“There is no way we can repay you for returning our Iris to us. We thought we had lost her, but now our lives are full again.”

—Burt Steensma to Travis Bickel in Paul Schrader’s “Taxi Driver,” 1976

Iris Steensma is “at best 14 or 15,” described in Paul Schrader’s script as a schizzy pallid-faced “hippie hooker” who has run away from her home in Pittsburgh—her parents “hate” her—only to end up on the streets of New York City, in the hands of her pimp, Sport, played by an appropriately wolfish Harvey Keitel. The star of the film is, of course, not Iris, but Robert DeNiro’s 26-year-old eponymous taxi driver, Travis Bickel, and her story is subplot to his attempts to assassinate a senatorial candidate. Travis is a nice guy, but he’s desperately lonely, and “he has the smell of sex about him: Sick sex, repressed sex, lonely sex, but sex nonetheless. He is a raw male force, driving forward; toward what, one cannot tell. Then one looks closer and sees the evitable. The clock spring cannot be wound continually tighter. As the earth moves toward the sun, Travis Bickle moves toward violence.”[1]

His first encounter with Iris comes when she scrambles into his cab one night and asks him to get her out of there quick, but before he can get the meter started, Sport has reached into the back seat and pulled her away with him, tossing a twenty-dollar bill at Travis for his trouble. A few nights later, while out “walking” with a friend, Iris stumbles recklessly off the sidewalk and Travis’s cab almost hits her. She hammers on the fender with her fist and peers in through the windshield to yell at  him. He recognizes her from their earlier encounter and trolls along after her for a while as she and her friend stop first to chat with Sport—who stands shadowed in a doorway—and then pick up a pair of college-boy johns who have been lingering awkwardly and obviously on the corner.

The next night, Travis is back, and he’s waiting for Iris. He sits in his cab at the curb sipping peach brandy until she shows up, and then he approaches her. She directs him to Sport, still poised in the doorway where they negotiate a price of $20 for fifteen minutes, then leads him around the corner and up the stairs to her room, which “bears the individual touch of a young girl”—posters of Dylan, Jagger, and Peter Fonda, with Neil Young playing on the stereo. She lights a cigarette and sets it in an ashtray—”That cigarette burns out, your time is up.”—and begins to undress as he asks her to tell him about herself. Her name, she says, is Easy, as in “easy to remember,” as in  “Easy Lay.”

Travis is uncomfortable and fatherly in this scene. Iris is such a young girl and when she unbuttons her shirt, revealing what the script describes as “her small pathetic breasts—two young doves hiding from a winter wind,” he is angered and tells her he’s going to get her out of there. She doesn’t understand why he doesn’t want to “make it” with her, she offers to help him, tells him he can “come in my mouth” which puts him into a panic.

Seeing this, she puts an arm around him, comforts him, tells him it’s okay. He still wants to take her away, but she finds his patronizing stance amusing. She doesn’t want to leave, she has nowhere else to go, she doesn’t need his protection, she’s got Sport for that. The fifteen minutes is up. He wants to see her again, and she suggests they meet for breakfast in the morning. He tells her his name and she tells him hers. He repeats it. Smiles. “Sweet Iris.”

The big bad wolf and the good strong hunter have been deliberately confused here—both Travis and Sport (and later her father) are interested in taking care of Iris, keeping her safe from harm, but she wants nothing of it from anyone but Sport. She is not uncomfortable with her situation, she does not feel that she’s in danger, in fact she seems happy to be who she is and where she is. We put that down to her innocence. If only she knew how sordid her own life is, poor deluded girl.

That night Sport visits her in her room. She has been missing his attention. He comforts her, tells her how much he loves her and needs her and wishes he could spend more time with her, that she’s his special girl. Sport is a vain and romantic Lord Byron in his flowing clothes and long hair and silver rings, hip and jokey and sly. He’s a pimped up father figure, a bad boyfriend, a trickster, and a wolf all rolled into one attractive package that Iris has found it impossible to resist. He touches her, caresses her shoulders, her face, her hair, and he talks sexy to her, but instead of kissing, they dance, and as he cradles her head in his hand, he is holding her not like a woman, but like a little girl, not like a lover, but like a daughter, and she’s so much smaller than he is, so much younger and so innocent, in spite of her apparent experience, that we could imagine her standing on his feet the way a little girls does when she is dancing with her dad.

The next day Iris meets Travis for breakfast, and this is another girlish scene, where she builds herself a sugar sandwich—two pieces of white bread, toasted to cardboard and slathered with grape jelly, topped off with a liberal sprinkling of sugar—which she eats as she explains that she doesn’t want to go home. “Why do you want me to go back to my parents?” she asks, then tells him, “They hate me. Why do you think I split? There ain’t nothin there.” Travis argues, “But you can’t live like this. It’s hell. Girls should live at home.” To which Iris responds, playfully: “Didn’t you ever hear of women’s lib?” Travis ignores this. He goes on, “Young girls are supposed to dress up, go to school, play with boys, you know, that kinda stuff.”

But Iris doesn’t want to be a girl, she wants to be a woman, she wants to have some independence, and with all these men around trying to keep her safe, not from herself, but from them, what is missing is a mother to ask, What kind of breakfast is that for a girl, and what does she think she’s doing going out in public in those clothes? As we’ll see, the absent mother is an important part of the lost girl’s story.

Travis is the other father figure here, the good father, the hero dad, and like the hunter, he’s armed and dangerous. He’s failed at having a mature relationship with a grown up woman (Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy) and he’s failed at his attempt to make a name for himself by assassinating the senator, but saving Iris is something he can do, and so he becomes a public hero when he kills Sport in a spectacular bloodbath that gets Iris sent back home where she belongs.

At the end of the film Iris’s father reads a letter to Travis, in voiceover, thanking him for returning his little girl to him. Mr. Steenma’s voice is bumbling and unsure, he sounds plain, stupid, old, unglamorous, and unsexy as he explains that he can’t afford a trip to New York to thank Travis in person. He’s happy to report, though, that Iris is back in school and working hard, although it’s a difficult adjustment for her, “as you can imagine.” We wonder how she feels about it. Is she grateful? We try to see her in her modest school clothes, carrying her school books, studying in the library, going to the prom. Mr. Steenma adds that he’s taken steps to see that she never has cause to run away again, and we try to imagine what those steps might be. Has he locked her in her room? Grounded her for life? How will she adapt? Now that she’s been with the wolf, can Easy Iris ever get back the girlhood that she’s lost?

The suggestion is that Iris is more knowledgeable and open about sex than Travis, and that’s why Sport is the real wolf, because in a way Travis is more innocent and naïve even than she is. In the one sex scene between them she is the one who, to his embarrassment and alarm, is the seducer. She’s the one making the sexual advances, even suggesting that maybe there is something wrong with him when he doesn’t respond appropriately. But he wants something else. He wants her to be something other than what she is. That is, he wants her to be who he thinks she should be—a regular girl—and he goes to a lot of trouble to make sure that’s what she becomes. Once again we are seeing a girl’s thwarted coming of age. When what Travis meant to do was gain fame for himself by assassinating a public figure, his acclaimed heroism comes instead as a result of his rescuing Iris from herself, from her womanhood, from the wolves who are really only other men just like him.

A real live wolf: Richard Allen Davis, who kidnapped and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas in 1993.

[1] Quoted from the screenplay by Paul Schrader.