Hot Feminist Trend: Leaving it All Behind


Since we know we can’t have it all—no one can—perhaps the next best thing is ditching it all, at least for a little while. That seems to be a recurring theme for women in 2014, at least, the ones who can swing this utopian exit plan.

I’m old enough to remember Calgon, take me away! ads, when the best a woman could hope for to drown out the high-pitched, needy squall of The traffic! The boss! The baby! The dog! was to sink into a sudsy hot bath and imagine literally anything else, like, say, being in a garden tub in the middle of the Coliseum?

Of course, no one was suggesting that she actually book a trip to the Coliseum. Who would feed the baby? It’s not that a woman couldn’t take a solo trip, but the idea of women going it alone, fearlessly forging into unknown territory without a male companion—well, that was not being celebrated or even normalized in the mainstream culture at large. In fact, one of the only stories I can think of about any woman doing anything alone from my childhood was not so much about her travels as it was about her destination, and, as she was Amelia Earhart, that didn’t end well.

I even asked friends to try to recall any standout mainstream images from their childhoods of women going solo, and we could think of nothing. Then someone suddenly remembered My Girl 2, the teenage quest for self-discovery where Anna Chlumsky as Vada takes a solo trip to stay with her uncle’s family to research her dead mother’s life. But that was it.

Cut to now, when Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is a runaway success, with Eat Pray Love still hovering in the background, and a slew of solo lady traveler blogs to salute in the coming year. More and more cultural examples celebrate the idea of a woman on her own, with existential or midlife crises in tow, figuring it out against a much more exotic, pleasing backdrop than the home or the office.

Take the “breakcation,” for one. A recent travel piece over at Yahoo promotes it as the only way to beat the breakup blues. There, Jo Piazza tells us about Sloane Davidson, who, upon ending things with her boyfriend of seven years in 2008, booked a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. Then she traveled around the world for a year, ultimately hitting seven countries along the way. Piazzo writes:

“I needed a drastic change,” Davidson said. “I couldn’t just go on as ‘business as usual’ in my life. Traveling helped immensely. I was forced to spend a lot of time with myself and my thoughts. That can be exactly the opposite of what people want to do during tough times, but I wanted to face all of this head on. Being in a new place gave me the freedom to feel new and refreshed.”

It wasn’t all perfect for her. There was a terrifying thunderstorm crashing down on an overwater bungalow in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but there’s no cautionary tale in her alone-ness, no worrying tone, just the serene tonic of travel to mend a broken heart.

To be clear, people have been getting over breakups just fine for a long time by staying put, and so can you. Nor do you personally need to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to mourn the loss of a parent or find yourself. Make no mistake: Ditching is a certain kind of luxury, all things considered, given that it requires you leave your life, possibly your job, and ostensibly, still earn some dough along the way. Plus you need to be fairly untethered from the kinds of obligations women so often find themselves tethered to, like young children.

Elissa Strauss explores this idea at Elle in an essay about the way Strayed’s memoir moved her, but left her longing for another kind of escape. Strauss writes:

It would take a monster bigger than Strayed’s giant backpack to not be touched by both her endurance and grief. Still, I didn’t connect with it like everyone else seemed to. Wild is not me. I am not Wild.
When I began the book, I expected to find myself in there, like so many other women did. I, too, wanted to experience reaffirmation—if not of an exterior life then at least of an interior one. I wanted to go into Strayed’s wild and come out differently, too. But after reading the last page and drying my tears, I found, to my surprise, that I was not healed. I was just a little frustrated.

Later, Strauss figures out why:

There’s another possibility, and it lies in my frustration with the very American idea that the surest route to self discovery lies in the abandonment of civilization. I just don’t want to give in to the idea that we have to leave everyone and everything before we can find ourselves. If we do, I—mother, wife, sister, daughter—don’t stand a chance.

Thoreau famously went to the woods to live more deliberately, and like other male protagonists in fictional quests self-discovery (Sal Paradise, Huck Finn), he abandoned a home life to do it. But Thoreau dutifully returned to his mother to get clean clothes, after all.

Strauss writes:

“The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall of sex, marriage, and responsibility,” wrote mid-century literary critic Leslie A. Fiedler in his book Love and Death in the American Novel.
Wild inverts this tradition and claims that typically male-centric space of vagabond revelation for us ladies, too. As critic Sarah Seltzer at Flavorwire points out in an essay on a spate of new novels about women who leave it all behind, the escape has become the new affair, the go-to method for women seeking refuge from the barbarism of their intimacies. These wanderers, part pilgrims, part strays, offer a legitimate alternative for women, but it’s a type of freedom that can only go so far.

Strauss wonders how, for instance, Thoreau’s mother might’ve gotten in on this deliberate-living action. She wonders how Strayed’s mother might’ve ditched on her own familial commitments. She recalls a moment in Wild when Strayed meets a reporter surprised to run into a female “hobo” and tells him why that’s the case:

“I told him that this was because women were too oppressed to be hobos. That most likely all the women who wanted to be hobos were holed up in some house with a gaggle of children to raise. Children who’d been fathered by hobo men who’d hit the road.”

For Strauss, Wild is both a refutation of this idea—here is a woman striking out on her own, just as any man—and a confirmation of the invisible handcuffs on women with families:

In many ways, Strayed’s walk is an act of penance for her mother and the injustices she endured: the older woman’s journey of self-discovery thwarted by having children young, living with an abusive husband, and being forced to raise her children in near poverty. Still, despite all this, she never calloused to the gifts of love and life. And this relentless optimism drove a precocious, young Strayed a little nuts.
Her mother’s inability to control her own life was not entirely a result of her gender, money had a lot to do with it, too. Still, those invisible handcuffs are the same variety worn by so many of our mothers, rich and poor, women who managed to feel tenderness toward their children while at the same time recognizing the degree to which those bonds prevented them from finding their own essential facts. When Strayed’s mom died, she was just shy of graduating from college at age 45. She had almost made it.

Strauss concludes that what she’s really looking for is a way through, not out, and that she wishes this existed for men and women with emotional commitments, “those back home maintaining civilization, minding the children, cleaning the clothes, making sure there is food to eat. I want this and the essential facts of life. I want it for myself, as something to look forward to; I want it for men, so they’re inspired to stick around. And I want it for Strayed’s mom and all the women like her, a retroactive act of justice for the stories they would never live, let alone write.”

This is perhaps why most journeys of isolated self-discovery for women will come when they are young and still unattached, or never attached, or when they are unusually solvent, or when they are older and their children are grown.

But many of us will never be able to afford—financially, and in terms of our families—a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, much less a yearlong hike or worldwide trek to seven countries. In the roundup of female escape novels at Flavorwire, Sarah Seltzer writes that she has become deeply intrigued with this idea of women dropping out after reading Wild and other similar novels of self discovery, and, that to her, it’s a “particular form of feminist rebellion.” As it stands, that’s still a mighty pricey one too.

Photo via Getty.

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