In Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a teenage girl named Star leaves behind a troubled home life to join a group of kids who travel across the Midwest selling magazines. This film sets out to tell the story of adolescent camaraderie on the road; it ends up an important contribution to road narratives that does justice to female sexuality in a way rarely seen before.
In the beginning of the film, Star and two children stand on the side of the road sticking out their thumbs for passing cars. When no one will pick them up, Star yells in exasperation, “Are we invisible?” If women and children are seen as in need of help at any locus of society, that perceived helplessness is amplified when one is a woman or a child (both, in Star’s case) on the road. The vulnerability of women on the road is a reality that renders people like Star invisible to passersby.
In an article in The American Reader, Vanessa Vaselka, a writer who spent years of her teenage life hitchhiking, argues that passersby are scared: scared of the young women they see on the road and what could happen to them. Passersby don’t want to be complicit in the violence they see as inevitable for women on the road, so instead they look away. But while Star’s sex and sexuality make her vulnerable to violence, her sexuality acts as a form of power and agency which she uses, at times, to get what she wants.
Rolling Stone, among other publications, classifies American Honey as a road movie. A road movie is a genre of film that typically centers on a protagonist traveling across America in search of something, with a sort of “Go West, Young Man” mentality — but American Honey defies this classification in two major ways: it has a female protagonist in Star, and from the beginning, viewers don’t know what Star is searching for — we only know what she’s running from: a sexually abusive stepfather and a life that seems lacking in any opportunity. An academic discussing the phenomena of female road moves (namely, Ridley Scott’s 1991 film, Thelma and Louise) writes:
“Just as historically a gender division of roles led women to depend on men for survival, women in films have also depended on men’s control of the narrative. This identification of gender with the active/passive dichotomy became a stock feature in classical films where men portrayed dynamic characters in constant evolution, while women remained static spectators of male action-makers,”
-“Thelma and Louise”: ‘Easy Riders’ in a Male Genre by Carmen Eraso
American Honey’s reversal of the static-woman-role is the reason it succeeds as a new kind of female road narrative. American Honey’s two main characters are female: Krystal and Star. The male lead, Jake, is top salesman and basically “Krystal’s bitch” as one crew member puts it. Jake is only important insofar as the ways in which he plays off of the two female leads — we don’t follow Star as she follows Jake, we watch as Star seeks out what she wants (sexual fulfillment and intimacy with Jake and money to realize her dreams). Star is anything but static. Eraso argues that there are two recurring representations of women in road movies, one of them being the temptress who provides a stark contrast to the virtuousness of the male lead (Eraso, 64). In American Honey, the traditional role of temptress goes to LaBeouf’s character, Jake. He entices Star to join the gang by teasing her about having a crush on him. He kisses Star first, in their initial meeting in the parking lot outside of Kmart, and in doing so, Jake establishes their relationship as a physical one with very few boundaries. It is the physicality and sexual energy between Star and Jake that drives the plot of the film — audiences are kept on their toes, waiting for the underlying sexual chemistry to be consummated.
The first time Star and Jake have sex, Star is the initiator: she is on top of Jake, in control, the force that drives the sexual experience for both of them. Throughout the scene, Jake looks up toward her, gasping for kisses, reaching out to touch her. In this still from the film, we see Star looking down at Jake as if she’s conquered him. Jake looks enchanted, hazy, in a kind of blissful awe of Star’s presence. In this encounter, Star’s sexuality is entirely her own, and she indulges in sex (initiating sex and deciding when Jake can climax) because she wants to. Later, during another sexual encounter, Star momentarily stops Jake and takes out a bloody tampon, throwing it in the grass. This moment is one that perfectly exemplifies the truthfulness of the female sexuality shown in this film — it isn’t clean and it isn’t perfect, it isn’t pristine. Nothing is shameful. In light of this depiction of sexual freedom, I as a viewer feel that Star’s sexuality does justice to real-life female sexuality in a way I haven’t seen in many other films that attempt to portray young women and the intricacies of their sexual lives.
The fact that Star is female gives her an advantage on the road because it disarms the people she meets. The benevolent trucker, the three older men in Cowboy hats, and the oil worker who pick her up likely wouldn’t do so if she weren’t an attractive young woman whom they felt they had power over. It is her sexuality that pulls Jake into her as a person, that he wants control over, and that makes him want to protect her.
It is a complicated dichotomy: Star is at risk because of her gender and sexuality, and she is protected from harm because of her gender and sexuality. At times Jake’s feelings for Star turn almost violent: namely, when she comes home from prostituting herself in order to make enough money to run away with Jake. Jake corners her, asking “Did you fuck him?” over and over again. He pleads, “Just tell me.” He pushes her against a wall and tells her not to move. At the same time, he is crying — his need to control her as a sexual being, for her to be only his, is strong enough to take over his entire being. He appears to check if she is wearing her underwear. When she says, “What do you care? You fuck Krystal anyway,” Jake concludes that Star had sex with the man. Jake throws a tantrum and drives off on his motorcycle into the night. Though it makes Jake angry, Star’s decision to engage in a sexual act with the oil worker for money is a decision she should be (and is) free to make. However, by showing Jake lashing out at Star, the film chooses to punish her for this prostitution. This is the only instance in the film where viewers see Star shamed for something she does sexually.
I argue that Star’s sexuality in American Honey is radical because it’s real — and rampant, and unapologetic. Her sex, sexuality and decisions are what makes Star a dangerous woman. She does what she wants to do with her sexuality and doesn’t question herself. She is confident in her ability to protect herself. What struck me the most about Star is the power that emanates from her, partly due to her sexuality and the power she derives from it. When she walks the highways, truck stops and foreign neighborhoods, she doesn’t seem afraid — rather, she instills fear and fascination because she is a woman unafraid.
Anna Lee is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.