Popular culture casts an ugly shadow on anyone riding a bike for something other than a romantic roll by the beach. We paint bike commuters either as greasy rulebreakers or grown babies refusing more responsibility. The fact of the matter is that although only 0.6% of commuting is done by bike in the US, that covers a range of age, gender, and race. Cyclists are not a monolith.
In order to raise the profile of the humble bicycle as real mode of transportation again is a healthier image of the daily cyclist in popular culture. A down-to-earth, regular guy or gal that commands respect from others on the road and at the office is what we need. I’ll save my comments on the mighty automobile in popular culture for another post. Here are four stereotypes of cyclists in film and television.
1. The adolescent
This category is nothing more than Kids on Bikes. I’d say the bulk of humans riding bikes in film and television has riders under the age of 16 (conveniently the age at which most states grant a restricted driver’s license).
Whether riding to school, to the best friend’s sleepover, or around town with your pals for fun and hijinks, these scenes are typically pretty lighthearted. I would actually argue that this category shows bikes in the most favorable light. Rather than implying that the characters would accomplish these same tasks in a car if only they were older, the kids are shown having a great time together, or getting where they’re going more efficiently! My favorite cyclists to see on screen has got to be Kids on Bikes.
2. The grown adolescent
In stark contrast to Kids on Bikes, this stereotype is unfortunately pretty prominent in movies and TV. It’s almost implied that the grown adult using a bike was probably that same kid on a bike from before, they just never really wanted to “grow up” in one way or another.
Characters in this category can have a mix of histories that led to their need for their bike-reliance, from DUIs, bankrupcy, or arrested development. Usually the reason reflects negatively on them. Most images of adults on bikes in film and television seem to play a part in this stereotype. It is all too often implied that the character could be accomplishing the same task with a vehicle but for some life challenges or obstacles they have to overcome.
The few adult bike scenes or films out there that avoid this stereotype are niche, low-budget films made for bike fanatics and cyclists. This is where I encourage any film fans to push the Motion Picture Association, Screen Actors Guild, and whatever other relevant industry groups to show more adults on bikes that reflect on the diversity of cyclists in America today.
3. The old timer
You know this one…it’s that famous movie you watched that one time for film class where one of the lead characters rode a bike in that one scene. Such instances naturally fall into their own category because the automobile either didn’t exist yet, or wasn’t an option for that character’s socioeconomic position.
Much like with Kids on Bikes, in pre-1940s films the bicycle was a perfectly common, everyman’s way of getting around, so the characters don’t come off as grown adolescents. Aside from Elvira Gulch, they even seem to be happy about it!
4. The roadie
This one is probably less common than I’m thinking it is, but for whatever reason it sits prominently in my mind. I would generally describe this category as the mid-life crisis, “I’m gonna get super into road bikes” character, almost always male, that does their male bonding at a casual pace on a bike with thin tires. The stereotype comes complete with the elitism one might expect of an upper-middle class white urban or suburban professional.
In contrast to the ways bikes are portrayed in American popular culture, I would love to see more images showing what’s possible for bikes in American culture. People that actually use personal bikes for more than weekend rides or vacations don’t necessarily fit any of these stereotypes and they are vastly underrepresented in film and television, even considering the 0.6% statistic mentioned at the top. If we want to encourage cycling as a form of transportation, thereby improving health outcomes, reducing emissions from transportation, and keeping money in people’s pockets, the images of cycling in pop culture need a makeover. Here are some everyday commuters from across the world, interacting with one another and taking it all in during their own challenging, hectic lives: