When was the last time you watched a movie with a female protagonist? Who, instead of being rescued in the end by Prince Charming, pressed through her challenges to learn and maybe overcome? And when was the last time that protagonist worked through her problems by turning toward nature?
The first time I heard about the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I rolled my eyes. Another tale of a divorced, troubled woman finding herself through travel sounded cliché. But finally giving the book a try, I came to respect Strayed’s writerly skills, vulnerability—and more importantly, the story itself. And stacked against the rest of what Hollywood has produced in the last 10 years, the upcoming film version might prove to be anything but cliché—and maybe something we sorely need.
Partly thanks to Oprah’s attention, most people are familiar with the plot: When Strayed hit the Pacific Crest Trail, she was broken from the death of her mother. Unable to process her grief, she’d turned to promiscuity and drugs, eventually destroying her marriage. Never having backpacked before, she fills up an absurdly huge, heavy pack and heads off to hike a chunk of the PCT, hoping to find some healing—sort of find herself. Her initial blunders frustrated a few of the outdoorsy readers I know—who was this woman to write about the nature experience, when she’s so obviously out of touch with it?—but her absolute vulnerability is ultimately winning. We eventually begin to sympathize and respect her efforts.
Maybe the movie version—starring Reese Witherspoon, to be released in December—will be the heroine’s journey we’ve been waiting for. Disney princesses, predictable romantic comedies and sexualized female action-heroes pain most of the smart, confident women I know. The female characters are one-dimensional, and their theatrical salvation usually comes in the form of a man—or their character exists to please a man. In fact, the Bechdel test—a rubric for measuring gender bias—is pretty tough on Hollywood. It asks: Does this film feature at least two women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man? When was the last time you saw a film like that? Maybe that’s why a generation of women found a hero in Strayed—and maybe the movie will stand the test.
Some would argue that it’s been decades since we had a movie that really portrayed the lives of women, that told their dramatic, adventurous stories sans fairy tales. One article a couple of years ago in The Atlantic held that Thelma and Louise was the last great film about women. And some even say that the Bechdel test isn’t enough, that to create great films about women, we have to ask even more of them. But for whatever reason(s), our screens are filled with everything but heroines on adventure, figuring out their problems and pressing toward their destinies.
For women who couldn’t relate to Elizabeth Gilbert’s silver-lined travel itinerary and neat romantic ending in Eat, Pray, Love, Strayed’s dirty, destitute search for salvation on a trail, by herself, might be more common language. Her struggles are gritty and painful—both emotionally and physically. And her victories feel visceral—like hard-wrung tears and guttural yelps. And in a world where our few female heroes are expected to be driven-snow Joan of Arcs, Strayed is honest in her shortcomings, which makes the moments when she’s true to herself and growing as a person so much more valuable.
Wild’s reviews seem to run the gamut so far. But the important thing is that it’s a woman’s story of stepping out in the world, pushing forward on her own terms, being open about her questions and struggles—and sharing her story with a generation that has seen precious few tales like hers.