As the cinematic release of the Elizabeth Gilbert's best selling travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love draws nearer it is inevitable that people will become engaged in debating not just the artistic merit of the book and movie, but also the phenomenon of women undertaking travel alone. For the record, I loved Eat, Pray, Love and when I turned my fairly stable life upside down a few years ago and moved from Canada to the United Kingdom, I admit to taking some solace in it during the first few rainy months of my new life. I am ambivalent about the movie, haven't seen it and because of my relationship with the book, I don't know if I will risk tainting my experience of Gilbert's narrative by watching Julia Roberts be, well, Julia Roberts. Then again, maybe it will be wonderful.
But this isn't a review of the book or film. This morning while wading through my travel Google Alerts I came across a post on The Improper written by Bruce Northam called How Julia Roberts, Liz Gilbert Fail Women in Eat, Pray, Love. From the title, I was expecting the post to be a critique of the 'selling out' of the book to Hollywood. Instead, I was surprised to find Northam taking the position that because neither the book or film explicitly warn women about the potential dangers lurking in wait for us out in the world, they have not done their duty:
The book “Eat Pray Love” issued no travel warnings; nor does the movie. Somebody needs to constantly remind women traveling alone that Halloween-night-style caution is always necessary ...
When Gilbert’s cinema-ready narrative came out, my hunch was that it was going to inspire many women to pitch their troubles over the back fence and venture out to distant lands to reinvent their souls, and I’m all for that.
However, women and men, unfortunately, still need to endure different rules while on the road ...
Although not a guide, “Eat Pray Love,” once canonized, might have supplied prologue and epilogue warnings about the realities of traveling alone — and when not to do it.
I have had amazing experiences traveling alone; and the response I've had to sharing those experiences has been humbling - and mostly from women who have either had similar life affirming solo trips or others who are tentatively dipping their toes in the idea that they too can be allowed to explore the world on their own terms.
Can and do bad things happen in the world? Yes. Are women often on the receiving end of violence perpetrated by men (and incidentally most violence against women in North America is done to them by a man they know personally, not a complete stranger)? Yes. Does this mean that we should live our lives with "Halloween-night-style caution"? Hell no!
Living fully in the world requires some care, especially if you are a woman. I don't dispute that this level of caution and awareness needs to be ramped up when you put yourself in situations that are unfamiliar, as when you travel. We are constantly bombarded with imagery to remind us of the danger we are in as women; in Canada and the United States women are raped, beaten and murdered with regularity - we watch it on the news every night. We hear about our sisters in other countries who are subjected to horrors like genital mutilation in the name of chastity and who live in places where they could be stoned to death if they are even suspected of adultery. And whenever we turn on a movie or a television show, we get to watch this all play out over and over again; Law and Order SVU is a show almost entirely devoted to creating entertainment out of the sexual torture and murder of women and their children.
I don't think women need another reminder of how at risk we are at the beginning of a book, which is clearly not a travel guide style collection of how-to points and best practices, but was written with the intention of inspiring women to follow their passions out into the world, even if that world is just a short walk from where they live their daily lives.
In his article, Northam talks about a woman named Aubrey Sacco who disappeared while traveling as though the horrific truth of her vanishing in Nepal should frighten us into immobility. I've got news for you Northam: most of us already know a woman who has had violence enacted against her. We are already aware of our peril and we don't really need you, Elizabeth Gilbert or Julia Roberts to remind us.
When we choose to embrace the world, we do it in the face of danger, not in blatant ignorance that it exists. And I for one am tired of well-meaning men reminding me that I should live my life in fear. If you want to write a critical blog post about how dangerous it can be for women to travel alone, you might want to widen your focus just a little bit. The problem isn't the film or book version of Eat, Pray, Love and it certainly isn't Elizabeth Gilbert and Julia Roberts, but a world that takes the easy way out by telling women to tread lightly with fear in their hearts, rather than dealing with the prevalent systemic issues that perpetuate and encourage violence against women in the first place.
Update: The original post on The Improper seems to have been moved or taken down. The only reference I can find now to the full original article is on IMDB here.
Update 2: Oops! It seems to be up again, with the addition of some tips for women travelers by Carla King. They are some pretty good tips - whether you are a man or a woman.
Image Credit: Eat, Pray, Love Publicity Still