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Talking to Cheryl Strayed About Why Wild Works


Stashed in: Women, @oprah, Stories, Late Bloomers, Poverty, XX, Extraordinary People, @rwitherspoon

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By the author's own judgment, this is the single best profile of her yet written.

The profile is very upfront about the fact that America is still uncomfortable with self-reliant women.

We have a name for what Strayed experienced: the American Dream. With living-wage jobs declining and class stratification increasing, that dream is ever more elusive, but Strayed is among those who achieved it. Through hard work, higher education, and very little in the way of outside help, she raised herself out of poverty and into the middle class. Eventually, of course, she rose even higher, into the kind of glamour — text messages from Oprah — that even the American Dream can only dream of. But it is the basic bootstrapping from poverty to self-sufficiency that we observe in Wild, and that helps make its story so automatically appealing.

I don’t mean to suggest that Wild is fundamentally a rags-to-riches tale. It is not. But the book succeeded in part because of the way it fits into the prevailing stories we tell about three things: about class, about women, and about suffering. Those stories are not separable, of course. The American Dream, for instance, is a fantasy of self-reliance, but our culture is iffy on self-reliant women.

The way Wild handles that problem became most clear to me while watching the movie version. When Witherspoon first approached Strayed about making it, “she used really strong language,” Strayed says. “I took notes. She said, ‘I promise you I will get this movie made quickly, and I will protect you, and I will honor you, and I will make this a film that we are all proud of, and I will not turn you into some dumbass chick on the trail complaining about her muffin top.’”

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