One of the major themes in How I Learned to Drive, the Pulitzer-winning play by Paula Vogel, is sexual abuse of adolescent girls, particularly by family members or friends. However, Vogel wanted to write these scenes in a way that was sympathetic to both parties. She told Kathy Henderson, a reporter for Playbill, "Critics have said that this is a play about pedophilia, but I think the relationship between these two characters is more complex than that. . . . I wanted to get inside this guy's [Uncle Peck's] head and present him as a three-dimensional character."
Actor David Morse, who played the character off Broadway, said, "What this man does is born of a sickness, but I can't think of him as a villain. Paula has written the story in a forgiving and loving way."
As the lead character, Li'l Bit, matures, another recurring theme becomes apparent, namely, that of gender expectations. The world around Li'l Bit expects her to be strong enough to resist (or at least cope with) men's advances but vulnerable enough to attract men with fragile notions of their own positions of power in society. When Jerome gropes Li'l Bit's chest, a classmate tells her, "Rage is not attractive in a girl," as if Li'l Bit's bearing is the most important consideration.
Uncle Peck also has stagnant ideas about gender roles, even with respect to inanimate objects. He justifies his use of a feminine pronoun when referring to a car by saying, "[W]hen you close your eyes and think of someone who responds to your touch—someone who performs for you and gives you just what you ask for—I guess I always see a ’she.’” This is also how he expects young women, including Li'l Bit, to treat him at all times, even in moments of abuse.