Essays · Movies

Mother Truckers: The Badass Big Rig Driving Women of Cinema

In praise of the cinematic lady trucker: From Furiosa to Jill from ‘Brazil’, why badass women driving badass trucks are pioneers of your new favorite trope.
Mad Max Fury Road
By  · Published on July 31st, 2017

Female truckers in film come in all genres and creeds; some favor the post-apocalypse, others dystopia, and others still—Nevada. As a trope, they most explicitly share mechanical and vehicular prowess, a tough no-nonsense attitude, and of course—their very own big rig.

If I had to nail one defining trait down it’s this: female cinematic truckers suffer from a ferocious will; from an instinct to grab life by the steering wheel and tell their adversaries to get fucked. This is Jill punting Sam out of the passenger seat in Brazil; this is Flatbed Annie swigging beer in canvas overalls without a care in the world in Lady Truckers. These women vibrate with a determination to live freely; to do whatever it takes to safeguard that freedom and to pursue it relentlessly.

There is very little of the romantic cowboy isolationism in this. More accurately, there’s probably some truth to the comparison between female truckers and female pirates; that for their conviction to resonate so immediately and so loudly, they had to commandeer a traditionally masculine vehicle and re-purpose it for themselves. But there is a great and fearsome power to this and it attracts unwanted enemies. 

I know nothing about actual trucking or actual female truckers. I live under about fourteen different rocks that each have their own streaming subscriptions. All to say: my observations about how female truckers are presented cinematically may not reflect the real world. After all, the character of the cinematic female trucker is a fantasy: an emerging flavor of female badass who materializes the way she wants to move through the world with a massive hulking truck.

In the spirit of Atomic Blonde’s release, I can think of no better place to start than with Charlize Theron herself.

Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

When 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road roared into theaters and raised the shiny and chrome bar for the action genre, audiences were surprised to see the Raggedy Man take a back seat. Rather, (as the subtitle suggests) the narrative weight fell to Furiosa, a fierce and appropriately furious woman determined to protect the last hopeful thing in the wasteland and to estrange Immortan Joe’s face from his skull. From cog in a war machine to vengeance-seeking turncoat; Furiosa’s drive fuels the entire film. Pun absofuckinglutely intended.

Fury Road’s operatic Apocalypse down under has long forgotten the creature comforts of paved roads and canned dog food. Welcome to the future, there’s no water but we glued skulls on everything! Least of all ornate death trucks. Which brings us to Furiosa’s round trip ticket out of Fascist Town: the Tatra T815 aka the War Rig aka 2000 horsepower of nitro-boosted war machine.

Furiosa is entrusted with the War Rig because she has proven her loyalty to Joe. And she handles the weaponized freight train with the capability that made her Imperator—with the command and skill that allowed her to survive when her physical disability presumably precluded her from sexual servitude to Immortan “I like my women unscratched” Joe. When Furiosa deviates the convoy from the supply run, the War Boys accept their new orders. Furiosa is a venerated, respected commander. She has probably done terrible things in Joe’s name. In this way, the War Rig is both a symbol of Furiosa’s past sins and her redemption; proof of the trust she earned serving Joe and a literal vessel of her defiance.

The War Rig and Furiosa are hell-bent forces of resistance that will fuck your day up if you get in their way. Yet for all their imposing grit they are also protectors: resilient shepherds for what might be the last hope of a dying world. We’ll ignore that part where a comically brittle desert tree supports the rig’s weight because if Mad Max were realistic everyone would be deliriously dehydrated and that dust storm would have sandpaper’d Hardy’s skin off.

Jill in Brazil (1985)

Jill’s tanker in Brazil is a monster: a heap of unwelcoming metal as guarded and inaccessible as its driver. Our hapless protagonist Sam encounters the rig for the first time while rushing through the urchin-infested alleyway in search of the love of his life. Jill’s the spitting image of the beautiful, distressed girl who always needs saving in his dreams. In reality, she blows past him in her honking metal behemoth, unable and definitely unwilling to hear his pleas that she stop so he can confess his love to her.

Soon enough Jill is apprehended by the authorities under suspicion of terrorism. Sam ecstatically swoops in, dragging an extremely reluctant Jill away from arrest along the sidewalk. Because Sam is terrible at everything Jill escapes and makes off in her rig. Alone at last. Flanked by cigarettes, “TRUCKING” magazine, and the absence of men projecting their savior complexes onto her. But psyche! Sam has leeched himself onto Jill’s life like a tweed-wearing lamprey and made his way into the sanctity of her rig.

“Get out of my cab” commands Jill. “You touched me…nobody touches me.” Sam will continue to touch her and her rig which gets him literally booted out of the moving truck, prompting Jill to light a congratulatory cigarette. In my head canon, Sam doesn’t survive the fall and from this point on the rest of Brazil is a fleeting pre-mortem fantasy. There’s no other explanation for his successful wooing of Jill. None at all. He’s a menace and invaded her privacy.

Look Sam’s right, they are both in terrible danger—it’s just that he’s chosen to win over the Girl Of His Dreams with the cringe-worthy line “look I’m sorry about…touching you without permission…I’ve been dreaming about you…I love you.” Sam honey you are out of your league she’s got a dyke haircut and a leather jacket get out of her truck and her life. Had Sam restrained himself from living out his hero fantasy at that roadblock things might have gone differently for both of them. Instead, he wormed his way into the private, guarded space she carved out for herself and demanded she give his life meaning. *throwing up noises*

Joanie in The Incredible Hulk Season 1, Episode 9 (1978)

The late 70’s/early 80’s were the sweet spot for trucker-related media. A glorious golden age full of fare like Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy, Breaker! Breaker!, and Duel. And, lest we forget: that one episode of The Incredible Hulk that ripped off Duel because Universal was cheap and recycled the footage. Shockingly, Spielberg wasn’t honored to have Lou Ferrigno Forrest Gump his directorial debut.

The episode in question is called “Never Give a Trucker an Even Break” after the W.C. Fields’ film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break because those two audiences overlap. Hitchhiking as he is wont to do David meets Joanie, a young, troublesome blonde eager for vengeance against the smugglers who wronged her father and her truck. If anything Joanie’s got brass for picking up a male hitchhiker during that part of history where you couldn’t throw a brick without hitting a serial killer. Not that she’s playing her own “kill you if I get the chance” cards that close to her chest.

Joanie’s whole gum-chewing deal is about as classic and campy as the episode’s gloriously bad rear-projection. When she rams her recovered rig into a line of parked cars we’re led to believe (no thanks to Banner’s mugging) that it’s a “women can’t drive” gag. Not so: “damn it” snarls Joanie, “I missed one.” Even the smugglers concede that Joanie, eyes sparkling with justice and adorably dwarfed by the massive wheel “can really drive that rig.” A fact Spielberg’s re-contextualized action sequences hammer home. Her glee as she hits 80mph, running the smugglers off the road, is everything. It’s all Banner can do to watch on in horror. It’s her big rig, and she’s having a damn good time defending it from the creeps who underestimated her.

Because Joanie is smooth as fuck and knows what she wants and how to get it she convinces Banner to postpone skipping town and go to lunch with her—heavily implying that lunch isn’t the only thing on the menu. In the place of the infamous Lonely Man theme, a disco version plays which shall hitherto be known as the “Hulk Smash” theme.  Also, it ends with a banjo riff because fuck you of course it does.

p.s. While this doesn’t exactly have to do with badass lady truckers I’d be remiss not to inform you that at one point, Banner Hulks out because he’s short coins for a payphone (shouting: “I don’t have twenty-five cents!”).

p.p.s. I realize this The Incredible Hulk was a T.V. show which undermines the title of this article. BUT given that Duel was given a limited cinematic release and this episode is almost entirely Duel I’m giving it a very unfair pass.

Flatbed Annie and Sweetiepie in Flatbed Annie & Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers (1979)

Flatbed Annie & Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers was brought into this world by the madman Robert Greenwald, the maverick behind the likes of The Burning Bed and Xanadu. Surprising no one Lady Truckers isn’t exactly an Oscar contender—even though it’s chock-full of fun folks like Annie Potts (Ghostbusters), Kim Darby (True Grit), and character actors Fred Willard and Harry Dean Stanton. It even features the one (and only?) acting performance of Jimmy Carter’s beer-guzzling brother Billy!

Despite being mostly lifeless and certifiably dull what Lady Truckers has to offer is conceptual purity. This is a film about truckers with hearts of gold protecting their way of life from predatory money-grubbers. That’s some long-haul fiction as clean-cut as the cocaine our heroines are unwittingly harboring. And yes, our protagonists are lady truckers (*airhorn noises*). Who, the trailer reminds us: “can out-truck, out-wit, and out-run any other rig and any other pig on the road.”

Sweetiepie (Darby) and the foul-tempered tomboy trucker Flatbed Annie (Potts) are two feisty ladies who take to trucking in order to thwart an annoyingly persistent repo man from snatching one of their husband’s big rigs. The breadwinner is down for the count, but they’re not about to sit idly by and let this bureaucratic vulture take what’s theirs. By skirting convention and driving the big rig, they’re defending it.

Out on the road, the two develop an enduringly mismatched camaraderie; a difference that quickly finds common ground in the dignity of completing Sweetiepie’s injured husband’s runs and thwarting the yodeling repo man. Together, the pair swig beer, taunt adversaries, and most importantly [guitar strum] survive.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.