Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Pathetic Bicyclist

Have you ever noticed how the bicycle is used as a signifier of male weakness, childishness, impotency and/or geekiness and nerdiness? I notice this all the time in movies, ads and other channels of pop culture. If I happen to be with my wife when I spot an example, I'll point it out to her, and she'll roll her eyes and make a joke to the effect that my sensitivity to this kind of stereotyping is itself evidence of geekiness and nerdiness (if not all the other mentioned attributes).

I'm just making an observation here, not protesting the stereotype. It's reflective of a popular cultural bias and an angry blog post could only serve to make it worse. I notice that most of the examples I spot are from the US and I know the grounds from which they spring. Among my cohorts, the bicycle was a popular way to get around from age 5 to early teens, and during this time, it was even be used as an emblem of masculinity. There was a lot of one-upmanship involved in doing jumps, wheelies and other stunts.

But by the time we boys approached 15 (old enough for a "learner's" driving permit in many states), cars had long usurped bicycles as a gauge of masculinity. The louder and faster the car, the bigger the man, seemed to be the consensus. When I think back to my old high school, I can't even remember there being a single bike rack outside -- although the size of the parking lot more than equaled the size of the school itself.

It's understandable why a boy of 15 would look at a car as a token of manliness. After all, it takes a mature, responsible person to drive a motor vehicle so getting a car and a license constituted a right of passage. It's less understandable, though, that many men, years after getting their licenses, continue to put such stock in cars as symbols of male virility. Or why they would look down their noses at a vehicle that could actually promote this attribute.

I say I notice these instances of cyclist stereotyping all the time but when I finally got around to doing a post on them, I could only remember a few of them. But you have to trust me: they're everywhere.

Ok, this first one is from the movie 40-Year-Old Virgin. It's a great example because the bicycle is used in the movie's opening credits as a major character-establishing device. It says, "I'm unassertive, socially awkward and lame with women."

The next one's from the Will Farrell movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. It's the story of an American race car driver who has a stretch of bad luck and has to confront some demons in order to get back into the champion's circle. When the character hits rock bottom, he loses his driving license and resorts to riding a bike and -- in a double whammy against sustainable transport -- taking a public bus!

Here's a non-American entry -- from the comedic, musical duo Flight of the Conchords of New Zealand. In this one, the two singers are doing a send up of the bad-boy trappings of gangsta rap. The target of their white boy rap is a litany of middle-class irritants such as hidden banking fees. As a visual complement, the singers ride not in the usual low-rider Chevy Impalas and Ford Fairlanes but on bicycles. Nothing like a bicycle to mark you as a wimp.

Here's one from last year's Coen Brothers' movie Burn After Reading. Brad Pitt plays a clueless fitness instructor who gets in over his head when he discovers some misplaced government security documents and tries his hand at major league extortion. When he rides a bicycle to the appointed rendezvous, it serves to underscore his inexperience and ineptitude.

Finally, here's an example that I discovered while working on this post. It's a pastiche of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator and the '80s comic character Pee Wee Herman. Perhaps this served as the original archetype for the emasculated bicyclist.


Bikeurious said...

Emasculated? Gimme a break!! Just look at Lance Armstrong...

OK, maybe that's a bad example. But even with one ball, he still managed to bang Sheryl Crow.

anna said...

Wow, you have quite a collection here. I was going on about a similar thing, too, once: Why are only losers riding a bicycle?
In the very movie "The 40-year old virgin" was also the line "Everybody rides a bicycle ... until they are 6 years old". That's very much what is the underlying assumption. Why would a grown-up ride a bicycle? They don't understand it.

In European movies one doesn't really find such hard stereotypes. To the contrary, bicycles are even used postively are just as part of live.

Greg Spencer said...

I went back and checked Anna's post, which, indeed, makes the same point -- even on the detail about how the wimpy cyclist stereotype is more American than European.

There is one American movie that goes against this grain: Breaking Away. Okay, it's about sports cycling not transport cycling. And, actually, the protagonist's affinity for cycling is initially tied in with his alienation from family and peers. In the end, though, the local kids who tease him get their comeuppance and the hero's stubborn dedication to his training is vindicated. In that sense, it's an inspiring movie for we Americans who take the road less traveled by biking.

Bryan Hopkins said...

Interesting. The UK media often refer to people as "a cyclist" for no apparent reason other than to create some sort of usually negative impression. People are rarely labelled as "motorists".

Greg Spencer said...

Hi Bryan,

That's interesting. I hadn't heard that "cyclist" could be used as a generic put down. I was looking for some examples of this on google but only found this:

(a cyclist as a person who recycles tired, old jokes)

Can you cite any specific examples for the usage that you mentioned? I'm curious.