How I Learned to Drive takes an uncompromising look at the way casual misogyny and gender stereotyping affect women, especially the young. From an early age, Li’l Bit, the play’s protagonist, is barraged with messages about women’s role in society: that they must behave a certain way and get used to being treated as sexual objects by men. She has to navigate these attitudes while at the same time dealing with the psychological pressure of her Uncle Peck’s sexual and “romantic” advances. Though the play consists mostly of flashbacks to Li’l Bit’s teenage years during the 1960s, its lessons are equally relevant today; the play implicitly argues against these stereotypical gender roles by presenting them in stark, unflinching detail.
Li’l Bit is constantly being reminded that she lives in a man’s world—and that she ought to obey the rules and authority of the men who run it. In particular, she is expected to put up with being a sexual object. Some of the flashbacks transport the viewer to scenes around the family dinner table, when everyone seems to accept as a given that women should expect to amount to little more than objects of desire. Li’l Bit, for her part, wants to get a good education and make use of her mind—not her body. Yet her own grandfather presents this attitude as if it were just the natural way of the world, laughing off the idea that Li’l Bit has any use for learning: “What does she need a college degree for? She’s got all the credentials she’ll need on her chest.” Her grandmother does nothing to challenge this view, later adding, “your grandfather only cares that I do two things: have the table set and the bed turned down.” That is, a woman is expected first and foremost to take care of the so-called “basic needs” of men: sustenance and sex.
Li’l Bit, then, grows up in an atmosphere in which women are taught to know their place and not have ideas above their station. Vogel shows how suffocating this can be, and this sense of objectification intensifies as Li’l Bit grows older. When her body starts to go through puberty, she finds herself the gravitational center of a universe of unwanted attention. As Li’l Bit’s breasts get bigger, they suddenly seem to be all that anyone can concentrate on. Uncle Peck describes them as “celestial orbs” as he lustfully undoes Li’l Bit’s bra, an image. suggesting that Li’l Bit’s breasts cast a figurative kind of blinding light, blocking out the rest of her identity. This in turn makes Li’l Bit increasingly self-conscious about her body. At the high school dance, she avoids any fast numbers because she fears that the boys just want to see her “jiggling.” Even years later as a thirty-five-year-old woman, Li’l Bit still avoids jogging or dancing for the same reason. Vogel thus provides the audience with a clear and powerful thread to trace the way that gender stereotypes and misogyny become embedded in an individual’s psyche, and near impossible to shake.
The play does, however, create a way for Li’l Bit to reclaim herself from being totally side-lined for her gender, though it is not a clear-cut victory: she finds freedom, control, and power in the act of driving. In the play’s world, driving is presented as a characteristically male activity: Uncle Peck, when he’s not fondling his niece’s breasts, wants to teach her to “drive like a man.” Driving like a man is presented by Uncle Peck as driving with “confidence … aggression … always looking out for the other guy … Women tend to be polite—to hesitate.” While this is obviously problematic gender stereotyping, Li’l Bit becomes a skillful and adept driver under his tutelage. And when the play reaches its closing scene, Li’l Bit has gained perspective on what’s happened to her and is ready to move on—not to forget, nor even to forgive, but to take back control of her own world.
Vogel presents this by having Li’l Bit getting in her car, putting on the most “important control on the dashboard—the radio.” She tunes the radio, which initially plays snippets from her harrowing experiences growing up—including lines like, “How is Shakespeare gonna her help lie on her back,” something her grandfather asks earlier in the play—before finding the music that she loves. The change in music indicates her determination to move beyond the role that men have expected her to play. In the last line of the play, as the car’s engine takes off, Li’l Bit says, “And then—I floor it.” Though she cannot hope to erase the memories of what’s happened to her, she can decide to move on. Li’l Bit’s claiming of the car as her own space takes something back from the expectations placed upon her growing up. It shows her having agency over her world, with the bittersweet implication that it is only in subverting the “male” act of driving that she can find a sense of freedom. Vogel therefore shows the difficulty of escaping gender roles, and the need for them to be broken down—even in small acts of reclamation like this one.
Gender and Misogyny ThemeTracker
Gender and Misogyny Quotes in How I Learned to Drive
MALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Grandfather.) How is Shakespeare going to help her lie on her back in the dark? (Li’l Bit is on her feet.)
LI’L BIT. You’re getting old. Big Papa. You are going to die —v ery very soon. Maybe even tonight. And when you get to heaven, God’s going to be a beautiful black woman in a long white robe. She’s gonna look at your chart and say: Uh-oh. Fornication. Dog-ugly mean with blood relatives. Oh. Uh-oh. Voted for George Wallace. Well, one last chance: If you can name the play, all will be forgiven. And then she’ll quote: “The quality of mercy is not strained." Your answer? Oh, too bad — Merchant of Venice: Act IV, Scene iii. And then she’ll send your ass to fry in hell with all the other crackers. Excuse me, please.
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. (As Grandmother.) Your grandfather only cares that I do two things: have the table set and the bed turned down.
LI’L BIT. 1967. In a parking lot of the Beltsville Agricultural Farms. The Initiation into a Boy's First Love.
PECK. (With a soft look on his face.) Of course, my favorite car will always be the ’56 Bel Air Sports Coupe. Chevy sold more ’55s, but the ’56! — a V-8 with Corvette option, 225 horse power; went from zero to sixty miles per hour in 8.9 seconds.
LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) Long after a mother's tits, but before a woman’s breasts:
PECK. Super-Turbo-Fire! What a Power Pack — mechanical lifters, twin four-barrel carbs, lightweight valves, dual exhausts —
LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) After the milk but before the beer:
PECK. A specific intake manifold, higher-lift camshaft, and the tightest squeeze Chevy had ever made —
LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) Long after he's squeezed down the birth canal but before he’s pushed his way back in: The boy falls in love with the thing that bears his weight with speed.
PECK. So if you’re going to drive with me, I want you to take this very seriously.
LI’L BIT. I will, Uncle Peck. I want you to teach me to drive.
PECK. Good. You’re going to pass your test on the first try. Perfect score. Before the next four weeks are over, you’re going to know this baby inside and out. Treat her with respect.
LI’L BIT. Why is it a “she?”
PECK. Good question. It doesn't have to be a “she” — but when you close your eyes and think of someone who responds to your touch — someone who performs just for you and gives you what you ask for—I guess I always see a “she.” You can call her what you like.
LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) I closed my eyes — and decided not to change the gender.
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. You know, you should take it as a compliment that the guys want to watch you jiggle. They’re guys. That’s what they’re supposed to do.
LI’L BIT. I guess you’re right. But sometimes I feel like these alien life forces, these two mounds of flesh have grafted the selves onto my chest, and they’re using me until they can “propagate” and take over the world and they’ll just keep growing, with a mind of their own until I collapse under their weight and they suck all the nourishment out of my body and I finally just waste away while they get bigger and bigger and — (Li’l Bit’s classmates are just staring at her in disbelief.)
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. — You are the strangest girl I have ever met. (Li’l Bit’s trying to joke but feels on the verge of tears.)
LI’L BIT. Or maybe someone’s implanted radio transmitters in my chest at a frequency I can’t hear, that girls can’t detect, but they’re sending out these signals to men who get mesmerized, like sirens, calling them to dash themselves on these “rocks” —
PECK. For a thirteen year old, you have a body a twenty-year-old woman would die for.
LI’L BIT. The boys in school don’t think so.
PECK. The boys in school are little Neanderthals in short pants. You’re ten years ahead of them in maturity; it’s gonna take a while for them to catch up. (Peck clicks another shot; we see a faint smile on Li’l Bit on the screen.)
Girls turn into women long before boys turn into men.
PECK. Well, Li’l Bit — let me explain it this way. There are some people who have a... a “fire” in the belly. I think they go to work on Wall Street or they run for office. And then there are people who have a “fire” in their heads — and they become writers or scientists or historians. (He smiles a little at
her.) You. You’ve got a “fire” in the head. And then there are people like me.
LI’L BIT. Where do you have... a fire?
PECK. I have a fire in my heart. And sometimes the drinking helps.
LI’L BIT. There’s got to be other things that can help.
PECK. I suppose there are.
LI’L BIT. Does it help — to talk to me?
PECK. Yes. It does. (Quiet.) I don’t get to see you very much.
LI’L BIT. Uncle Peck — I’ve been thinking a lot about this — and I came here tonight to tell you that — I’m not doing very well. I’m getting very confused — I can’t concentrate on my work — and now that I’m away — I’ve been going over and over it in my mind — and I don’t want us to “see” each other anymore. Other than with the rest of the family.
PECK. (Quiet.) Are you seeing other men?
LI’L BIT. (Getting agitated.) I — no, that’s not the reason — I — well, yes, I am seeing other — listen, it’s not really any body’s business!
PECK. Are you in love with anyone else?
LI’L BIT. That’s not what this is about.
PECK. Li’l Bit. Listen. Listen. Open your eyes and look at me. Come on. Just open your eyes, honey. (Li’l Bit, eyes squeezed shut, refuses.) All right then. I just want you to listen. Li’l Bit — I’m going to ask you just this once. Of your own free will. Just lie down on the bed with me — our clothes on — just lie down with me, a man and a woman... and let’s... hold one another. Nothing else. Before you say anything else. I want the chance to... hold you. Because sometimes the body knows things that the mind isn’t listening to... and after I’ve held you, then I want you to tell me what you feel.
LI'L BIT. You’ll just... hold me?
PECK. Yes. And then you can tell me what you’re feeling. (Li’l Bit — half wanting to run, half wanting to get it over with, half wanting to be held by him.)
LI’L BIT. Yes. All right. Just hold. Nothing else.
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) I am not letting an eleven-year-old girl spend seven hours alone in the car with a man... I don’t like the way your uncle looks at you.
LI’L BIT. For god’s sake, mother! Just because you’ve gone through a bad time with my father — you think every man is evil!
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) Oh no, Li’l Bit not all men... We... we just haven’t been very lucky with the men in our family.
LI’L BIT. Just because you lost your husband — I still deserve a chance at having a father! Someone! A man who will look out for me! Don’t I get a chance?
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) I will feel terrible if something happens.
LI’L BIT. Mother! It’s in your head! Nothing will happen! I can take care of myself. And I can certainly handle Uncle Peck.
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) All right. But I’m warning you — if anything happens, I hold you responsible.
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Am I doing it right?
PECK. That’s right. Now, whatever you do, don’t let go of the wheel. You tell me whether to go faster or slower —
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Not so fast, Uncle Peck!
PECK. Li’l Bit — I need you to watch the road — (Peck puts his hands on Li’l Bit’s breasts. She relaxes against him, silent, accepting his touch.)
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Uncle Peck — what are you doing?
PECK. Keep driving. (He slips his hands under her blouse.)
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Uncle Peck — please don’t do this —
PECK. —Just a moment longer... (Peck tenses against Li’l Bit.)
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. (Trying not to cry.) This isn’t happening. (Peck tenses more, sharply. He buries his face in Li’l Bit’s neck, and moans softly.)