Hollywood Thinks Only Losers Don't Have Cars

Hollywood is notorious for being about as subtle as a sledgehammer when its films venture some symbolism -- so for that reason, it tends to be a good place to look for some of the more glaring reflections of American culture. Take, for instance, the phenomenon pointed out in a recent Slate article of Hollywood's tendency to equate carlessness to loserdom. What do movies like 40 Year-old Virgin and Greenberg point out about our nation's attitudes towards transportation?Hollywood does seem to typically use a character's not having a car as a way to bluntly point out that s/he's abnormal in some way -- whether he's 'quirky', a hippie, incapable of growing up (and therefore joining the adult world where people drive cars), or even flat-out disturbed. So where does this construct come from?

Slate's Tom Vanderbilt has a couple ideas: it could simply be that the industry is situated in car-heavy LA, where driving is the norm. More likely, though, it's an uncomplicated way to demonstrate otherness to an audience rooted in a culture where cars are a pillar of society. After all,

anything outside this dominant culture is treated as, well, a little weird. Hollywood's representation of cyclists, for example, as blogger Bike Snob puts it, has "pretty much been nerds on 10 speeds." The list of prominent bicyclists in film history includes misfit teens (Napoleon Dynamite), eccentric Einstein-like scientists (the license-less Jeff Goldblum character in Independence Day, in which the bike is, admittedly, shown as a pretty decent way to escape Manhattan), vaguely countercultural types (Mark Wahlberg's character in I Heart Huckabees, or Carl Bernstein in All the President's Men) perpetual man-children (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure), and people who otherwise refuse to grow up or are out of touch with real life and the working world.
And there are many others. Of course, Hollywood has always been slow to snyc up its stereotypes to current trends, and perhaps the greener leanings and recent cooling on cars (last year the national fleet shed thousands of cars for the first time in a long while) just haven't made it into production yet. Vanderbilt notes there are signs this is happening:
as noncar modes of transportation begin to penetrate even Los Angeles, Hollywood is beginning to allow some exceptions. The comedy 500 Days of Summer features two relatable, attractive young professionals who find various ways to get around Los Angeles, even taking a train--yes, it exists! ... It all seems very normal. And with films like The 40-Year Old Virgin, perhaps the fact that cycling is shown as a real mode choice at all--even if with some attendant baggage--represents progress of sorts.
After all, Carrell's character is big-hearted and likable, and gets the girl in the end. Maybe there is hope for cool carless protagonists after all. This stuff does matter, some -- media as pervasive as Hollywood films go a long ways in providing people with something of a compass with which to gauge social behavior. If genuinely admirable characters were regularly depicted biking to work or visibly eschewing cars, that would mark a slow, subtle progression from the ubiquitous car ownership-as-manliness standards that have defined our attitudes towards transportation in the past. So how about having Brad Pitt take the bus in his next starring role?

Tags: Movies | Transportation

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