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Natty Gann and the Female Hobo

2012 August 21

Whilst looking for something to put on in the background during a washing up marathon the other day, I stumbled across a 1985 Disney film called The Journey of Natty Gann. Set during the Depression of the 1930s, it’s an – inevitably – heartwarming story of a teenage tomboy who gets separated from – also inevitably – her dad, but is befriended by – sigh – a wolf.

Who is Natty Gann?

I’d never heard of the film before – do any of you remember it? Anyway, here’s the trailer: watch out for a super young John Cusack! (I admit that played a part in my decision to watch it. That and the trains.)

Also, someone should tell Natty that her dad is actually Leland Palmer.

A few more feminist points for Disney

The film stars a young Meredith Salenger as Natty, whose understated performance undercuts many of the more saccharine moments of the film. She comes across as tough rather than ‘feisty’, which is a rare treat.

Meredith Salenger and 'Jed' as Natty Gann and her friendly wolf

Image copyright Disney

Although all Natty’s major relationships are with male characters (she has the Disney missing mother syndrome) so it definitely doesn’t pass Bechdel, I think the film gets feminist points in other places. Mostly because the lead protagonist, Natty, is so kickass. She’s smart, brave and resourceful. It’s a proper adventure – there’s an epic journey, friends and foes, and very real danger. She escapes various shades of train-related death as she rides the rails to find her father, and she also escapes an orphanage-prison and a sexual assault. She does loads of running.

Natty’s also a tomboy and crucially doesn’t get made over into a “Proper Girl” at any point. My favourite thing is that no one seems to care that she’s dressed like a boy – no one ever mentions it or makes a derogatory comment about it. And she pulls John Cusack while wearing shirt, trews, boots and a flat cap. Love it!

No women wanderers?

Another part of this film’s feminist cred is its rare depiction of a female hobo. From Woody Guthrie to Kerouac to Big Rock Candy Mountain, the figure of the hobo is as much a part of US cultural identity as the cowboy. Both ways of living were at best hard and at worst brutal and dehumanising but have been romanticized and over the years have passed into folklore. And like cowboys, maybe even more so, hobos are almost exclusively imagined and represented as being male.

Perhaps the greatest lesson that has come from the active study of the history of marginalised social groups is that even where it’s not recorded that they were there, they were. Ethnic minorities, women, refugees, people with disabilities, people with a dazzling range of sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions… no group just popped into being in the 1980s. So hopefully it will come as no surprise that there were women hobos, and plenty of them.

In January 1934’s US census, nearly 14,500 women were recorded as homeless or transient, nearly 2,783 of them under 21. A 1906 estimate put the total hobo population of the US at 500,000, but numbers increased dramatically during the Great Depression as homelessness spiralled to an estimated two million.

There are a few firsthand accounts from women hobos, such as this one from Norma Darrah. The most famous record comes from ‘Boxcar’ Bertha Thompson, although it was later revealed that her autobiography, Sister of the Road, was a fictionalized account stitched together from the experiences of several different women. Rather unbelievably, the story inspired Martin Scorsese and producer Roger Corman to make a ridiculous hobo-themed sexploitation flick:

Amazing. (I look forward to the sequel – a rootin’ tootin’ sexy romp about Bob Dylan’s boxcar days.)

Riding the rails of patriarchy

Like Natty, many women and girls who were wandering would dress as men, for comfort and camaraderie but also for protection since – like homeless women today – they were especially vulnerable to sexual violence. Many hobo women had transactional sex to help secure food, money and passage.

Perhaps it’s this detail in particular which has helped to shut the female hobo out of the golden halls of myth and folklore. The reality of many women’s experiences was harder to romanticize than that of their male counterparts, and the fact that many were sexually exploited undermined the charming hobo ‘ethical code‘ drawn up in 1889. I suspect it’s also to do with our old chums gender stereotypes and double standards – take a bow, fellas!

The urge to roam, the ‘wanderlust’ which is so highly prized in narratives of American identity, is usually held to be incompatible with femininity or femaleness. Where a man who roams and values his independence is admired, the same traits in a woman are often characterised as fickleness or infidelity.

In a culture and at a time when women were inextricably linked to the private sphere of domesticity, and were called upon – imaginatively or actually – to represent and defend ‘home sweet home’, the homeless female wanderer is an unsettling figure. She has rejected her assigned role and slipped into the great blue yonder, claiming her right to agency and mobility despite the cost.

POSTSCRIPT: As part of my research for this post, I tried to do a quick twitter poll to see how many people remembered seeing The Journey of Natty Gann as a child, and whether it had contributed to them becoming a feminist. I didn’t really get any response apart from this one, but it made me very happy indeed.

Things to read!

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    August 21, 2012

    Did anything you read mention race at all? When I was proofing this I found myself wondering about whether the “hobo” is predominantly a white archetype in Americana,and what the genuine truth of this assumption would be.

    Given segregation and oppressive poverty, and the issue of what “freedom to wander” would be afforded a person of colour, I think it is also difficult to romanticise wanderers of colour without hitting some very problematic issues. Then there’s the predominantly white “okies and arkies” dustbowl imagery evoked by (say) The Grapes of Wrath etc (which contains almost no POC if memory serves, unlike Of Mice and Men or Steinbeck’s urban writing, and which contains a line delivered by Ma Joad where she talks of the family as descended from the pioneers of the Revolution). Steinbeck isn’t hobo literature per se, but I thought of Grapes somehow.

    … I’m rambling.

    Anyway, here is a woman of colour we wrote about last year who did do quite a lot of wandering: Stagecoach Mary Fields.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      August 21, 2012

      Not really, but my reading wasn’t exactly, er, comprehensive. In Joan Crouse’s book she recommends Nan Cinnater’s book Women Hoboes of the Great Depressionwhich apparently includes “some of the only material available on black women transients” but I couldn’t find a copy online.

      I just had a quick google and this book this book looks pretty interesting and the comment in this article is quite telling I think: “While tales of friendships among hobos that transcended race abound, many African American hobos recounted being made to feel like outcasts among outcasts.”

      But no, I think The Hobo as he exists in Americana is generally white. Like women I suspect the stories of black homeless travellers have not been admitted to the folklore because their experiences undermined the romanticized ideals of the wandering lifestyle.

  2. Abbie permalink
    September 5, 2012

    I totally remember seeing this movie when I was a kid… my sense of wanderlust and female badassery was really just developing and this movie just made me want to adventure more…

    I totally forgot about the whole emotion tugging aspects of the movie… I just remember the girl and her adventure

  3. November 1, 2012

    I remember this movie! i used to have a huge crush on her, she made me like tomboys and made me want a dog…she might have been part of the reason why i thought segourney weaver was sexy…

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