A niche genre of movies showed me how
One of my absolute favorite movie genres is “kids-on-bikes.” It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and includes things like Super 8, Earth to Echo, the Goonies, Stranger Things, and Stand By Me. Kids-on-bikes movies are generally about a rag-tag group of kids in the 10-13 age range, set in the 90s and battling some kind of supernatural force.
Stand by Me doesn’t fit all these requirements, but it’s still definitely kids-on-bikes. The heart of the genre is that it’s about a group of kids taking on the world alone for the first time and having grand adventures right under grownups’ noses, but with limited resources available to grade schoolers. Hence, the bikes.
The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to this type of story, but I recently realized that it’s not just because I miss the carefree joy of childhood. These movies are typically about boys, and occasionally a girl or two will join the group but kids-on-bike movies that are about girl groups are almost impossible to come by. Paper Girls on Amazon Prime is the first and, so far, only iteration of the genre I’ve seen with all-female main characters. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that misogyny is something we are still battling against in media, and representation of women in countless roles is still lacking. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that there’s a reason it’s always boys on bikes.
Part of why I love this genre so much is because it portrays a childhood I never got to experience. The ability for characters to go places on their bikes is crucial to kids-on-bikes, and even though I had a bike and a rag-tag group of friends, I could never do that. When these fleets of middle school boys hit the road, they’re worried about the FBI agents trying to stop them or their parents finding out where they’ve gone. Sometimes they’re worried about serial killers or talking to strangers, but very rarely, and no one is saying “Whoa, that’s so unsafe, what if they get picked up by human traffickers?”
But when you see a bunch of unattended little girls out on the town, our immediate instinct is to worry about them being stalked by pedophiles and human traffickers. This is a perfectly valid concern and it sucks that this is something kids have to worry about, but this is just another instance in which the way that women are viewed socially robs us of our freedom.
Females are so hypersexualized that even a prepubescent paper girl is a sexual target. From the moment we can walk, we’re treated as sexual beings in a way that men just never are, with our shorter shorts and tighter shirts and cutesy slogans about our dads coming after our boyfriends with a gun – which, by the way, relies on the assumption that women are inevitably going to experience some kind of abuse or violence at the hands of their significant other.
Little boys are seen as little kids, but little girls are little girls. Unfortunately, these two things are very different. Women aren’t seen as people the way men are and little girls aren’t just kids. They’re the punchline of bad jokes about child predators and, despite all the progress we’ve made, still spend most of their time on the other side of the window.
Growing up, I watched my older brothers go places and do things that I had to wait an extra three years to be allowed to do because I needed to have taken a self-defense course first. My brothers or male friends would come with me to events that they had zero interest in just because having a male with me in public would make me safer, and even that wouldn’t work sometimes.
I was catcalled three separate times in a span of fifteen minutes when I was in high school, walking downtown with my older brother looking for a restaurant. Men asked him where he was going with such a pretty girl, and when he said he was my brother, they asked him instead of me if they could take me for a drink.
I love kids-on-bikes movies and this is in no way an indictment of the genre. It is, however, another example of the way in which society treats women like sexual objects before treating us like people. Art imitates life, and the objectification of women is so normalized that pedophilia has been normalized along with it. It’s absurd that little girls can’t play outside alone, and instead of working to prevent men from enacting abuse we focus on altering women’s behavior to keep them safe.
Super 8 is one of my favorite movies not only because it’s a cinematic masterpiece – come on, it’s Steven Spielberg – but also because when I watch that movie and slip into those characters’ heads, I get to escape for a second to a world I have never, ever known. Not the world where aliens land on Earth or portals open to the Upside-Down, but the world where the only thing stopping me from biking across town is mandatory school attendance.
The world where I’m just me: just Marie, a kid, who has never thought about rape because she doesn’t even know what sex is and she can only go so far away from home because her little legs can’t bike ten miles at once. The world seems like I am never going to live in, where I am a person and not a girl because for some reason those words mean different things.
I’ve been alive and conscious for twenty years, and never once have I been unaware that the simple fact of being born female made me a target. Sexual violence against children is less shocking and unthinkable in the public consciousness when it happens to little girls, and this causes immeasurable harm. By accepting the status quo and working to keep girls inside instead of men from hurting people, we are only sustaining the oppression women face. Little girls never get to be little kids, and we have got to stop letting it slide.