Historically, in American culture, the narrative of “the quest” is masculine; even in the present, it’s difficult to find heroic female explorers for inspiration or guidance. The few anomalies, whether historical figures such as Amelia Earhart or fictional characters like Zira, the female scientist in Planet of the Apes, are explorers who didn’t survive to tell their stories. In contemporary American culture, exploration continues to be portrayed, for the most part, as treacherous, if not fatal, for women.
Since the first European settlers landed on the continent, visual representations of landscape (created by men) have played a significant role in the characterizations of the “American subject” and the American identity. The American landscape has always been the well-documented territory of men—including Henry David Thoreau, Lewis and Clark, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, among others. Historically, men have been the progenitors in the genre of landscape art as well.
In her research on depictions of domestic life in fiction written during the mid-nineteenth century, feminist literary critic Annette Kolodny found that, with few exceptions, the nineteenth-century female space was perceived as a domestic one, centered on the home and the garden. Women did not venture out alone into the open landscape and, for the most part, generally appeared in public only once it became defined as “social space”—a town, for instance.
Kolodny writes about a Wisconsin farmer in 1869 who recalls his arrival there thirty years before: “The country was all open and free to roam over.” But it was the men who did the roaming. “We could roam and fish or hunt as we pleased, amid the freshness and beauties of nature.” He continues, “With our wives, though, it was different. From all these bright, and to us fascinating scenes and pastimes, they were excluded. They were shut up with the children in log cabins.”
Other than the aforementioned celebrated example of Amelia Earhart, heroic female explorers are only just beginning to become visible in American culture. One recent figure worth noting is sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the main character of the blockbuster science fiction series The Hunger Games and the extremely popular movies based on the books.
A self-sufficient heroine who must struggle for survival, Katniss does not fit the archetype of the heroic explorer of the frontier utopia. Rather, she is a heroic survivor who roams a dystopic, post-apocalyptic wilderness. However, Katniss remains a lonely figure, not just in her own story but also in American culture.
As the American public slowly begins to let go of outdated mythologies—among them the fantasy of man’s mastery over nature—there is the space, as well as the need, to make new cultural meaning. The female artists in The New Explorers offer fresh perspectives that demonstrate there is still an abundance of opportunity for discovery in twenty-first-century landscapes.