The biggest motorcycle event in the world,
Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Florida, is a contemporary social mechanism
for venting psychic energy. Examining its antecedents and character
reveals a uniquely American ploy for mediating the stresses of modern
civilization, one inspired by the outlaw biker counterculture, popularized
by the media, and, as a direct reflection of the times, successfully
commercialized for popular consumption. The decadent and nihilistic
flavor of Bike Week coupled with its enormous popularity suggests
that the burden of modern life is becoming ever more oppressive.
New Years celebrations, Mardi Gras, and
Bike Week are well-known examples of popular festivals that temporarily
relax public order and allow participants to indulge in otherwise
discouraged or forbidden activities. These rites of reversal share
several features: they are performed in special places that remove
participants from the banalities of daily life; they temporarily
free revelers from the customary restraints and hierarchies of society;
and because everyone is doing the same things, the atmosphere, while
sometimes volatile, gives participants the confidence to act out
aberrant behaviors (Nachbar and Lause 378).
In terms of creating an atmosphere for unrestrained
revelry, Daytona Beachs Bike Week probably surpasses all other
reversal rituals in the world today. From its relatively modest
beginnings sixty years ago as a weekend affair for motorcycle race
fans, it has become ever larger and more elaborate, and ever more
difficult to control. Today, it is a massive, ten-day, outlaw fantasy
of hedonistic rebellion representing a new chapter in the long history
of reversal rituals.
The Origin of Reversal Rituals
One of the first recorded instances of something
approximating a reversal ritual, over 3500 years ago, were the festivals
of Osiris in ancient Egypt. In the sixth century BC, Athens sponsored
the raucous celebrations honoring Dionysus, festivals filled with
feasts, processions, wild dancing, wine-drinking competitions, and
ritual obscenity (Boardman 264). During the Roman Empire, reversal
rituals like the Bacchanalia, Liberalia, and Saturnalia allowed
patricians, plebeians, and slaves, alike, to abandon the constraints
of civilized society so completely that the affairs reached levels
of civil disorder and licentiousness that are probably still unparalleled
(Durant, Caesar 66).
Rites of reversal continued to be popular in
medieval Europe. The Festival of the Fools included a blasphemous
mock Mass, and The Festival of the Ass recollected pagan fertility
feasts (Durant, Faith 841). The medieval Catholic church
found it impossible to eliminate such events and ultimately was
forced to integrate them into church activity (Cohen xxiii). Mardi
Gras celebrations now associated with the Christian Lent, for example,
have their origins in ancient pagan rites celebrating fertility
and the onset of spring ("Carnival" 931). And just like
those of antiquity, medieval revels (from the Old French reveler,
to rebel) were difficult to manage. In 1263, for instance, decrees
were issued aimed at curbing what was perceived to be the relentless
moral decline of the Venetian carnival (Feil). In the twenty-first
century, the pattern persists as public revels continue to test
The long and vexatious history of reversal
rituals suggests that the psychological needs that such events satisfy
are profound. Sigmund Freud understood why: it may have been easy
for the barbarian to be healthy; for the civilized man, the task
is a hard one (Outline 85). In Civilization and Its Discontents,
he argued that civilization exacts a heavy psychic toll on humans
by suppressing their narcissistic and aggressive instincts (30).
With its emphasis on rationalism and secularism, modern civilization
is especially repressive; and to maintain social stability, various
mechanisms are required to vent or at least blunt repressed needs.
Without cathartic opportunities, societies will spontaneously erupt
in widespread antisocial behavior or, if draconian social controls
are enacted, slowly burn down to a smoldering malaise (Civilization
99). Some of the mechanisms Freud describes in Civilization and
Its Discontents for keeping aggressive instincts in check include
voluntary isolation (27), aesthetic pleasure (29), and religion
(32). Other strategies he observed are destructive such as nationalism,
bigotry, and war (73); and some are problematic such as intoxicants
(28). The reversal ritual, a relatively benign substitute satisfaction,
uses fantasy as a psychic palliative (23). Anthropologists generally
agree with Freuds analysis: public festivals that condone
or celebrate antisocial behaviors are beneficial for maintaining
social stability (Gluckman 109).
A Modern Reversal Ritual
While Bike Week is similar to reversal rituals
of old, it is different in the details. It is, for instance, strictly
of this world; there are no recognized supernatural or pagan antecedents.
And whereas other reversal rituals are based on themes drawn from
other cultures or the distant past, Bike Week is unusual in that
the dominant themes are derived from popular
culture, specifically from Hollywoods fanciful vision of the
outlaw biker. It is different from other revels, too, in that participants
are predominantly male and, in the last decade, primarily middle-aged
and middle-class. 1 And, as a reflection
of the times, it is a highly consumption-oriented affair. The most
obvious feature of Bike Week, however, is that it emanates from,
is inspired by, and revolves around a mechanical gizmo.
Raw, loud, dangerous, and supremely phallic
, the motorcycle could easily become the central motif for a modern
American reversal ritual. 2 Americans have
historically embraced technology, and their relationship with the
motorcycle is particularly interesting. As one of the last great
inventions of the industrial age, it may well have become the primary
mode of transportation had it not lost out to automobiles when it
became more expensive than the Model T. From that point forward,
the machine became increasingly viewed as impractical, little more
than technological fluff, and a dangerous form of entertainment.
For these very reasons, however, the potent emotional thrills evoked
by the motorcycle have transformed it over the years into a ubiquitous
icon of popular culture, a fetish for some, symbolizing values associated
with power, freedom, escape, high fashion—and rebellion.
Outlaw Biker Style
Rebellion is one of the defining
themes of Bike Week, manifesting itself most obviously in the outlaw
biker style. The motorcycles association with rebellion and
lawlessness is a relatively recent one, dating to the July 4th weekend
in 1947 when four thousand-motorcycle riders rioted in the small
town of Hollister, California (Polhemus 48). In the 1960s, outlaw
motorcycle gangs, generally composed of males alienated from the
white working class, gained national notoriety, primarily as a result
of the violent antics of the California Hells Angels. By the 1970s,
motorcycle gangs were viewed as a significant threat to public order
The motorcycle was far more than
transportation for these gangs. A widely circulated police report
from the time confessed that it was impossible to understand the
near mystical bond between a biker and his chopper ("Dangerous"
16). Easier to understand, however, was the outlaw bikers
basic philosophy summarized by FTW. (These letters were
often seen on club members clothing and mean F—- the
World.) FTW, the report continued, is their motto and is the
arrogant attitude by which this subculture attains its goals and
objectives. . . . They dont want to be like the normal citizen
or dress like them. This is why they have created their own dress
code which is filthy, repulsive, and often offensive (14).
While the filthy costume and outrageous
demeanor of the outlaw biker were calculated to shock and disgust
citizens, the report noted that it also gave him a powerful sexual
Strangely enough, an unlimited number of good-looking females,
it seems, are attracted to the macho image . . . to a life which
seems as exciting as a roller coaster ride, fast motorcycles,
macho men, drugs, alcohol, parties, guns, topless bars, and any-way-you-want-it
The menacing sexuality, penchant for violence,
and in-your-face rebellion that outlaw motorcycle gangs exhibited
was irresistible to the media, and outlaw bikers made for sensational
reportage. In his best-selling Hells Angels (1966), for example,
Hunter S. Thompson wrote that they command a fascination,
however reluctant, that borders on psychic masturbation (262),
and Tom Wolfs still popular Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
(1968) provided yet another lurid but fascinating image of the
outlaw biker counterculture.
Hollywood cashed in on the phenomenon by launching
a new genre, the biker film. In one of the first, Hollywoods
version of events in Hollister, was László Benedeks
The Wild One (1954). In it, Marlon Brando (Johnny) helped
to create the outlaw-biker image when he played a brooding, nihilistic
biker in black leather. While his gang terrorizes a small town,
he attracts the attention of a respectable girl who is irresistibly
drawn to the outlaw biker persona. The success of the film spawned
dozens more like it such as Wild Angels, Born Losers,
Cycle Savages, and Easy Rider.
Freud speculated that criminals intrigue us,
at least in books and films, because they can freely pursue predatory
impulses without guilt (Narcissism 19). Thats why we
are fascinated by Hollywoods gunfighters, mobsters, rogue
cops, Hannibal Lectors—and outlaw bikers. The Hollywood image of
the outlaw biker—the chopper-riding savage, the threatening figure
in black leather and chains, oozing danger and sexual power—was
a heady, intoxicating fantasy, one that captured the imagination
of the public and undoubtedly influenced the character of the outlaw
clubs themselves. Motorcycling would never be the same, nor would
the modern American reversal ritual.
Commercializing Outlaw Biker Fashion
In a stroke of marketing genius, Willy Davidson,
of Harley-Davidson, is credited for mainstreaming the outlaw biker
image when he borrowed styling cues from the stripped-down choppers
preferred by motorcycle gangs (Yates 134). In the last fifteen years,
the outlaw biker image has been the dominant fashion model for motorcycling,
and the trappings of the outlaw biker counterculture have been bowdlerized
and co-opted by otherwise respectable motorcyclists. In the last
fifteen years, coincidently, interest in motorcycles has grown dramatically
with double-digit sales increases for nearly every manufacturer.
Every marketing angle is now being explored
to tap into the outlaw biker fantasy. The Hells Angels themselves
are marketing Big Red, their own brand of custom motorcycles, and
replicas of the choppers ridden in Easy Rider sell for more than
twenty-five thousand dollars. Motorcycle advertising frequently
encourages readers to abandon social conformity and celebrate the
suppressed barbarian. An advertisement for mufflers, for instance,
incorporates the image of a leather-clad, tattoo-covered biker emerging
from under a three-piece suit and the line, Inside every good
guy theres a real bad ass. Other advertisements encourage
bikers to Raise some hell or pose the question Who
cares where you are going? or remind the reader that Youve
got the attitude or inspire him to Take the Low Road.
A Harley-Davidson motorcycle advertisement tells readers, Thats
not Silicone, Friend, and no one has been more aggressive
than Harley-Davidson in capitalizing on outlaw biker chic. One can
even order a nihilistic factory paint scheme featuring grinning
skulls. The company licenses beer, dolls, cloths, bed sheets, dishes,
knives, watches, and shoes; even Christmas decorations now sport
the black-and-orange Harley logo.
Derived from a genuine outlaw counterculture,
popularized by the media, and mainstreamed by market forces, the
outlaw biker fantasy is now a billion-dollar idea. And the phenomenal
appeal of this anti-establishment, rebellious fantasy to an otherwise
law-abiding middle-class clearly reflects an urge to escape the
onerous constraints of modern civilization. Its a fantasy
that, for a price, hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists can act
out every spring at Bike Week.
Bike Week: A Ride-Hard, Die-Free Fantasy
Pilgrims from around the world come to Bike
Week, the largest gathering of believers on the planet. The size
of the event is unprecedented, colossal—600,000 in 2000—and every
motel, hotel, condo, campground, and fish camp within fifty miles
is booked solid. Parking lots everywhere overflow
with motorcycles. This revel boasts the most people, the most arrests,
the most dead (fifteen in 2000), and the most alcohol consumed.
As with other rites of reversal past and present, some form of intoxicant
that reduces inhibitions is crucial. 3 Imagine
this: Boot Hill Saloon during any ten-day period might sell two
hundred cases of beer. During Bike Week 1999, that number was 8,300
cases (Truett 2). Along with a tolerance for public drunkenness,
local prohibitions regarding decency, modesty, and safety are relaxed
in favor of an FTW-style fantasy.
It is no surprise that festivals that nullify
public order have always been just barely tolerated by their hosts,
and Bike Week is no exception. Horrified residents,
law enforcement, and emergency services brace themselves for the
March invasion. (The Halifax County Hospital, for example, prohibits
time off during the event.) Deadly Week, shouts the
11 March 2000 Daytona News-Journal with a two-inch headline,
The Bloodiest on Record. 4 Alarmed
editorialists write about noise, traffic, drunkenness, nudity, and
criminal behaviorall of which, they argue, seems to slip closer
and closer to total anarchy with each passing year. Boobs,
bellies, and beards, one grumbles, [we cant] sleep
through the night without being awakened by a piercing blast
(Hasterok 4). And, in fact, for ten days the rumble of motorcycles
goes on twenty-four hours a day as the biker crowd jams the town
to the breaking point. Near the beach, traffic is often gridlocked,
while along Main Street, the concentrated core of the event, crowds
stand elbow to elbow to gawk at the endless, thundering parade of
thousands and thousands of motorcycles of every conceivable color
and every conceivable decorative motif, including flames, cartoon
characters, animals, nudes, sorcerers, dragons, and death heads.
Anonymity helps to facilitate an atmosphere
in which norms can be abandoned, so for reversal rituals there is
usually some form of costume that cancels or blurs social distinctions.
For Bike Week, the prominent costume accessory, commonly associated
with the outlaw biker, is black leather. Black leather boots, pants,
chaps, jackets, hats, belts, bras, and vests are ubiquitous. (The
color black, incidentally, represents the absence of light and has
archetypic associations with evil and wickedness.) While the few
participants who are actual motorcycle gang membersthe fashion
aristocracy herewear their colors, most of the Bike Week leather
merely mimics the outlaw biker costume by sporting advertisements
for a particular brand of motorcycle and perhaps decorated further
with patches and pins available at bars and shops. 5
T-shirts, usually black, often sport skulls, snakes, saloons, vulgar
messages, or manufacturers logos. Silver jewelry, large and
numerous rings, bracelets, wallet chains, and boot chains are de
rigueur for communicating the sexy and menacing outlaw biker style.
The central icon of the event and the requisite
accessory, of course, is the motorcycle. The mystical relationship
that the biker has with his motorcycle, the one that baffled police
in the 1970s report, is readily apparent during Bike Week. Most
of the motorcycle owners, for example, have replaced quiet exhaust
systems with louder, often earsplitting, after-market pipes. Bikers
argue that being loud saves lives, but it is also conveniently exhibitionistic,
the power of additional decibels enhancing the phallic power the
machine embodies. Beyond the satisfaction of thundering from one
partying venue to another on a motorcycle, there are biking events
everywhere: club reunions, brand get-togethers, contests for best
American bikes, British, or Italian, best customs, biggest, smallest,
oldest, and rattiest.
As the focal point of the Bike Week hell-bent,
lead-and-leather fantasy, the motorcycle is also the centerpiece
of daring exploits and destructive celebrations. A common sight
is bikers roaring out of parking lots or, less common, doing wheelies
on their 600-pound machines. There are also the popular Wall of
Death daredevils, like Rhett Rotten, who ride without hands twenty-feet
high on the rim of a huge wooden barrel to grab dollar bills from
the crowd. Racing at the International Speedway culminates with
the Daytona 200 where motorcycles rocket around the banked track
at 200 mph. There are the ceremonial bike drops where
Jap rice burners are violently smashed and torched before
huge cheering crowds (who imagine theyre participating in
a patriotic rally). In the burnout pits, particularly bold or intoxicated
bikers rev their motorcycles through the gears, filling the air
with acrid, black smoke as they burn off the rear tire, the cheers
of the crowd lost in the earsplitting staccato from the red-hot
Fueling all this drunken revelry are the most
famous biker honky-tonks in the world: Boot Hill Saloon, Iron Horse
Saloon, Dirty Harrys, Last Resort, and the Cabbage Patch—and
there are a dozen other less well known biker hangouts throughout
the county. Mostly empty during the year, they are jammed for Bike
Week; and every day and late into the bonfire-illuminated nights,
there are free rock-and-roll concerts featuring twenty-five-year-old
music that can take outlaw baby boomers back to their
Reversal rituals have always included a strong
sexual focus. Bike Week is no exception. In fact, it is probably
the most sexually charged public revel now in existence. As noted,
the motorcycle itself is powerfully phallic and certainly one explanation
for the machines profound allure and the unusually raucous
character of Bike Week. Recall, too, that the police report quoted
above claimed that the biker image seemed mysteriously to enhance
a mans sexual appeal.
It is the relatively few women of Bike Week
who provide a focus for the display of ostentatious machismo; and,
not surprisingly, the competitions for women are designed to objectify
and celebrate female sexuality. There are Miss Budweiser, Miss Jim
Beam, and Miss Bike Week contests. Nearly naked women compete in
pudding, creamed corn, and cole slaw wrestling events that are witnessed
by thousands. No other reversal ritual features biggest breasts,
best breasts, wet t-shirt contests, best ass, hottest buns, best
topless dancing contests, best popsicle or pickle licking, best
banana eating, longest tongue, and nude beauty contests. In these
salacious spectacles, enthusiastic women are cheered and ogled by
appreciative crowds of mostly middle-aged men, who no doubt relish
the opportunity for fantasies of sexual prowess and license.
Bike Week gluttony manifests itself nearly
everywhere, and for this modern carnival one must pay a high price
to flaunt propriety. The fact is, as a reflection of our consumer
culture, Bike Week is enormously materialistic. No other rite of
reversal requires so many accessories. As a result of a wildly successful
marketing ploy, the motorcycle of choice is the Harley-Davidson,
which new runs anywhere from $15 to $25,000. Not surprisingly, Bike
Week is an orgy of spending, a whopping $320 million in 1999 (Miller
4), and hundreds of itinerant vendors sell every conceivable carnival
accessory. At what other event could Camel Cigarettes merchandise
lighters, cigarettes, and, of course, boot shines by buxom women?
The most popular foods of Bike Week also reflect
the intemperate nature of the affair. Where else are four-pound
steaks, three-pound pork chops, smoked turkey legs, and huge fried
sausages smothered in onions so common? Such fare is washed down
with thousands and thousands of gallons of beer, often peddled by
bikini-clad women who pull cold cans from ice-filled garbage pails.
(These positions, incidentally, are prized because the women typically
earn more than $2000 in tips.)
Bike Week and Burgeoning Discontentment
Having fun is serious business, and in the
last fifteen years of the current boom in motorcycling, evidence
of the popularity of the outlaw biker fantasy is readily apparent.
Bike Week is not the only motorcycle rally that is exploding in
size. Other established rallies like the seventy-six-year-old Laconia
rally in New Hampshire and the Black Hills Classic in Sturgis, North
Dakota, are growing ever larger while new venues for the biker-focused
rite of reversal are springing up all over the country. Arizona
now has its own Bike Week, and there is the new, huge Laughlin,
Nevada, carnival and the Myrtle Beach revel in South Carolina. Like
Daytonas Bike Week, all feature drinking and feasting, boisterous
crowds, loud motorcycles, and the requisite symbols of outlawry,
hedonism, and nihilism.
Demographers looking at the size and constitution
of the Bike Week crowd might conclude that interest in such affairs
is faddish, that it is but another symptom of a relatively affluent
baby-boom generations uncomfortable transition
to mid-life. And trends analysts predict that the decade-long motorcycle
fad has just about run its course (Indicators). Theres
some truth to both conclusions, and no doubt the size of the event
may erode. 6 However, the source of Bike
Weeks popularity is more complex and resonates more deeply
than a mid-life crisis, and unless the motorcycle, as some predict,
is simply outlawed as too dangerous for modern society, the event
and others like it will continue to thrive.
Freud said there are three sources of human
suffering: the superiority of nature, the inherent weaknesses of
the body, and the failure of institutions that regulate human relationships
(Civilization 37). Of the latter, he made it clear that civilization
will never work well, and its failures are largely responsible for
human misery. Males, particularly, chaff at civilizations
demands for social conformity, and they must find or create outlets
for satisfying repressed needs.
During Bike Week, the imagery and ritual of
subversion and nihilism abound creating a context for acting out
a ride-hard, die-free fantasy. For ten days, participants are allowed
to show the world what they think of themselves and the world around
them, and for many this means assuming, to one degree or another,
the exaggerated masculinity of the peacock male in
one of its most outrageous contemporary manifestations—the outlaw
biker. For all of its sound and fury, however, the flaunting of
anti-establishment attitudes during Bike Week is primarily symbolic
fantasy, and with each passing year a growing burden of
tradition continues to formalize the affair.
Just as other reversal rituals, then, Bike Week is narcissistic
theater, a uniquely modern and American version of an experience
that is apparently as old as civilization itself. Accordingly, when
it is over, most of the 600,000 outlaws must again suppress
antisocial inclinations and return to lives of middle-class conformity
and respectability. 7
Still, if Freud is right, then as our society
becomes more crowded and complex, more competitive and controlled,
the inevitable result will be even higher levels of frustration
and psychic suffering. Such pressure will manifest itself as a fascination
with forbidden things that will become more extreme, and acts of
hedonistic rebellion will become more frequent. No doubt this is
true because not just the size and number of motorcycle-focused
revels are increasing. Twenty years ago, before interest in Bike
Week skyrocketed, anthropologists observed that popular festivals
relaxing public order and established standards of decency were
flourishing throughout the world while more and more were being
created (Manning x). And if the Bike Week-style revel is any indication,
reversal rituals are becoming longer, more decadent, more difficult
to control, and more lucrative. Such realities suggest that the
oppressive burden of modern life is taking its toll and that an
FTW sentiment runs deep.
1. Of the 5.7 million motorcycle
owners nationally, about 60 percent are between the ages of 37 and
64 with nearly half earning more than $50,000 a year and 25 percent
above $75,000 a year (Fost).
2. In Interpretation of Dreams,
Freud wrote that it is highly probable all complicated machinery
and apparatus occurring in dreams stand for the genitals (and, as
a rule, male ones) (391). Straddling loud, complicated machinery,
then, has unmistakable phallic authority.
3. Freud rightly concluded that
as a tool for curbing aggression, intoxicants have held an especially
important place among civilizations: "The service rendered
by intoxicating media in the struggle for happiness and in keeping
misery at a distance is so highly prized as a benefit that individuals
and peoples alike have given them an established place in the economics
of their libido. We owe to such media not merely the immediate yield
of pleasure, but also a greatly desired degree of independence from
the external world" (Civilization 28).
4. Bike Week 2001, the 60th, was
a first in that in June 2000 the State of Florida repealed its mandatory
helmet law. In the past, Bike Week helmet requirements were usually
met with non-DOT approved novelty versions, and, as such, served
as little more than another fashion accessory. Replica Nazi helmets
were noticeable, as were helmets sporting spikes and Viking horns;
and most, if not all, sported stickers expressing FTW sentiments.
For Bike Week 2001, approximately one-third of motorcycle riders
wore helmets, and many of those were of the novelty sort. Six motorcyclists
were fatally injured during Bike Week 2001, ten in 2002.
5. For the motorcycle club member,
the leather vest or denim jacket that displays the club insignia
are his colors. (The Outlaws, for example, wear the
infamous red-eyed skull above crossed pistons.) These vests also
display other souvenirs of accomplishments, parallel in significance
to a soldiers medals and ribbons. Real bikers lament the faddish
popularity of their counterculture fashion: "And what about
what used to be the standard apparel? The plain black t-shirts,
the engineer boots, jeans with the little battery acid holes. Remember
them? Mostly all gone now. Each item replaced by its designer counterpart
to impart a carefree sense of tasteful rebellion. In essence, nothing
more than a costume that only gets put on to ride the bike. The
vest was a place to hang your experiences. These days that $170
vest is nothing more than free ad space for Harley-Davidson"
6. Right now Bike Week is primarily
a middle-aged male phenomenon. As participants grow older, they
will be less inclined to tolerate the discomforts associated with
riding a motorcycle. Younger motorcycle riders have shown little
interest in Bike Week because the black-leather, outlaw fantasy
is not part of their life experience; rather, it is a fantasy of
bygone days. Instead, they prefer the streamlined, high technology
of crotch rockets. In this version of the motorcycle-related
fantasy, speed and technical superiority are the measure of masculine
power. The demographic is indeed shifting. While baby boomers continue
to represent the largest market for motorcycles, manufactures are
beginning to target riders in their late twenties and early thirties,
which means moving away from products derived from the outlaw biker
style (Frederick 53).
7. True outlaw bikers are not
the kind of crowd that the bourgeoisie want to associate with. The
fact is, that even within the context of Bike Week, fantasy outlaw
bikers would be afraid or embarrassed to be seen with true desperados.
Hardcore bikers are alternately amused, puzzled, or annoyed by the
Bike Week phenomenon: "Harleys have become a toy for every
yuppie rub [rich urban biker] jerk off out there. They get to play
'Biker' without havin a clue what its really all about.
A half million people at Bike Week and maybe fifty thousand bikers
at best. Like the t-shirt says, 'You used to hate us, now you want
to be us.' I just hope theres some of us around when theyre
gone" (Frog 38).
click here to return to your place
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