she heats up a can of soup on a hot plate, and when there’s no gas station in sight, she uses a bucket as a toilet—or squats by the roadside, the wintry frost nipping at her bottom.

A far cry from the #VanLife portrayed on Instagram, Fern’s lifestyle is decidedly unglamorous. But if cinema has trained us to associate men with kinetic adventure and women with the stasis of the hearth and home, then the very image of a woman on the road, navigating her own way, projects a certain power. Film history has equipped would-be male rebels with ready-made archetypes (albeit unrealistic ones) to slip into, but restless women are forced to navigate competing interests even on screen. The typical Western hero is untethered from the past and unconcerned with the future, allowed to exist only in the present. But if a woman is wandering, it usually means she’s had to give something up—a home, a family, a husband—or that she herself has been abandoned. Even when she has no possessions, she’s almost always hauling baggage.

It’s made clear at the beginning of Nomadland that Fern is a widow. In the film’s opening shot, we see her standing in front of her storage locker in Empire, selecting which items to pack into her van. The first is a set of leaf-patterned dishes (a gift from her father); the second is her husband’s work jacket. She inhales it deeply, hoping to catch his scent. Later in the film, Fern visits her younger sister in middle-class suburbia, where she’s criticized for leaving home so early and moving so far away: “You left a big hole,” her sister says. As much as her nomadism is economically driven, it’s clear that Fern chose this life, or at least some form of it, and that she continues to choose it. At one point in the film, she has the opportunity to stay—and maybe start a life with—a lapsed traveler she’s formed a connection with (played by David Strathairn). Fern spends a few days in his family’s idyllic California home, surveying him in this newly domesticated state and trying it on for size herself. The camera catches her in a moment of reflection from a private perch on the stairs; her expression shifts from “this could be nice” to “this is not for me,” and the railing rungs look like prison bars over her face. She sleeps in her van that night and is on her way by morning.

If a woman is wandering, it usually means she’s had to give something up—a home, a family, a husband—or that she herself has been abandoned.

If Fern chooses to not to slow down, some women have no choice but to keep going. The opening shot of American Honey introduces us to Star dumpster diving with her two younger siblings. Glancing up from the trash heap that hopefully contains her family’s groceries, she spots a van of rowdy young people pulling into a parking lot, music blaring and a bare butt triumphantly pressed against the window. The appeal of what looks to Star like total freedom is clear enough, but she is particularly drawn to the group’s magnetic, rat-tailed ringleader, Jake (Shia LeBeouf). They lock eyes under the glaring lights of a big box store and, in what endures as a truly glorious courting scene, he leaps onto the check-out counter to dance his heart out to Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”

Jake is a hustler, the top dog of a traveling crew that sells magazine subscriptions door-to-door. “We do more than work, you know. We explore, like America,” he tells Star. With nothing waiting for her at home but the groping hands of her drunk stepfather, she sets off on the highway to nowhere. The crew weaves their way through the American heartland—replete with cattle trucks, oil rigs, and confederate flag bikinis. Clocking in at just under three hours, American Honey is the most sprawling, languorous film of the bunch—but it’s also defined by the pulsating energy of the group at its center. Arnold spends a great deal of time in the cramped, overcrowded van, in which the kids are frequently hyping themselves up with trap music and liquor. Opting out of the wide-angle aesthetic, she shot the film in the more boxed-in 1.33 ratio, which places greater emphasis on the quiet moments of contemplation that flash across Lane’s face. Star might be more independent on the road than she’s ever been before, but she’s also yoked to the crew, reliant on her fickle boss (Riley Keough) for transport and shelter. Continual motion is her only option, even as she realizes she has no place to go.

The title character in Wanda also has no safety net, no money, and no plan. A striking long-take early in the film shows Wanda shuffling from her home to the local courthouse, where she’s late for her custody hearing. She’s small in the frame, a white pebble against a black backdrop of coal mounds and power lines. She moves through her life as she moves through the shot: like a stone being kicked down the road. Wanda arrives in court with curlers still in her hair; when the judge asks her what she has to say for herself, she just shrugs: “They’re better off with him,” she says, meaning her ex. Later, she stumbles into a bar with a robbery already in progress, and before she realizes what’s going on, she finds herself on the lam with the amateur robber.

But this is no Bonnie and Clyde: the film is the antithesis of the glossy Hollywood fare Loden despised—and the kind her husband at the time, legendary director Elia Kazan, was famous for. “I really hate slick pictures,” she once said. Shot with a crew of four on a shoestring budget, Wanda is grimy and grim, but it crackles with Loden’s creative energy, humanity, and sad humor. She was an intuitive filmmaker and as an actress embodies Wanda with enigmatic melancholy and downcast eyes. Loden spoke in interviews about how the film reflected her own life—or what she believed her life would have become had she not escaped her small town and moved to New York. If the character is a far cry from what we think of as a feminist hero, Loden herself certainly was one; in making Wanda she asserted her own independence and gave voice to the kind of disempowered woman rarely depicted onscreen with any nuance.

Michelle Williams’s character in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is similarly marginalized, if more self-determined than Wanda. We first meet Wendy somewhere in Oregon, where the sky is dreary, misty, and grey. Wendy is living out of her car as she makes her way from Indiana to Alaska, where she hopes to find a job in a cannery. Her only friend in the world is her yellow lab, Lucy. The set-up is deceptively simple: her car breaks down, and her dog goes missing. Reichardt follows Wendy over the course of just a few days, placing great weight on the small interactions that can make or break her precarious existence. Williams, who re-teamed with Reichardt for Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women, delivers an extraordinary performance. The camera focuses intently on her face, which seems to be assessing need vs. risk at every moment: How many miles does she still have to drive, and how much cash is left to get her there? Where will she sleep while her car is in the shop?

Wendy camps in the forest one night and wakes up to find an unhinged predator (played by Larry Fessenden) standing over her. It’s a harrowing experience and one of the only instances we see her brave façade crack, though she escapes the encounter physically unscathed. Aside from Fern, all of these women are threatened by sexual violence—a reminder that a woman alone on the road has a target on her back: the word tramp, when applied to a man, means vagrant or traveler (like Charlie Chaplin’s enduring figure), but is understood to mean prostitute when describing a woman.

In her memoir and ode to the itinerant lifestyle My Life on the Road, which was recently adapted into a film The Glorias, Gloria Steinem points out that “even the dictionary defines adventurer as ‘a person who has, enjoys, or seeks adventures’ but adventuress is ‘a woman who uses unscrupulous means in order to gain wealth or social position.’” Put into journalistic practice at the time of Wanda’s release, film critic Rex Reed referred to the title character as “an ignorant slut” in the same article that Loden described her as “an ordinary person.”

Agnes Varda’s Vagabond further investigates these contradictions in perception and linguistic biases. The opening shot introduces Mona already dead, frozen and blue in a ditch. The film is structured around conjecture about her identity, pieced together through first-hand interviews with people she encountered throughout her travels—the truck driver who gave her a lift, the shepherd who offered her shelter, the woman who caught her squatting in private property. All of them project something different onto her: a number of the female interviewees admire her as a symbol of almost unfathomable freedom, while men dismiss her as everything from a “loafer,” to a “man-chaser,” to a “psycho.” Others are so baffled by her existence that they resort to mythology: “She came from the sea,” one muses.

Mona eludes all labels and never explains herself to anyone. Actress Sandrine Bonnaire plays the character with visceral gusto, stomping her way across the screen—through farmland, along highways, skirting the edges of small towns. She moves so furiously that Varda’s gorgeous tracking shots can barely keep up; Mona is often out of the frame, forcing the camera to chase her further down the road. She doesn’t say please or thank you or take shit from anyone. Clad in a worn leather jacket, she smiles only when she’s happy, not to put others at ease. “Do I scare you?” she asks an innocent bystander who looks downright petrified. She is wild and dirty and smells bad. She rolls cigarettes with her filthy fingers, swipes sandwiches off of men’s plates, and chews with her mouth open.

It’s hard to pinpoint the appeal of such a person—particularly one who ends up dead. Perhaps it’s the sheer rarity of watching a woman onscreen playing a role yet so gleefully free from having to perform her gender, too. Mona eats the way a cowboy eats when he comes in off the range—ravenously and with no time for pleasantries. Wanda does, too. In a particularly memorable scene, she sits across from her new accomplice in a diner, inhaling spaghetti with reckless abandon. When she’s finished with her own plate, she reaches across the table to soak up his extra sauce with a hunk of bread and washes it down with a gulp of beer.

After making Wanda, Barbara Loden told an interviewer emphatically: “I hated movies as a child. The people on the screen were perfect and it made me feel inferior.” Loden had famously played the glamorous screen siren Marilyn Monroe in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, but as Wanda she’s draped in drab clothing, her hair in a high ponytail hangs down in strings over her face. Kazan would apparently complain after she won a prize for the film at Venice—and achieved a modicum of success as a filmmaker in her own right—that Loden stopped dressing and behaving in a manner he considered to be “feminine.”

The films neither glorify nor simplify what it means to be a wandering woman; the practical hardships are clear, as are the emotional sacrifices.

Fifty years later, Frances McDormand is being celebrated for shattering these restrictive expectations that continue to reign over women in Hollywood—making waves when she graced the cover of Vogue bare-faced and wearing an oversized men’s suit to boot. It’s disheartening that such fanfare is still warranted when a wealthy, white, wildly accomplished female actress over sixty—who remains Botox-free (gasp!)—is simply afforded the opportunity to carry a movie and then opts out of altering her appearance to promote it. It’s sadly remarkable, too, that Fern is allowed to maintain her hard-earned self-sufficiency and not be killed for it.

More than bare survival, though, Fern achieves something resembling inner peace; in a shot that seems to directly reference John Ford’s The Searchers, we see her actively trade in domesticity for the open horizon. She bathes naked in a stream, marvels at the California redwoods, and sees wild Buffalo roam—from the safety of Vanguard’s window.

A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, these movies about women on the move feel all the more resonant: they offer motion in a moment that’s otherwise stagnant and frankly depict states of economic vulnerability that continue to grow; their natural marvels and open horizons are a reprieve from the repetitive drudgery of life under lockdown. The films neither glorify nor simplify what it means to be a wandering woman; the practical hardships are clear, as are the emotional sacrifices. But however challenging life on the road might be for women, these movies also underscore—intentionally or otherwise—that the option is for the most part only available to white women. It’s worth noting that there is only one Black nomad amidst a sea of white faces in Nomadland. In Bruder’s book, the author aptly notes that “living in a vehicle seems like an especially dangerous gambit for anyone who might be a victim of racial profiling.” Indeed, an early scene in which Fern’s sleep is interrupted by a woman knocking on her van at night might have played out very differently were her character not white. Fern is met with compassion rather than suspicion, an offer for help rather than any threat of arrest.

It is certainly preferable to be speeding down a freshly paved stretch of highway than stationed at some dingy pit stop, to be the one that’s passing through rather than the one that’s left behind. But as these female characters make it clear, the freedom of the road comes at a cost. One of Fern’s fellow nomads puts it best when she says, “You gotta learn to take care of your own shit.”