Exit Strategies: On Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970)
An old station wagon with wooden-siding drives across a hilly, forested landscape, grim, grey skies overhead. Telephone wires string together sections of land. In the center of the shot, a lone roadside ice-cream shop, something like a Dairy Queen precursor. The car pulls up to the window, Wanda walks out of the vehicle’s passenger side, as the clunky car peels away. Briefly, she chases after it to no avail. As the woman behind the counter hands Wanda a modest soft-serve vanilla cone the wobbly, hand-held circles around her.
Wanda is out of pace with men. The man who buys her a beer at the bar in exchange for sex abandons her with cone in hand. When she asks for more days at the factory, the boss says “You’re too slow for sewing operations and that’s it.” The bartender at the closed bar she runs into for a bathroom stop yells, “What are you taking a bath in there?” When her bank-robber boyfriend demands she go out in the middle of the night to get him three hamburgers with “no junk” and a newspaper, she stops, talks to a man on the street, takes far longer than her male companion commanded, and ends up elsewhere. On her way to the climactic bank heist, driving in tandem with her boyfriend, several cars pass in front and she gets lost.
Throughout Loden’s 1970 bleak, feminist masterwork, Wanda remains lost, but even so, she rejects the time of men, refusing preexisting patterns and speeds. Wanda elects not to adopt prevailing tempi, to upset the temporal expectations of work places, malls, male commands. Plotting his next bank robbery, her abusive boyfriend asks, “Can you drive?” “I guess so, kind of,” replies Wanda. There’s power in her offhanded response to the basic, yes-or-no question.
New Routes, Old Plots
From the onset, Wanda wanders. Dressed in all white, she walks across a field of coal to ask a man for money to take a bus to the court where her husband is filling for divorce. Meanwhile the soon-to-be ex-husband has opted for the family car, girlfriend and kids in tow. But Wanda navigates on her own, preferring the possibility of going astray rather than succumbing to the entrapment of the family car. She sets a steady track and goes where men don’t. Who scrounges for money to take an empty bus to their own court date? Wanda. Who journeys over hills of coal to ask for a dollar to take said bus? Wanda.
Wanda walks. Wanda deviates. In drifting, she restores palpability to the way we route ourselves. Even if she moves between boyfriends, falling prey to one who is abusive, she does so in her own manner, refusing plot lines and preconceptions. To exit the American domesticity that choreographs her bleak working-class life, she traverses terrain in other manners. Wanda excels at way-finding. To move outside of men’s methods. To traverse terrain in another manner. Wanda’s independence requires repudiating men’s routes and plotlines—how things are supposed to play out. Likewise her independence requires exposing all of the exhausting limitations men place upon her and other women; all the strenuous, unspoken and spoken expectations of behavior attributed to an American woman. Wanda can’t even conform to a genre piece, a Bonnie and Clyde crime thriller—she gets rerouted on the way to perform the role of driver at the bank heist. She exits all pre-formed narratives. Near the end of the film, she flees a vehicle in which a man is forcing her to have sex.
Out of American Ecologies?
The view outside of the American window is bleak. Rust belt landscapes, perpetually covered in clouds, soot, and low light—these environments mark most of Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and are anything but glamorous. The film opens with a view from a working-class home on the verge of ruin. Having left her own crumbling household, Wanda sleeps on her friend’s couch. Empty Budweiser cans and glass Coke bottles litter the kitchen. A baby in a diaper screams on a dirty bed. An old woman, rosary in hand, portraits of military family members and crucifixes in the background, looks out a foggy window onto piles of coal, a symphony of trucks in the background.
Men drive trucks hauling coal. Men work in tractors carrying coal. Men sing fiddle songs in bars, light cigarettes for women, nearly suffocating them by inching so close in their seats. Men tell women how to drive, what to wear, the roles to play. A single man, a soldier, just prior to the final bar scene in Wanda, drives Wanda to some heaps of sand where he attempts to rape her. Another vehicle, another claustrophobic American ecology. Wanda runs. Flees into the woods.
In one of Wanda’s most telling scenes, Wanda and her deadbeat boyfriend Mr. Dennis discard their clothes by the side of the road. They’ve garnered new, fancier outfits from one of the few glamorously portrayed places in the film (at least the exterior), Woolworths. Decked out in a tight-fitting white dress, white heels and matching white flowery headpiece, Wanda looks a bit like she’s just gotten married and shed her fancier, flowier garb for something sexier. Her other half dons a grey suit, a more formal improvement. They’ve both classed-up, freed themselves from the burdens of their old clothes and stories, dressed the part of a couple far better off as they prepare to rob a bank. But in a stroke of subtle genius, Loden’s film has them ditch their clothes in a yellow Goodwill donation bin. It’s an oddly thoughtful moment for someone who’s not thinking much. It’s as if, even while casting off their clothes, they’re still conscious of working-class need, somehow still caught within a loop in which they might be destined to wear them again.
How do we exit the American dream? Is it possible to escape the punishing cycle of laboring to make ends meet and fitting within the confines of a recipe dreamed up by generations of white men? Shattering the mythology is hard work. Are we destined to flee the ideal we hope to be only to end up in the same clothes we’ve thrown away?
The power of Wanda’s critique comes in its highlight of the claustrophobia at the heart of the American dream, a suffocating expression of control perpetuated by men that Wanda both constantly attempts to shun and in which she seems forever stuck. Cars, trucks, restaurant booths, bar tables, malls, bedrooms—all pods of the capitalist dream constructed by men to contain. If anything the bleakness so potently represented by Loden is not only as daring as it ever was, it is also radically dismissive of mythologies of containment. Wandering the future ruins of capitalism, Wanda, in all her apparent passivity, in fact charts other courses.