“Wild” Gives the Wilderness Narrative a Much-Needed Feminist Spin

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Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, the basis for the Reese Witherspoon film arriving in theaters tonight, is often pitched as a story of an arduous hike that helped Strayed move past her grief over her mother and self-destructive behavior. But as Strayed has said, it’s not just about grief. It’s a literal walk towards self-acceptance with overtly feminist themes.

When she embarks on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed is weighed down not just by belongings, but by a heavy sense of failure and self loathing. This arises from loss, but also from guilt for not being a “perfect daughter,” a model wife. Guilt for acting out, ending her marriage, sleeping around, all kinds of dangerous experimentation and choices to “walk away” that are usually verboten for women. Without a mother to accept her, Strayed has to do the work of rejecting her own shame, which means shunting aside the gendered social standards that make her feel ashamed.

By going to the wild do do this work, she’s not without precedent. After she comes down from the scaffold in The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, her “A” badge sewn on, dwells in a hut on the edge of the woods. When she can, Hester walks in the woods with her “love child” daughter. This unfettered expanse of nature is the only place safe from the prying, judging eyes of the villagers, resting on Hester’s letter. Through the trees, the sun shines on the A, makes it gleam like a thing of beauty. The woods are also where Hester was once able to have trysts with her lover, the Reverand Dimmesdale, and where she can now speak openly to him of their sin, and its holy aspects as well as damning ones.

Ever since there’s been an American myth of nature, there’s been a ripe opportunity for a feminist spin on the myth. Nature writers from Thoreau and Emerson to John Muir and Edward Abbey to Jack Kerouac posit solitary life, and trekking, as an act of manly self-reliance, quiet contemplation, rebellion, or all three. Yet for women, there’s an added dimension to the act of departing from everyday life, living deliberately and sucking out the marrow of life, to paraphrase Thoreau. In the wilderness one finds a dearth of beauty contests, sexual double-standards, obligations to care for families or feed them emotionally and physically. There’s no one else to filter or measure ones experience against. There is only the self. The concept of self-reliance, solitary contemplation and abandoning the community becomes actually far more radical and dramatic when applied to women, who are expected to be (to borrow a phrase from the Mayflower compact) thoroughly knit into the social fabric.

When I became an early teenager, I suddenly began to dream of the wilderness. The idea of hiking gave me palpitations. Seeing peaks’ silhouettes from a car or train window, I felt called upwards and I longed for the pain in my legs that came from climbing mountains, the thin winds at their summits, the cold lakes at their feet. So I left my New York City apartment for a series of “Outward Bound” for teen type trips. Over the course of a few summers, I shot pictures of sunsets, trekked, cooked, slept in tents, proved to be absolutely terrible at technical climbing skills, suffered through the elements and made zero lasting friendships — because I wasn’t a jock at all, nor did I fit in smoothly with the typical kid who signed up for adventures like this.

But I kept going back.

For a long time after this phase passed, I wondered why I did this. This wilderness kick was an interlude between an artsy, bookish childhood and an artsy, bookish adulthood. Now my desire to sleep on the ground has evaporated, as has the craving for solo travel. If I had gone to arts camp or gotten a job (as I later did) with a progressive or media-oriented institution, I would have found more kindred spirits, or at the very least, skills and confidence that helped me down the line.

Yet I was once drawn to backpacking, I think, for complicated reasons. Hiking became way of pushing back against the way social norms were pushing in on me. When women turn 12 or 13, they begin to be socialized much more aggressively into gender roles, whether by peers, family, or media. On some level, I sensed this and resented it deeply. So going to a place where mirrors, razors, makeup and trends were jettisoned — and where I could both punish and strengthen the body that was suddenly up for public scrutiny — was a form of resistance and escape at the same time. In the wild, a woman’s body is valued for its usefulness, its ability to endure. Not its sexuality, or its decorative value, or its ability to fit into jeans. This has the potential to be transformative. The truth is that the transformation never lasted beyond the summer for me, but I now believe that’s what I was searching for on my hikes.

I wasn’t alone in my craving for the wild. Such trekking trips ended up being in vogue among my female peers, even the most normally dolled-up girls. My hiking groups always had more female enrollees than male ones.

Strayed has long characterized her acting out as just that—acting out. As A.O. Scott notes in his review of the film: “Before setting out on her trek, the author had been using heroin and cheating on her husband. She insists, however, that her goal is not redemption but self-acceptance, not a catalog of regrets but a clear view and welcoming embrace of experience in all its forms.”

It may sound self-helpy and smug, but at its core “a welcoming embrace of experience in all its forms” is a fairly subversive goal for a 21st century American woman to attempt. That radicalism that may be missed in the film, and book, if you don’t contextualize it with Strayed’s own avowed feminism and her insistence on accepting —even positively claiming — painful moments in her past such as her abortion. Flavorwire’s own Jason Bailey notes the subtlety that may be lost by putting the sex scenes that are meant to filter through Strayed’s memory onscreen, up for the audience’s gaze.

Many discussions of Strayed’s work and its appeal to readers of both genders, but particularly women, miss the crucial, clear feminist symbolism of leaving civilization in the dust. Strayed isn’t just walking away from her own pain-fueled cheating and drug use, but also the social expectations that fuel and follow her behavior. And that’s why her story has allegorical implications for all women, even the most bound to creature comforts. Just as the sun shines on Hester Prynne’s symbol of sin in the woods, once away from the glare of society a woman’s “sin” can simply be part of her life, in golden and scarlet threads, rather than a stigma that haunts her.