Episode 69: The E-Bike Radicalization of Jessica Valenti 


Aaron Naparstek: Just a quick heads up for sensitive listeners: we kind of cussed a lot in this episode. There’s some strong language, so just be aware.

Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars, the podcast about the terrible ways in which drivers—but mostly men—treat people—but mostly women. I am here with my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear.

Aaron: What’s up?

Sarah Goodyear: You know, yes, here we are. We’re actually here. We’re looking at each other, real life. It’s a good thing.

Doug: We’re in the studio again. And we are not alone. We have a special guest, Jessica Valenti.

Jessica Valenti: Hello.

Doug: If you don’t know Jessica, she is an awesome writer. She’s written a bunch of books. She is the founder of the blog Feministing.com—real pioneering blog. She’s written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian. She is also a Brooklynite, and a newly radicalized e-bike mom, which we’re gonna get to in a little bit.

Aaron: Welcome to The War on Cars, Jessica Valenti.

Jessica Valenti: Thank you.

Sarah: But before we get to that, let’s have a word from our sponsor.

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Doug: Okay, so welcome, Jessica, to The War on Cars. We’re glad to have you here.

Jessica Valenti: I’m so glad to be here.

Doug: I want to talk about your path to radicalization.

Jessica Valenti: Sure!

Doug: Not—not as a feminist, but as an e-bike rider in New York City.

Jessica Valenti: [laughs] They’re connected, though.

Doug: Yes, they are connected, and we’re gonna talk about that. But so it began, as I think a lot of things do these days, with a tweet. And I want to run through this and we’re gonna …

Jessica Valenti: Okay. I’m a little afraid because I don’t remember all of my tweets.

Doug: You didn’t say anything bad.

Jessica Valenti: Okay.

Doug: Okay. Don’t worry about it.

Jessica Valenti: I usually do, so that’s nice to hear.

Doug: Yeah. Okay, so August 1, 2020, you respond to Jamelle Bouie, the New York Times columnist and former guest on The War on Cars, friend of the podcast. He had tweeted that his e-bike had changed his life. And you asked a question. You wrote, “How is it different from riding a bike? Andrew—” which is your husband—”doesn’t want me to get a Vespa because I might be slightly accident-prone,” you wrote. “So this might be a good compromise.” Do you remember writing this?

Jessica Valenti: I do. I do, because that has been, like, a long-standing fight with Andrew and I, because before we met I had a scooter, and I also didn’t have health insurance at the time and may have crashed and may have fractured my hip and gotten really messed up. And, you know, just hurt myself walking around the house, generally. So it seems like a bad idea. [laughs]

Doug: [laughs]

Sarah: Okay.

Doug: Okay. So then August 5, four days later, you tweet, “Twitter convinced me to get an electric bike, and now I have to wait ’til October for it to get here.”

Jessica Valenti: Yeah, it took forever.

Doug: The supply chain is a real issue.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah, the pandemic. Yeah.

Sarah: So people were really like, “Oh yeah, you have to get an e-bike?” I mean …

Jessica Valenti: Yeah. You know, I think what ended up convincing me was two things: one were the parents on Twitter who were just like, “It’s amazing for dropping off, picking up. It just makes everything so much easier.” And just—someone said it. Maybe it was Lauren Bruce, who was a feminist blogger as well, who said it changed her relationship with the city.

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Jessica Valenti: Right? And I’ve always grown up in New York. I’m a third-generation New Yorker, and I was like, “Oh, I like the sound of that,” right? Like, and so it convinced me. But it did, it took forever.

Doug: Well then just a couple months later, this is really where we see the path to radicalization forming. November 21, you write, “Finally got our RadRunner electric bike today, and figuring I’ll crash it by tomorrow.”

Jessica Valenti: Okay, so it was November.

Doug: It was November. It was a little late.

Aaron: So not solving the safety problem.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah.

Doug: But assuming you hadn’t ridden it at that point. You just got it.

Jessica Valenti: I had not. No, I had not ridden it, but I was assuming that it was gonna be like, very—like scooter-like, right? And also, I just don’t trust myself in general with anything that requires coordination.

Doug: So then a week later you write, “Not only have I not crashed, I am having the best time. Thanks to all who recommended.” So it’s great, positive. Yeah, you’re having a good time.

Sarah: It’s so much fun, right?

Doug: It’s so much fun.

Jessica Valenti: It’s so much fun.

Sarah: Like, it’s like having a superpower. Like, riding an e-bike, it’s like all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, wow, I’m super strong. I’m super competent.”

Jessica Valenti: No, absolutely. And it just felt like being a kid again. I’m just, you know, thinking about riding my bike around the block in Long Island City, where I was growing up, right? Like, it was just like a very nice—especially during the pandemic, right? Like, when you just felt so stuck.

Doug: Yeah.

Jessica Valenti: It was a very nice freeing feeling.

Sarah: Yeah.

Doug: Okay, so now …

Jessica Valenti: Oh, God.

Doug: We’re continuing. No, it gets even better.

Jessica Valenti: Okay.

Doug: December 16, 2020, you say, “I have to say getting an e-bike has been a total game changer, but now it’s too cold and I really can’t wait until spring.”

Jessica Valenti: Yeah.

Doug: So the thing that I noticed about this was like, any time you tweet about, like, “Oh, I can’t bike because it’s too cold” or whatever, you get, like, a thousand reply guys telling you why you should be comfortable with this. Did you experience that?

Jessica Valenti: Oh yeah, it was like—and, like, sometimes I’ll ask for advice on, like, you know, I want a warmer jacket to bike in or, like, some gloves or whatever, but there’s definitely like that “It’s fine.” And I think you already get that with e-bikes in general. Like, “Oh, that’s not a real bike. You’re not really biking.” And yeah, so that’s a little annoying. But I’m just like, no, I want to be comfortable. I’m not trying to, like, suffer outside. I’m trying to, like, reduce my suffering. That was part of the point.

Sarah: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point, that there’s this idea that you should take whatever suffering comes along with biking. Like, this idea that biking is supposed to be painful or some kind of a sacrifice.

Aaron: It’s more authentic if you’re suffering.

Sarah: Exactly. It’s just the same Puritan bullshit that has ruined our nation. Anyway …

Jessica Valenti: And there’s like a real machismo to it too, right?

Doug: You’re not a pure cyclist unless you’re grinding up on one gear in the worst conditions, like, on a gravel road somewhere, right? Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah. And especially as a woman, you get this kind of attitude quite a bit. And also, like, if you’re like me, I think that for a lot of my life, I felt like I had to prove what a bad ass I was on a bike and, like, you know, “Yeah, I’m wearing a dress, but I’m passing you on the hill, you motherfucker.” And like, whatever. It’s like, that’s a stupid way to be. [laughs]

Aaron: Jessica, do you remember, like, why it was a game changer? Like, what the feeling was or what made you think that?

Jessica Valenti: It was definitely—a huge part of it was my kid, right? And getting to spend time with her in a different way, and getting to bring her to different places because, you know, she’s younger, she’s unvaccinated. I’m not bringing her on the subway right now. So just, like, the ability, the freedom of movement that it allowed me with her was pretty fantastic.

Aaron: And she’s how old again?

Jessica Valenti: She’s 11. And it did change my relationship to the city and to Brooklyn, and where I went and how I got there. And it just really changed my day to day, right? And again, during the pandemic, when your day to day was sort of shit, it was really nice to have something to look forward to. It’s like, “Oh, like, I have to, like, go to this meeting in the park or whatever, but it’s gonna be fun getting there.” Like, it was …

Doug: The time savings. I think too with kids is incredible. You’re always on time. You can leave really late and you don’t have to worry, like, “Oh, we’re gonna miss the bus” or whatever.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah.

Doug: That’s really one of my favorite parts about the bike or the e-bike.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah. And I look like a cool mom, you know? I’m, like, rolling up and I’m like, “Hop on the back.”

Aaron: It’s a kid accessory.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah.

Doug: Especially because you have those mittens that everybody recommended on Twitter.

Jessica Valenti: Right! [laughs]

Sarah: So eventually it became spring again, and you got back on the bike. And it was May 18 of 2021, you tweeted, “Never in my life did I think I’d become a bike person, but my e-bike has literally changed my life. Can’t recommend enough.”

Doug: Yeah, you’re like an evangelical.

Sarah: I don’t think you were getting paid for this, no?

Jessica Valenti: No. They should. Where’s my free bike?

Doug: You are now what they call an “avid cyclist” at this point.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah. Yeah.

Aaron: Okay, but then things take a turn. So May 27, 2021.

Jessica Valenti: Uh-oh. Okay.

Aaron: So about a week later, you tweet—your first tweet, “Thought I had reached peak road rage as a driver, but now that I’m on a bike, I have ascended.” With asterisks.

Doug: Emphasis on “Ascended.” Yes.

Aaron: And then a second tweet: “Double parked in a bike lane? Be ready to get screamed at. Swerve towards me without looking? I will kick your car. This is who I was always meant to be.” The radicalization is complete.

Jessica Valenti: It’s true.

Doug: You have joined the war on cars.

Jessica Valenti: It really brought out my best and worst. [laughs]

Aaron: Is this your best or your worst? I’m not sure I can decide.

Jessica Valenti: It’s a little bit of both, right? Because, like, that’s the sort of behavior I always wanted to emit into the world but didn’t have a fast getaway. And now I do.

Aaron: [laughs] Okay.

Jessica Valenti: Now you can’t catch me. No, I just—I got—you know, it’s like, you really do. You see the world and the streets in a whole new light, and you can see all the dumb-ass things people are doing, and it’s really infuriating. And it’s doubly infuriating as a woman, because all this, like—there’s, like, these weird microaggressions on the road too, with male drivers.

Sarah: Yeah. And that’s funny that you talk about the getaway aspect because, especially as a woman, I feel like that is one of the amazing things about being on a bike as a woman is that you can be in that situation that is so uncomfortable and a guy is saying something to you, and you can just ride away. And it’s like such an amazing feeling. And actually, Beyoncé talked about this.

Jessica Valenti: Really?

Sarah: Yes, she did, way back in 2009. Because actually, Beyoncé does ride a bike.

Aaron: She is a cyclist.

Sarah: Because, you know, of course she does.

Jessica Valenti: Of course she does.

Sarah: Right, exactly. And she said, “It’s amazing how I’m able to ride around on a bike. People kind of see it’s me, but since I’m on a bike, they think, ‘No, it’s not her.'”

Jessica Valenti: [laughs]

Sarah: “And by the time they realize it’s me, I’m already gone.”

Jessica Valenti: I’m gone!

Sarah: “It’s great to do something normal every day. It keeps me grounded.” But, like, I love that idea of Beyoncé being able to move through the world with more freedom because she’s on a bike. Like, even Beyoncé can feel that freedom. It’s so cool.

Jessica Valenti: I think that’s exactly right. That, like, ability to just, like, remove myself from a situation, and also, like, react to a situation how I actually want to react without all these negotiations in my head about safety and, like, the situation I’m in and where I’m at and who’s there. It’s like, “No, I can just, like, put on the throttle and I’m right the fuck out of there.” And it’s fine. Yeah, it was pretty—it was pretty great. And I like being angry, you know?

Aaron: [laughs]

Jessica Valenti: It’s sort of like part of my professional thing. So it worked out.

Doug: Have you ever experienced harassment from other cyclists? Because I feel like sometimes women—you know, men on bikes, there’s a lot of mansplaining. “Your seat’s too low,” or “You’re going too slow. Pull over.” That kind of stuff. So that changes the equation that you’re talking about. Have you ever experienced that?

Jessica Valenti: Oh, yeah. I mean, just both, like, while riding a lot of, like, aggressiveness. Like, if I’m just, like, enjoying myself, like, not going super fast, there’s a lot of grumbling as I get past. Or because I have, like, a cargo bike, it’s super heavy, right? And I live like a little bit—we’re on the first floor, but there’s a bit of a stoop. And so, like, I’m lifting the bike and every single time I’m lifting the bike, “Oh, can I help you with that? Are you okay? That looks really heavy.” Like, you’re gonna hurt it? Is it going to be okay? I’m like, “It’s really fine. It’s okay.” Yeah, so that gets a little old.

Doug: Yeah.

Jessica Valenti: But I mean, one of the nice things about, I think, getting older and being in my 40s is like, men in general are either like, don’t see me or are a little bit afraid of me, and that’s sort of nice. So that combined with, like, the getaway spirit is pretty great.

Doug: Yeah, that’s great.

Sarah: One of the things that we wanted to talk about, actually, was that there’s a history of bikes being feminist vehicles. When bikes came in, you know, in the late 19th and early 20th century, women did start adopting them as, you know, just a way to move around in the world that they had not had access to before. And it actually became kind of a scandal and it was …

Jessica Valenti: Was it related to pants-wearing, too?

Sarah: Well, yes. It encouraged pants-wearing, and it was kind of this virtuous circle.

Jessica Valenti: You know what’s very funny? Someone posted a TikTok of, like, a preacher in present day who literally went on a rant about how society started to go down when women started to wear pants, right?

Sarah: Yeah.

Jessica Valenti: Because they have more freedom of movement, and because they’re not sitting ladylike, right? And, like, so there is this real desire to constrain, right? Like, not just physically in your own body and physical space, but moving around the world.

Sarah: Yeah, the movement to wear pants instead of dresses was called the rational dress movement.

Jessica Valenti: I love that!

Sarah: And yeah, I actually really—and it was very, you know, synergistic with bicycles. And actually even Susan B. Anthony talked about this.

Jessica Valenti: Really?

Sarah: Yeah, she said, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.

Jessica Valenti: I love that.

Sarah: “The picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

Jessica Valenti: I love that.

Sarah: Right? And it’s like, it does give a woman a kind of agency and, like, parity on the street. Like, suddenly you have to be contended with.

Jessica Valenti: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: In a way that on foot definitely not, public transport definitely not. You know, you just are less vulnerable and people have to reckon with you.

Jessica Valenti: I think that’s right. And when you said public transport, I was just thinking about, you know, my experience growing up in New York and taking the subway. And I wrote about this in one of my books. Like, public transportation was a nightmare as, like, a young woman, as a teenager. Like, you’re getting flashed, you’re getting groped, like, people are saying disgusting things to you. There is a real freedom there. And then the other thing for me, honestly, like, outside of these very serious ideas, is that it just, like, allows some play, right? Which I don’t think women have a lot of access to also. And that’s been really nice. And it’s been really nice, like, I want my kid to see me having fun on a bike, right? Like, that I’m not just, like, trudging along, picking her up, dropping her off, but, like, we’re having some fun and we’re going fast and we’re gonna go to the park.

Doug: I was going to say the other part of the history there, right, is that before bicycles, women were often chaperoned, right?

Sarah: Yes.

Doug: So, like, they were—horse-and-buggy times, a man would have to accompany them. They couldn’t be alone with a single man, and so they would be chaperoned. And the bicycle allowed them literally one seat. Get on, go, and you could go wherever you wanted.

Jessica Valenti: A couple moments of silence.

Sarah: That’s right.

Jessica Valenti: Just some nice alone time.

Sarah: Yeah, exactly. And then, after your alone time, you could go have an assignation with whomever you wanted.

Doug: Yes.

Sarah: I’m interested, too, in what you were saying about how it changes your relationship to the city. Like, if you could talk a little bit more about that, like, especially as a lifetime New Yorker. Like, how has it allowed you to see and use the city in a way you haven’t before?

Jessica Valenti: Well, my only, like, relationship with getting around the city is, you know, I started taking the subway when I was 10, maybe? Like, 10, 11. And that’s how I got places. And I went to school in Manhattan but, like, lived in Queens. And my friends were in Brooklyn, and so, like, that’s how I got everywhere. My parents didn’t ride bikes. Like, they drove sometimes. And so, like, that is where I went. I went places where I could get to on the subway, right? And so the ability to be like, “Oh, actually, like, I can go to this random place that I would normally be like, ‘I don’t know, like, it’s a, you know, 15 minute walk from the subway. I’m not gonna do that.'” That’s been really nice that I’m seeing places I wouldn’t normally see.

Jessica Valenti: I’ve lived here my whole life, right?

Sarah: Right.

Jessica Valenti: And it’s like, “Oh, you know what? Like, I’m going to bike to Long Island City where I used to live.” And, like, that is not something I ever would, like, think to do on the subway, because why would I?

Sarah: Right.

Jessica Valenti: So it’s been sort of great. And I want that for my kid, too. She has yet to, like, learn how to ride a bike. She’s a little bit afraid. And she’s like, “No, Mom. Like, Brooklyn kids ride scooters and roller skates. Like, quit it. And it’s true. It’s very true. But she’s getting big enough now, like, she’s almost five feet and, like, it does look like we’re two full-grown women riding a bike together. And I’m like, “No, you’re gonna have to do this.” And I do want that for her so she can sort of like, honestly avoid the subway sometimes and avoid some of that, like, harassment that does feel like a very big part of growing up in New York, right? Like, it’s a rite of passage for a lot of girls and young women. And I would love for her to be able to skip out on as much of that as possible.

Sarah: Yeah, I grew up here too, so I totally get it. And it’s oppressive and it’s hard when you’re older and you’re free of it finally, to walk down the street or to be on the subway and to see young women and girls experiencing it, it’s just so enraging and so scary. And it makes me so angry.

Jessica Valenti: It’s really, really upsetting. I mean, my daughter just turned 11. When she was 10, her babysitter came home one day and was like, “Oh, you know, like, what do you want me to do when, like, people say stuff, you know, men say stuff on the street?” I was like, “You mean when, like, men sexually harass you?” And she’s like, “No, when they say stuff to Layla.” She was 10!

Aaron: That’s freaking gross.

Jessica Valenti: Right! And then you start to pay attention, and you start to notice it. You start to notice the way men look at her. I was on the subway one time, and I could see the way that this guy had his phone angled was exactly at my kid. And it’s like, I’m 97 percent sure that’s the case, but not 100 percent, and so I’m not gonna like physically attack him like I would like to. So I, like, reposition myself in front of him and in between them. And you’re just like, yeah, like, this is a thing that’s going to continue to happen and be a part of her life the way it was mine. And we don’t have that many options for how we can reduce that. And I almost think of it as like, if I can teach her to ride a bike and have this different way of getting around the city, I almost think of it like harm reduction, right? Like, it’s a way to live where you don’t have to feel trapped in that situation. Because you really do. Like, you’re on a subway car and you are trapped in that moment with whatever is going on.

Sarah: Yeah.

Aaron: Do you feel at all, though, like, in some ways you’re trading, you know, one kind of risk and harm for another? It’s like, you’re avoiding all that subway stuff, but now it’s like you’re on a bike with a kid in traffic. Which of course, like, when my kids were younger, that was always the thing that I mean, I was pretty stressed out about that for a while.

Jessica Valenti: No, I’m very stressed out about it. I mean, I definitely—any time I’m taking her anywhere, I’m, like, on Google Maps. I’m like, “Okay, like, where am I gonna be and, like, can I get around, like, Atlantic and like,” you know? Yeah, it scares me, but I have more trust in my own ability than the goodness of people around my daughter when I’m not there. Honestly, right? And that’s been one of the nice things about having an e-bike is I do feel like the ability to, like, move quickly when I want to and get out of, like, a dangerous traffic situation has been really nice and given me a lot of—you know, it just made me feel better about the whole thing.

Aaron: It’s like you do have more control out there than I think people sometimes realize who don’t bike. It’s like, you can actually pull over to the side if the situation is dangerous. You can, like, get away if you have an e-bike.

Jessica Valenti: Right. No, and like when she’s on, like, I’m going pretty slow, like, we’re not speeding, you know what I mean? Like, we’re really taking our sweet time and making a thing of it. But yeah, of course, of course I get nervous. My mother, when she heard that, like, Layla, was gonna be on the back of this bike, she’s like, “I don’t even want to hear about it.” Like, because, you know, everyone sees it. Like, people on bikes get in accidents and cars hit them, and it’s scary. But honestly, my kid has almost gotten hit by cars, like, along Court Street, like, by just walking.

Doug: Right.

Jessica Valenti: You know what I mean? Like that, I’m more afraid of her getting hit by a car walking than I am biking.

Sarah: And then also, like, you have for your career, the whole idea of women—especially women—reclaiming public space.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah.

Sarah: You have an activist attitude toward being in public space kind of to begin with, and I feel like biking really fits with that.

Jessica Valenti: Absolutely. Like, I do. It’s really interesting when my last book, Sex Object came out and there was this whole thing about, like, the subways and being harassed, I got so many emails—or like being harassed in the street—that’s like, “Oh, like, well, why would you take the subway when you were 11? Or why would you go out?” And it’s like, people have a right to be on the street. People have a right to, like, walk down the street and be safe. Like, this is not some controversial idea. And I feel the same way about biking and her safety, right? Like, she needs to be allowed to, like, ride along the street or ride on the subway or get around her city that she lives in and was born in and is entitled to walk around in any way she wants to.

Sarah: Right. It’s like the whole thing of, like, “Oh, well, women need to dress modestly because men can’t control themselves.” I feel like the parallel is like, “Oh, you shouldn’t bike because, you know, people who drive just can’t control themselves,” you know? It’s like the same vibe.

Aaron: There’s another parallel too, which is that the whole thing of, like, was the cyclist who got hit by a car wearing a helmet?

Sarah: Right, exactly.

Aaron: Was the woman who got harassed on the street wearing a tiny skirt or something?

Sarah: For me, it’s really that every person, no matter what they look like, what their gender is, deserves to be able to use public space. That’s the bedrock, that is what makes public space public. And you should be able to move through it in a way that’s convenient and safe and fun.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah.

Sarah: Right? Yeah.

Doug: I mean, have you ever experienced—I think some of the harassment that drivers throw at cyclists can be very gendered. Like I have been called—and we all have, probably—like, very homophobic language.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: There’s something like there’s this power dynamic, that they’re in a big, strong truck and I’m, like, this effeminate dude on his bike, you know? And so that happens quite a lot. I mean, yes, you can escape from it pretty quick, but it just seems like drivers are very quick to go to especially homophobic language.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah. The thing I’ve gotten that I’ve noticed most often is in those situations where—and it happens very often where I’m just passing cars, right? Like, and I’m going faster than—like, and I can see the guy is really pissed off that I just went faster, that he, like, really aggressively tries to catch up with me.

Aaron: So nuts.

Jessica Valenti: I was like, “What, like, is your problem? I don’t understand. Like, you can also choose to get a bike or get out of your car.” But yeah, like, I definitely notice that. Like, it’s really predominantly male drivers who do that to me, who are just like, who gets so irritated when I pass them, especially when I’m sort of like leisurely passing, like, with my kid on the back and just like, having some fun. It’s just like the fury comes out.

Sarah: Yeah, and if you’re wearing a dress. Like, I find that wearing a dress, like, seems to exacerbate the situation. Although interestingly—and I think I’ve talked about this on the show before—I’ve experienced sort of the flip side of what you’re talking about, Doug, which is that there are some guys who, you know, really get off on stronger women. And there’s a lot of, like, “Oh, yeah!” And I think we had the nice legs episode. But, like, guys like, “Oh, yeah! Like, yeah, those legs! You strong! Strong! You’re strong, girl!”

Jessica Valenti: It’s like, how about you say nothing?

Sarah: Yeah. Right. So that is something that has been a theme at times. So I hope you don’t experience that too much.

Jessica Valenti: Not so far. Not too much sexual harassment, thankfully. Like, though, I like to think that, like, I admit, like, a real anger about me. Like, I try to, like, move through the world with, like, a real, you know, don’t fuck with me face. Not always successful, but …

Sarah: I know. It doesn’t always work, but it works a lot of the time.

Jessica Valenti: Well, what’s hard is that I’m actually, like, unfortunately, a really nice person. And so most of the time, if you catch me, like, and I’m not, like, don’t have, like, my mask up, I’m just like, “La la la.” Like, enjoying myself. And I look way too friendly, so I have to, like, change it up.

Sarah: Well, see, this is what we want the world to be like, is a world in which you can ride down the street at a leisurely pace, having fun with a smile on and, like, just to have that be normal, have that be life.

Jessica Valenti: I mean, isn’t it interesting that, like, I’m just thinking about that. Like, it really does—I think that, like, a lot of us have, you know, grown up with sexual harassment and street harassment. Like, you do sort of feel like you can’t seem like you’re having fun or happy, like, as you walk or ride down the street because that almost—because you know unfortunately that invites comments, right? Like, if you see him open or friendly or receptive in any way, which sucks. And that is what’s nice about being on the bike, because I can be happy and playful and doing my thing and then just zoom off. And I think a lot about that with my daughter, because my daughter is, like, the most friendly, kind of smiliest kid in the world, and I hate to think that she’s gonna have to temper that, right? Or, like, put her resting bitch face on in order to move through the world, you know, unharassed.

Doug: It’s funny that you mentioned resting bitch face because, going back to the late 18th century, I think there were studies by respected medical doctors about what they called bicycle face.

Jessica Valenti: Really?

Doug: Which was basically for women who were riding. Doctors—male doctors, of course—were warning about the dangers of bicycle face.

Jessica Valenti: That’s hilarious.

Doug: Yeah, that, like, all of these physical problems that could arise from women riding bicycles.

Jessica Valenti: Did they say what bicycle face was? Was it like a resting bitch face?

Doug: I should have prepared this. I should have realized that this might come up.

Jessica Valenti: I bet it was something like you’re just not putting on the pleasantries, right? Like, that you’re able to, like, let that mask down for a second.

Doug: Thank you, Google. Here it is: “Bicycle face: a 19th century health problem made to scare women away from biking” by Joseph Stromberg in Vox. And yeah, I think it was just this reaction to, like, women are finding their independence. Men didn’t know what to do with it, and so we have to find some scientific reason—subconsciously or not—to make the science assert what we believe, which is this must be bad for women.

Aaron: I wonder if that’s—do you guys know the comic Bikeyface by Bekka Wright?

Doug: I think that’s where she gets it. Yeah. We’ll put a link in the show notes to her work.

Aaron: Yeah, she’s great.

Sarah: But yeah, so it was described as, “Usually flushed but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes. And always with an expression of weariness.” So nothing that no self-respecting, any self-respecting woman would want. But yes, exactly.

Jessica Valenti: This must’ve been, like, right around the same time that, like, the hysteria thing was going on. and they were like …

Aaron: Oh yeah, they would totally cure your bicycle face with, like, some vibrating device.

Jessica Valenti: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, no, that’s how vibrators were invented. It was literally like, “Oh, we’re gonna cure your hysteria by …”

Sarah: Somewhere in the patent office is a bike vibrator from the late 19th century, right?

Jessica Valenti: 100 percent.

Doug: New merch option for The War on Cars store.

Jessica Valenti: Reduces bicycle face.

Doug: Yeah, exactly.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: You know, there’s so much machismo and aggression and misogyny that’s just kind of like endemic to car culture. Little preview: I’ve been working on this episode this summer about muscle car clubs in New York City, and I’m following them all on Instagram. So I’ve been, like, really steeped in this kind of like quote-unquote “muscle car culture.”

Jessica Valenti: Yeah.

Aaron: There’s so much misogynistic stuff embedded in all of these Instagram posts. It’s pretty horrendous. But I’ve been thinking a lot about, like, the extent to which the misogyny of car culture is like a symptom of just free-floating misogyny and toxic masculinity in the culture, or the extent to which, like, these car companies are also causing misogyny and toxic masculinity. Like, they have enormous marketing budgets. Their messages are everywhere. And especially if, like, you’re a young man and you’re watching sports all day, you’re getting the ads for Dodge Chargers and Hummer SUVs.

Jessica Valenti: Right.

Aaron: And, like, how do we disentangle the toxic masculinity from the car culture?

Jessica Valenti: Well, I think it can be both, right? Like, it’s both that it’s in the air that we breathe, right? And it’s in bike culture, too and, like, the gatekeeping stuff we were talking about. But yeah, like, I’m just thinking out loud here but, you know, it almost feels like car culture and the way that car companies advertise to men is like the adult version of, like, what sports do to younger men, right? Like, so if you raise young men, and you tell them the way to be a man is to, like, be aggressive, right? Like, to be violent towards other men or to demean women, or to be aggressive and to be big and to be powerful, when you’re younger that means, you know, playing sports and, you know, getting really aggressive on the playground or whatever it is. And then as you get older, maybe, like, those things are not an option to you anymore, right? And so, like, what are you going to do to show off and display your masculinity? Like, that’s one of the main options that you have, right? Is buying a car that, like, you see as an extension of yourself and your masculinity.

Aaron: Right. And maybe you don’t have any other option or know of any other way to, like, express masculinity, or all your ideas for what that is?

Jessica Valenti: Well, yeah. When our definition of masculinity is so narrow, right? Like, really, it just means, like, not being feminine, not being a woman. Like, anything that is not womanly is masculine. And so when you only have this, like, really narrow definition of how you can be a man then, like, yeah, like, you’re gonna depend on consumerism and car culture and the things that people—or, you know, beer and alcohol culture too, honestly. Like, anything that makes you feel big and tough and powerful. And I think in particular, like, a lot of men and a lot of people in general feel powerless right now, right? So, like, anything that you can glom onto that’s gonna make you feel like you have some semblance of power and control is gonna really mean something.

Sarah: Especially if it’s something that you can buy.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah.

Sarah: Like, it’s something that, like, if you have the buying power, then you can have this. Like, that it’s within your—it’s something that’s clearly defined and attainable, yeah.

Jessica Valenti: Yeah. And I mean, really right now, and I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds but, like, you know, it used to be there were really clear benchmarks for men in terms of, like, what makes you a man. Oh, well, you’re gonna be a provider for your family and do these certain things. And those things are not really benchmarks in the way that they used to be. And so, like, men are seeking out other answers, you know? And maybe sometimes that’s car culture. Unfortunately, for a lot of, like, young men I’m seeing, it’s, like, online on Reddit. That’s like a whole other—a whole other episode.

Doug: You mentioned control also, like, as this defining piece of, like, traditional definitions of masculinity. And I think that’s probably part of why drivers default to rage because they’re sold this bill of goods, right? The car is the ultimate in freedom. It’s the ultimate in control. You decide where you go, when you go, who goes with you. But ultimately, actually, there’s no control. It’s the opposite of the feeling that you’re talking about riding your e-bike, where you’re completely in control, you’re always on time. You can leave when you want to. It’s fun. You can just escape, move around traffic. And I think that is part of why the rage just so often defaults to stereotypical gendered, like, homophobic language from drivers. It just goes right there. It’s all about control and power assertion, and they don’t get any of it in the car despite the evil looking, you know, headlights on their car. They’re actually not—they’re not quite as evil as they might like to think, yeah.

Sarah: I would just like to say, I don’t know if this is gonna fit in anywhere, but I do want to say that women drivers suck also. And that I don’t know if, like, you know, it’s—I don’t want to in any way, shape or form to seem like, you know, you don’t experience aggression from women drivers. And I think that sometimes women enjoy the power the same way that we enjoy the freedom that bicycles give us. Women enjoy the power that they get from cars, and it allows them to sometimes act in ways that they wouldn’t. But any actuarial analysis will reveal that it is men are much, more, much, much, much more dangerous drivers.

Aaron: Absolutely. As my dad would remind me every time he paid my car insurance bill when I was, like, 17. It’s just like, “Look how much you’re costing me being a teen male driver.”

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: Okay, so we live in Brooklyn. We have relatively good bike infrastructure, at least by American standards, that enable a lot of the trips that you’re talking about: the school run, the work commute or that kind of stuff. How do we sort of meld the feminist issues with the transportation issues? Because the infrastructure enables people who wouldn’t traditionally be out there riding, right? The stereotypical New York City cyclist forever was like a male messenger with a bag and the chain lock slung over his shoulder. And now it’s not. It’s moms on e-bikes, it’s people of all ages and abilities. But lots of cities don’t have that in America. So how do you think we kind of meld these two? These are social movements, and they’re related. How do we meld them?

Jessica Valenti: That’s hard. I mean, because it is interesting. Like, yeah, like, I definitely see some moms, like, picking up their kids and stuff like that, but I mostly see dads. Like, when I see parents picking up and dropping off kids on bikes, it’s mostly dads. And I think that, like, there has to be some way to make women feel more comfortable getting on bikes, and to reduce some of that gatekeeping that’s there, right? But I also do wonder, like, as we were talking about subways and harassment and things like that, like, I feel like it would be so smart of cities to really, like, make that connection. Like, if you did make it easier for women to ride bikes and to get around the city in a different way, like, they would be able to avoid a lot of the bullshit that they face on public transportation or in cars. You know what I mean? Like, there is this connection there that I don’t think a lot of people necessarily make.

Sarah: Yeah. And, you know, they say that you can tell when you’ve built good bike infrastructure because women use it.

Jessica Valenti: That’s interesting.

Sarah: Yeah, and women are sometimes spoken about in the planning world as an “indicator species” for healthy bicycle infrastructure, because they won’t use it if it’s not well made.

Jessica Valenti: That’s wild!

Sarah: Yeah.

Aaron: I mean, and when the bike infrastructure really gets good enough, then the kids can just take themselves places.

Jessica Valenti: I mean, wouldn’t that be nice?

Aaron: And the moms and dads can just do what they have to do and not be the chauffeurs.

Doug: The real freedom machine is when your kids can ride bikes by themselves safely. Absolutely. For sure.


Jessica Valenti: That would be amazing.

Doug: For sure.

Sarah: All right. That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thank you so much to Jessica Valenti for coming to the studio and talking with us about it.

Jessica Valenti: Thank you for having me.

Doug: Really glad you could be here. And other New York City media Twitter people who ride e-bikes? Like, this is how it happens.

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. If you want to learn more about Jessica and her writing and her work, you can visit JessicaValenti.com. We’ll put a link in the show notes.

Doug: Also, we have really big news. We are doing our first live show in New York City, which is really pretty awesome. It’s gonna be on Tuesday, November 2 at a venue called Caveat in Manhattan. We’re gonna put a link in the show notes for tickets. They’re $18 in advance, $22 at the door. If you can’t make it, there is going to be livestream access also for $10. So go to Caveat.nyc to purchase tickets or check out the link. And just so everyone knows, it is a fully vaxxed venue. You have to show proof and you have to be masked, I believe. So we’re taking a …

Sarah: Unless you’re drinking the beers you’re definitely gonna be drinking.

Doug: Yeah. No masks with holes in them for straws for your cocktails. That’s not allowed.

Sarah: Yeah.

Doug: You will probably have a drink or two and yes, have to take it off. But you have to be vaxxed. So we’re really looking forward to that. We’ll put out more information including who our guests will be. It should be a really fun night.

Aaron: And if you like what we’re doing here, join the war effort. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us,” and pitch in to our Patreon campaign. Starting at just $2 a month, you’ll get access to a special bonus episodes and all kinds of other exclusive benefits.

Doug: Thank you to our top Patreon supporters: the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York. Charley Gee of Human-Powered Law in Portland, Oregon. Huck and Elizabeth Finne, Drew Raines, Virginia Baker and James Doyle.

Sarah: You can pick up official War on Cars merchandise, including T-shirts, pins and stickers at our store at TheWaronCars.org/store.

Aaron: And remember, listeners of The War on Cars can receive 20 percent off of the purchase of stylish rain gear for walking and cycling from our friends at Cleverhood now through November 1. Go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter code “bancars” at checkout. That’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and the new code is “bancars.” One word.

Doug: They’re really going for it there. I like it. This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer.

Aaron: Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Design. I’m Aaron Naparstek.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And this is The War on Cars.