A few years ago, I went to a Take Back the Night rally and experienced the joy of walking down a street after dark without feeling afraid. I’ve come to understand how that sounds weird to some men, but almost every woman I know, including me, has at least one story about trying to walk from point A to point B after sundown and being harassed by a stranger. Even in cases where the stranger didn’t do anything violent, we had no way of knowing whether or not he would. It’s not a good sign when someone starts chasing you and won’t back off when you tell him to leave you alone. It makes you scared, and it makes you angry. It makes you think, “Why don’t I have the right to walk two blocks in peace, without having to worry that you’re going to rape me or kill me?”
The Ovarian Psycos is a cycling club for women of color in East Lost Angeles that’s a lot like Take Back the Night. Its purpose is to build a sense of community between local women, but also to draw attention to the fact that women aren’t safe unless they travel in packs. The club hosts several different events, but the ones that get the most attention are the ones where women meet to ride through LA streets at night.
A new documentary from Kate Trumbull-LaValle and Johanna Sokolowski follows the club during a transition in leadership, when one of the founders, Xela, abruptly drops out. Although focus is split between three club members, Xela is arguably the principle character, and the filmmakers spend time uncovering her back story and motivations for starting the club. We learn that she experienced violence and abuse growing up, and felt alone with no one to confide in except a mother who rejected her feelings. Xela wants her daughter to feel like she’s part of a community, with other women in her life who she can turn to, so she started to Ovas, but it seems like engaging with violence against women on a regular basis stirs up memories that are, at times, overwhelming.
The other two members profiled in the film are Andi, who steps up as leader after Xela drops out, and Evie, a new recruit whose mother disapproves of her joining a bike club. Each of them struggles separately with how to make their families understand why this is important and how to make a difference in the community.
As events play out, it’s interesting to watch the internal dynamics of the club – the meetings where they make decisions about recruitment strategies and events are extremely democratic and sometimes emotionally charged – and the filmmakers do a good job of capturing the hard-to-articulate truth that we need to support and protect each other, and that being able to move freely through the streets is a right that’s been stolen from us.
Ovarian Psycos is structured so that we learn about the purpose and mission of the club before finding out how people on the street react to it, and it’s a little disappointing to learn that the group gets slammed with hateful, ignorant comments on a regular basis. The filmmakers interview a handful of people outside the club, some of whom are completely okay with a bike club for women of color, but they also find one man who works at a bike shop and manages to whitesplain why their club shouldn’t exist (it’s discrimination and not actually in the tradition of the Chicano movement). This is later challenged by a scene where Xela concisely explains intersectionality and how, as a woman of color, it’s hard to find a place in either white feminist or patriarchal Chicano contexts. And, while I’m bummed out that I wouldn’t be able to join this club, I can’t really argue with her logic about why it needs to exist.
What’s frustrating, as ever, is the realization that some people have been able to live their whole lives without realizing that this is a problem. Either because they’ve always been able to walk from point A to point B, or because they’re used to the idea that men attack women like jackals whenever they find us alone. That isn’t a mindset that’s helping anyone – it reduces men to predatory animals and implies that there’s no way to make gender-based violence stop – but it’s the mindset you find whenever someone says, “Why do you need a bike club for women at all?”
Ovarian Psycos answers the question of why you need a bike club for women, and specifically, in East LA, why you need a bike club for women of color. One of the less-explored, but very interesting aspects of the club is that Xela and some of the other members seem to have a desire to reconnect with pre-colonial indigenous Mexican traditions. I’ll confess my own ignorance and say that it never occurred to me that would be an important part of Latinx identity, but it makes complete sense, and I would happily watch another documentary just about that.
All together, the film captures something true and beautiful about the power of grassroots organizing, and the idea that regular people can band together and try to create change. The frustration of being misunderstood and misrepresented in media is part of the package, but there is a real sense that these women have found something meaningful in this club and formed strong connections. They have the opportunity to be leaders, and it’s an opportunity that they created for themselves out of virtually nothing.
There are still people who’ll say, “How is riding your bike at night supposed to do anything for women’s rights?” but it does a lot if it reminds you what it feels like to be free, and how far we have to go before we get there.