I’m co-instructing a course on nineteenth-century literature and culture this term. This was my first crack at teaching Victorian literature, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed observing how students bring their own varied interests to their engagement with the texts. Recently, two students who had been researching nineteenth-century feminism introduced the class to the late-Victorian pseudo-pathology described as Bicycle Face. I love Victorian cultural oddities, so I immediately became obsessed with Bicycle Face.
What is Bicycle Face?
It wasn’t just an informal jab with which naysayers of the newfangled velocipedes put down its enthusiasts. Thanks to popular medical journalism, the term gained enough traction to warrant editorial commentary in multiple North American and British periodicals in the 1890s. Fun magazine even published a poem about it (“The ‘Bicycle Face’,” 9 Feb. 1897).
Crucially, popular journalism often presented Bicycle Face as a gendered issue. While men could and supposedly did suffer from Bicycle Face, it was more detrimental to women, just as cycling was generally more detrimental to women, for several reasons ranging from pseudo-medical (i.e. cycling speeds aging, deforms the skeletal structure, shatters the nerves) to socio-cultural (a woman whose face has been made haggard by cycling is distressing to behold). Anxiety about degeneration was a prominent characteristic of late Victorian culture, and popularized medical journalism drew on social evolutionist discourse to suggest that women might pass on cycling’s damaging effects to their children. Late-Victorian journalism such as the Fun poem used bicycle face to warn readers that cycling irrevocably damaged the physical attributes essential to a woman’s ornamental value, and potentially threatened the future of the British race. Such arguments fuelled the backlash against women’s rights movements and increasingly popular, “unfeminine” behaviours such as post-secondary education, smoking, and wearing sensible clothing.
I was quite taken with the whole notion of Bicycle Face—not only because it memorably and hilariously exemplifies anti-feminist rhetoric in popular pseudo-medical journalism, but because Bicycle Face and the gender politics that surround it are still relevant to cycling culture and, more generally, to attitudes about aggressive women’s bodies in public space.
Once upon a time, as a broke barista (participating in a long line of highly educated and underemployed coffee brewers of the West Coast), I learned to love commuting by bike. Victoria, BC is a relatively quiet place to learn to ride with traffic and, for those of us who don’t drive, get accustomed to the rules and etiquette of the road. I relocated from idyllic Victoria to Toronto, Canada’s metropole, to complete a PhD. As I prepared for the move, I was told that I probably shouldn’t plan to continue to use cycling as my primary form of transit in Toronto. Friends warned that Toronto drivers are unhinged, driven mad by endless traffic jams and construction delays; cabbies dart between lanes like deep sea predators, thrusting out passenger doors instead of spiked tentacles. And then there are the streetcar tracks: long, unforgiving grooves in the asphalt, perfectly wide enough to catch bicycle wheels and toss Toronto cyclists over their handlebars. Almost every cycling human I have met in Toronto has been caught in the streetcar tracks at least once. It’s a rite of passage here.
I bike in Toronto, and I love it. I have come to appreciate, biking in Toronto, why cycling was a feminist act in the late nineteenth century—and why it still is. Alice Meynell, a prominent Victorian journalist and women’s rights advocate, wrote a meditation on the feminism of cycling called “A Woman in Grey” (1896). This short piece is not so much a story as a snapshot of a woman cycling down Oxford Street in London. This woman in grey takes courage in the tenuous equilibrium between life and death, that balances delicately in the movement of the “omibuses and carriages, cabs and carts,” that clatter up and down the street (178). Of the woman in grey herself, Meynell writes:
[S]he had seated herself upon a place of detachment between earth and air, freed from the principal detentions, weights and embarrassments of the usual life of fear. She had made herself, as it were, light, so as not to dwell either in security or danger, but to pass between them. She confessed difficulty and peril by her delicate evasions, and consented to rest in either. She would not owe her safety to the mere motionlessness of a seat on the solid earth, but she used gravitation to balance the slight burdens of her wariness and her confidence. She put aside all the pride and vanity of terror, and leapt into an unsure condition of liberty and content. (“A Woman in Grey,” in Women Who Did, ed. A. Richardson, p. 180)
The challenges that the woman in grey must face, the obstacles human, animal, mechanical, and architectural, are familiar to all city cyclists. The mental agility and physical stamina that the woman in grey musters—indeed, that she exults in—are also familiar. City cycling brings one to a sharp edge of consciousness that demands the coordination of mind and body in rapid and efficient movement. This wonderful effort yields bicycle face.
Bicycle face is the outward manifestation of all that intense concentration. Is it still distressing, in the twenty-first century, to look upon a bicycle-faced woman? Sadly, yes, for some. As Erin Wunker points out in the introduction to her recent book, Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, many people (mostly male) expect women to look pleasing in public. Such individuals will go as far as to confront women who do not look pleasing in public with the specific intent to make them conform to this expectation (9-10). Fortunately, a woman on a bicycle can speedily rebuff such a confrontation.
The issue was never really bicycle face, though. In the pseudo-medical journalistic discourse, bicycle face was a synecdoche for the female body moving aggressively through public space. This was far more threatening to patriarchal street culture than a mere grimace. This was Nasty Womanhood propelling herself through the world on wheels. Knickerbockers, the epitome of rational dress and a necessity for female cyclists, were the bifurcated harbingers of the pantsuit favoured by the Democratic contender in the recent American presidential election, Hillary Clinton.
It seems odd to compare what I playfully describe as “passing the patriarchy”—i.e. passing a slow male cyclist who has cut me off on the (probably) gendered assumption that I am not a speed maniac—to Clinton’s intellectual and physical engagement in the televised election debates. However, both female cyclists and female presidential candidates must marshal a sharpened consciousness to negotiate dynamic, competitive, and sometimes hostile public spaces. In a genealogy of anti-feminist rhetoric, Bicycle Face is the ancestor of “nasty woman”—perhaps the most memorable insult that Donald Trump hastily tossed at Clinton as he sought to maintain patriarchal superiority over an assertive woman in a public space.