Girlhood 101 teaches that venturing out alone is “asking for it.” But Fern—the protagonist of Chloé Zhao’s acclaimed new film Nomadland—crisscrossing the West as she migrates from job to job, suggests otherwise. Drawing the curtains of her van, she sleeps soundly, threatened only by the dreaded knock: “No overnight parking.” We see her alone in dimly lit workplaces, scraping crud off a restaurant griddle, in a hard hat shoveling beets. She’s the lone tourist admiring a miniature Mt. Rushmore, the only one yelling from a mountaintop and floating naked down a river. Across five states, Fern travels on her own through spaces humble and sublime, occupied and empty, walled in and wide open. Again and again, the film returns to shots of this venturesome woman alone at all hours, yet never once do we see her fearing or fending off assault. To our surprise, the attack conventionally dictated by this narrative never comes.
Subverting our expectations, Nomadland also takes the classic road movie and blows it apart. Unlike that tradition’s cowboys, outlaws, bohemians, and bikers, Zhao’s protagonist doesn’t flee domestic life so much as reinvent it. She firmly denies being homeless: “I’m just houseless. Not the same thing.” Domesticating a van requires, if anything, more creative and concerted attention to homemaking.1 Fern proudly explains to Linda May how she rigged up storage under her bed and, for her best dishes, repurposed her husband’s fishing box. In a scene unimaginable between male road warriors, Zhao gives us roving, working-class women bonding over talk of counter space and china patterns.
Nomadland swept this year’s Academy Awards, winning Best Picture and Best Director, while Frances McDormand took Best Actress. Yet despite this acclaim and numerous glowing reviews, there was also backlash. The gist of the complaint was Zhao’s failure, following scenes shot in an actual Amazon fulfillment center, to lean into a critique of exploitative labor practices. Instead, naysayers argued, the film dodged issues of structural inequality, reinforced truisms about freedom of choice, evoked romantic myths of the American West, and distracted us from the evils of capitalism with the upbeat story of a quirky individual.2
Much as I agree with the rebuke to capitalist crimes informing such views, I have a very different take on Zhao’s project. While the movie does depict an aging, seasonal labor force at the mercy of corporate America, dire economic conditions are the context rather than purport of its story. Far from relying on clichés about freedom under a Dakotan sky, Nomadland features a figure more often pitied or ignored: a middle-aged woman wandering about on her own.
My admiration for this film has everything to do with the fact (oddly unremarked by the doubters) that its nomadic perspective is female. Epitomizing this is an overlooked scene occurring less than three minutes in. From a long shot of Fern’s van heading off into a vast wilderness, Zhao (who did her own editing) cuts to a close-up of Fern looking self-conscious. We hear the sound of urine hitting grass. Cut to a long shot of Fern off to the side of the frame, a small figure with her pants down in a bleak landscape. We see her shake, zip up, and walk-run back to her van over snow-strewn ground. Before she gets there, cut to the title card—white lettering on black—while the crunch of footsteps continues up through the opening and slamming of a metal door. Affixing the title to a woman peeing on the side of the road, Zhao telegraphs from the start that this is not your typical nomad and that Nomadland is not the manly American West mythologized elsewhere.
Iconic road movies from The Searchers (1956) to Easy Rider (1969), framed in opposition to a feminized domestic sphere, not only neglect women but actually require their absence. Other well-known movies in this tradition—Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Natural Born Killers (1994), for example—grant female characters a road story only as part of a hetero couple. In 1991, Thelma & Louise famously broke the mold by putting two renegade women behind the wheel of a turquoise convertible; European directors had already given the genre a feminist spin with Messidor (1979) and Sans Toit Ni Loi (1985).3
Yet while all three of these works challenge social as well as cinematic norms, they also offer what amount to cautionary tales. In each case, women who wander meet tragic fates at the end of stories involving rape and other threats of male violence.
By contrast, Nomadland casually debunks this and other myths about women on their own: that they’re hopeless with tools and need men to fix stuff; that a woman without kids or a mate is a pathetic loser who cries herself to sleep at night. When Fern has a flat and appeals to Swankie, the irascible pirate of a woman has four words for her: “Well, go change it!” Fern’s confession that she doesn’t have a spare earns a lecture from her superbly self-sufficient friend: “You’re out in the boondocks and you don’t have a spare? You can die out here. … You have to be able to change your own tire!”
“Nomadland” is a study in the nomadic everyday, with its cyclical rhythms and quotidian concerns.
The female nomad is equally able to meet her own emotional needs. Christmas is not only when Amazon kicks around seniors but also when Fern sings carols to herself as she drives. For her own private New Year’s party, she dons a tiara without a shred of self-pity. Early on, we’re mildly surprised that she doesn’t adopt an abandoned dog. Don’t lonely women crave a furry companion? By the end, however, when Fern turns down the nicest of suitors, we’re able to see her departure as neither tragedy nor triumph—just the choice of a complicated woman who prefers her own unsettled ways. Here, too, Zhao swerves from the more readily available narrative.
The scene of Fern rushing over to shit in a bucket has struck a nerve with more than one reviewer. I am guessing it would merit less comment if the character were male. The bucket-commode had been touted by a woman at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, telling an audience of novice nomads, “You gotta learn how to take care of your own shit!” As I’ve suggested, this general message speaks especially to women homesteading on the road. In more literal terms, it’s further evidence of Zhao’s commitment to showing us women’s bodies as they are, as women live in them day to day, whether shoveling, floating, singing, folding, or having a bout of diarrhea.
As opposed to an adrenalized quest plot, Nomadland is a study in the nomadic everyday, with its cyclical rhythms and quotidian concerns. In keeping with the film’s domestic preoccupations, I count four scenes set in laundromats, one scene of Fern folding clean underwear, and a memorable reference to unwashed clothes. (Fern’s initial brush-off when Dave invites her to stay: “Thanks, I need to do laundry.”) Just like Fern’s regular underwear, these rhythms belong to an ordinary, not-young, unadorned, laboring woman’s body with its own wash-and-dry cycles of eating, sleeping, bathing, and eliminating.
I will conclude with a second urination scene, which occurs midway through the film. Fern and Linda May are “camp hosts,” doing the kind of underpaid or unpaid work that usually falls to women: providing for and cleaning up after others. The sequence begins with Fern swabbing a bathroom floor, then wiping something nasty into a toilet. Tackling a mirror, she turns to find a guy starting to enter. “No, we’re closed,” she tells him. Without a pause, as if she were both invisible and inaudible, he proceeds straight into the open stall and starts to pee. Fern registers this in disbelief and walks out.
It is a forceful illustration of how women’s bodies, voices, labor, and wishes can be and often are simply ignored—all the more so if they’re not pretty, ingratiating, or monied. Zhao’s film, with its discriminating portrait of a singular woman, is an inspiring antidote to this. Unfortunately, there are still some, distracted by Amazon, who manage not to see her.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- For more on domestic strategies in the context of insecure housing, see my discussion in Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins (Columbia University Press, 2017). ↩
- Examples include Richard Brody, “Nomadland, Reviewed: Chloé Zhao’s Nostalgic Portrait of Itinerant America,” New Yorker, February 19, 2021; Wilfred Chan, “What Nomadland Gets Wrong about Gig Labor,” Vulture, February 22, 2021; Alec MacGillis, “Op-Ed: Does Nomadland Reveal the Reality of Working for Amazon?,” LA Times, April 5, 2021; and Jack Hamilton, “The Case against Nomadland,” Slate, April 20, 2021. Most faulted Zhao’s feature film for what it is not: a documentary faithful to the nonfiction book on which it is based, Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (Norton, 2017). Bruder herself has produced a compelling short documentary version, CamperForce (2017); she was also a consulting producer on Zhao’s adaptation. ↩
- Messidor is directed by Alain Tanner, Sans Toit Ni Loi by Agnès Varda. For more on this genre, see Marsha Kinder, “Thelma & Louise and Messidor as Feminist Road Movies,” Film Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 2 (1991–92); The Road Movie Book, edited by Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (Routledge, 1997); and David Laderman, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (University of Texas Press, 2002). ↩