In the 1968 film Girl on a Motorcycle, recently featured in a Vintagent Quarantine Cinema list, Marianne Faithfull rises from the bed she shares with her husband. She walks naked to a closet where she pulls out a black leather catsuit and effortlessly slips into it. (I would have put a moka pot on the stove knowing I had to wrestle a big Harley out of the garage in the wee hours.)  She then quietly pushes her motorcycle into the street so she doesn’t wake her husband, before starting it up and roaring off into the early morning light.

Marianne Faithfull as Rebecca in the 1968 film Girl on a Motorcycle, based on the novel La Motociclette by Andre Peyre de Mandiargues. [Vintagent Archive]
In a 2011 Chanel advertisement, Keira Knightley stretches across the tank of a buff-colored Ducati 750 Sport café racer, wearing a matching buff suede catsuit and Ruby helmet, and rides through mostly empty Parisian streets to a modeling shoot.  Along the way, she encounters three men in perfectly fitted black suits on matching black Ducatis and pulls away from them at a stop light. She then descends marble steps, presumably to take a shortcut, before arriving in a palace courtyard. (Since it must have been very early in this case, too, I would have used the extra time to stop for a café crème – the French version of a cappuccino). The photographer is so taken with Knightley’s riding outfit that he has her pose in it rather than in the flowy white gown that has been pulled for her. [Karl Lagerfeld made the catsuit for Keira to match the color of her Ruby helmet, then had the vintage Ducati painted to match! – ed.]
Keira Knightley in a 2010 campaign for Chanel. Note the trailer, and the stunt double rider in a matching suit (a woman!). [Internet]
Alluring leather-clad ladies on motorbikes are hardly a novelty in popular culture, but Faithfull and Knightley’s characters are a representation of woman riders that, in my estimation, runs counter to our ideas in the United States and Europe. In the US, the pervasive image of the woman on two wheels is a Harley-Davidson rider, but she doesn’t much resemble director Jack Cardiff’s fantasy.  She is more likely seen as tough, loud and large if she rides her own bike or as diminutive and scantily clad if she’s on the back of her man’s ride. (How many times have I heard in the US, “But you don’t look like a motorcyclist”?)  Women on motorbikes in Europe, by contrast, are less stereotyped by mainstream media, since they make up a larger segment of the riding population. Nevertheless “serious” motorcyclists are usually imagined as men. (When buying riding gear in Europe, salespeople regularly ask what kind of scooter I ride and change their expression when I respond “a Ducati Monster”.)

Screen capture from the Honda booth at Roma Motodays. [@RomaMotodaysOfficial]
Before the world locked down, I attended the Roma Motodays Show in Italy, and was dismayed (but not surprised) to see the common use of female models used to sell motorbikes. I asked a couple of the lovely ladies-in-lycra what they rode; at the Honda booth one told me she would not ride motorcycles because they are dangerous! The women working the BMW booth were also attractive but were actual motorcyclists wearing light gear, as were their male counterparts. At that moment, I reached the conclusion that it’s fine if sexy people market motorcycles, especially if the bikes, too, are sexy. But, I was less comfortable with a nicely-shaped leg being used to guide an onlookers eye to the bike, if that same leg knew nothing about the motorcycle.

The real deal. An utterly charming Anke Eve Goldmann in 1956 aboard the second BMW R69 built, in the one-piece racing suit she designed and had Harro make with a diagonal zipper to make egress easier. Anke Eve was friends with Andre Peyre de Mandiargues, who based his character of Rebecca in his novel La Motociclette on AEG. In turn, her racing suit was transformed into a catsuit for Marianne Faithfull in Girl on a Motorcycle. And thus the real woman, with a fascinating story of struggles against gender bias, was transformed into a sex-obsessed, self-destructive erotic cliché. [Vintagent Archive]
It’s not a secret that Grand Prix star Bill Ivy was Faithfull’s riding double, nor that Knightley has never piloted a Ducati. So why am I willing to forgive their simulated skills on a motorcycle? Is it the outfits?  My wish list definitely includes an espresso-colored leather catsuit, if I ever lay my hands on a matching Ducati café racer.  Perhaps these actresses are playing out my personal fantasy that women can be confident, elegant, and capable while riding their own gorgeous machine, without having to answer dumb questions.

The Petrolettes is the first all-women’s motorcycle event in Europe, organized by Irene Kotnik and her amazing team. [Kate Disher Quill]
Updated representations of women who ride motorcycles are finally emerging, in part because of women’s self-representation in social media. It’s also true that an abundance of women on motorcycles on social media stress sex over skill, whether their images are uploaded by themselves or by men.  Of course, “manly men on motorcycles” is also a cliché gendering of the biker persona.  It’s encouraging that a growing number of motorcyclist who depart from typical role models are gaining a following. Whether with the Litas, Babes Ride Out, Petrolettes, or VC London, women riders are creating new visions of what they ride, what they look like, and how they define their relationships with men. Women’s motorcycle clubs have been around a long time; one of the oldest is the Motor Maids, established in 1940. What’s new is women riders can now control their public image, daily. Eventually (hopefully), by such efforts the image of a woman rider will become more nuanced and inclusive.  Granted there is still an enormous divide between the realities of the motorcycling and what lives in the popular imagination, for men and women riders.  And, interestingly, I do not see many women and men riding together in groups, either. It therefore remains to be seen how social media will change moto-imagery in ways traditional media have not.  Maybe one day, when I’m snug in an espresso catsuit on my café racer, I will be answering intelligent questions at my early morning café stop.

Girl power! And awesome moment from the Babes Ride Out all-woman motorcycle weekend. [Lindsay Lohden]



Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann’s current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.
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