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How Hollywood Maligns Characters Who Don't Drive

In the world of Hollywood films, argues Slate's Tom Vanderbilt, those people who either don't or can't drive are portrayed as losers. He opens with a reference to Ben Stiller's turn as a depressed pedestrian in Noah Bombauch's Greenberg.

Greenberg is just the most recent film in which a character's non-automobility—whether for lack of a car or for lack of the ability to drive—is used for comic effect, whether as a metaphor for a deeper personality flaw or as a token of marginality and/or plain creepiness. As the humorist Art Buchwald once observed, "People are broad-minded. They'll accept the fact that a person can be an alcoholic, a dope fiend, a wife beater and even a newspaperman, but if a man doesn't drive, there's something wrong with him."


Not only are non-drivers maligned, but so are cyclists—be they "teen misfits" like Napoleon Dynamite or My So-Called Life's Brian Krakow, or "perpetual man-children" like Pee Wee Herman. Whereas driving is associated with agency, free will, and virility (see Clueless and the virginity/driving test leitmotif), walking and biking incur condescension at best and signify something sinister at worst—see Jackie Earle Haley's "R.J." in Little Children.

Vanderbilt never mentions the double-Corey (Haim and Feldmen) vehicle License to Drive, but in its premise we find perhaps the most literal depiction of the car-as-liberator: Resigned to the confines of a comically grimy school bus, Haim's Les Anderson believes the key to happiness (and to the heart of a young Heather Graham) is also the key to a car. So when he fails his driving exam, he's left with no choice but to lie to everyone in sight, steal his grandfather's car, and drive to their date—begetting a predictable tailspin of property damage and capriciousness against a backdrop of neon lights and hairspray. Multiple cars are destroyed, but in the end, it's Haim's work behind the wheel that saves the day—and gets him the girl. Neither his faith in the car, nor his desire to drive one, whatever the cost, is ever challenged.

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