Hell-raising biker image fuels gender divide in motorcycle ownership

Women are portrayed by the media as pillion passengers, says Dr Esperanza Miyake's new book

Motorcycle

'The Gendered Motorcycle: Representations in Society, Media and Popular Culture' is out now

Rebel without a cause bikers in popular culture – from Easy Rider to Mad Max and the Hells Angels – reinforce traditional gender stereotypes and contribute to lower motorcycle ownership among women, a new book argues.

And while men on bikes are portrayed as leather-clad daredevils, women are most often shown as pillion passengers or as ‘biker chicks’ in skin tight suits.

Dr Esperanza Miyake, a keen biker and expert in gender and digital culture at Manchester Metropolitan University, explores how motorcycles are depicted in film, television, advertising and anime in her book The Gendered Motorcycle: Representations in Society, Media and Popular Culture, published by I.B Taurus.

Entrenching values

Far from being a niche consumer product, she found that the popularity of the biker image across the media means its use helps to entrench a wide range of cultural values.

Her research found that the portrayal of motorcycles fall into multiple themes. There is the idea of bikes as sporty, adrenaline-fuelled machines (TT Races, Guy Martin’s Speed series), the romance and nostalgia of the road in the tour documentaries of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, and the futurist technology and acceleration of mankind in the likes of Tron and the Batpod in The Dark Knight Rises.

They can also convey messages of domesticity – the Hairy Bikers are one of many cookery shows to use bikes – and luxury, with them commonly featuring in high-end perfume adverts.

Even otherwise gutsy, strong women characters are portrayed as sexualised ‘biker chicks’ or domesticated subservient pillions when they come in contact with a motorcycle.

But these categories tend to exclude or marginalise women, who are commonly either found spread semi-naked to advertise bikes, riding in catsuits as Keira Knightley does in a 2011 advert for Coco Madmoiselle, or clinging on as pillion passengers.

This restricted role is described by Dr Miyake in The Gendered Motorcycle as the ‘post-feminist motorcycle’.

'Masculinised motorcycling'

Dr Miyake, Lecturer in the Department of Languages, Information and Communications at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “Despite the overt message that motorcycle ownership and riding a bike is about empowerment, independence and freedom – actually the rather limited way motorcycles are depicted in film, TV and advertising still reinforce traditional gender roles – especially for women.

“Even otherwise gutsy, strong women characters are portrayed as sexualised ‘biker chicks’ or domesticated subservient pillions when they come in contact with a motorcycle.

“Male bikers meanwhile are frequently presented as delinquent troublemakers, hell-raising gangsters or sporty adventurists.

“Such media portrayals not only intersect with matters relating to class and race identities, they also serve to masculinise the world of motorcycling in particular ways and contribute to the lower motorcycle ownership among women.”

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