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    Off the Wahl: Motorcycle Women in Movies

    By Jan Wahl–

    Riding in the SF Pride Parade has been one of my greatest experiences and honors. Meeting the Dykes on Bikesâ (who proudly lead the parade) is also right up there with my favorite moments. These women are spirited, wise, and witty, greeting me every time with joy and acceptance. Since I love looking at motorcycles, many told me about their own journeys. Imagine how disappointed I was when researching women on motorcycles in the movies … there are so few! One has to dig deep, and so I did.

    There was a time Hollywood depended on women in important roles in film, from directing to editing to acting. It was the silent age, pre-1927, and the Business had not figured out the big money to be made. At the beginning, women, like men, were high comedy fodder: falling off of motorcycles in 1907’s Aunty’s Motor Bike, 1911’s Margaret’s Motor Rides, and most successfully, 1914’s Mabel at the Wheel. In that Keystone Comedy, our heroine rode a Thor 1V single cylinder with bad brakes and terrible suspension, but it became the bike to own. (Actress Mabel Normand co-directed the film, which she starred in along with Charles Chaplin.) From 1914–1917, Indian Motorcycles roared in the adventure film serial The Hazards of Helen

    When Hollywood realized that women could take the sidecar, it was time for the guys to control the wheel. Just writing that pisses me off. Anyway, Buster Keaton went with the Indian Powerplus then a Harley Davidson J in One Week and The Scarecrow.  Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and Charley Chase all used motorcycles in movies and the audience loved it. Soon, cop chases and shootouts used motorcycles, along with military bikes.

    Two of my own favorite movie images with motorcycles happened in a great comedy and cult drama. A fabulous female in film, Ann Sheridan, drives a motorcycle as grumpy Cary Grant sits in the sidecar in 1949’s I Was a Male War Bride. Defining the 1950s, the cult classic The Wild One brought us motorcycle gang leader Marlon Brando as a rebel with a cause. After that last one, the biker culture was born and has been going ever since.

    Movies have featured Steve McQueen on his Triumph in The Great Escape. Then there is 1967’s Hell’s Angels on Wheels and, of course, 1969’s Easy Rider

    But where were the women?

    At least there have been a few good moments. Audrey Hepburn loved the view from a Vespa scooter [said to now be the world’s oldest Vespa] in Roman Holiday. Ruth Gordon stole a cop’s bike in Harold and Maude. But, for the most part, women were totally exploited in motorcycle cinema.  1969’s Hell’s Belles used the advertising line: “Meet the debutante in a leather skirt.” The Hard Ride got folks onboard with, “Here are the hard chrome babes and leather dolls.” It’s enough to make you heave!

    When I was a kid, I saw a lot of surfing culture. Nothing captured my awe of watching surfer chicks and dudes like The Endless Summer. Documentary filmmaker Bruce Brown blew me away with his exciting footage and storytelling of those guys who love to ride the wild surf. In 1971, I was awed again by his On Any Sunday. He perfectly captures the love and lust for motorcycles and racing them. But, once again, it’s all men. How terrific it would be to remake it with women at the wheels. 

    How about a movie based on the book by Elsbeth Beard, who was the first British woman to motorcycle around the world? Or a major reissue of 1999’s Me and Will about two women who face their own struggles while on a motorcycle road trip.   

    Some gutsy and interesting female stars of music and film have been outspoken concerning their love of motorcycles. My favorite is Ann Margaret, who has wonderful portraits on her beloved bikes. I interviewed her and found that she was shy until the subject of motorcycles came up. She has great passion for them. They represent freedom from the BS of Hollywood for her. Rihanna, Priyanka Chopra, Gal Gadot, Jewel, Michelle Rodriquez, Kate Hudson, and Miley Cyrus are just a few others who love their bikes.  

    I salute you, Dykes on Bikesâ!

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at www.janwahl.com

    Published on September 23, 2021