My Big Beef with Car Culture

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved cars.

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They’ve always been able to tug at my imagination, to capture my fascination, and I’m not sure why. Other people don’t seem to have this reaction at all when they encounter a motor vehicle. To them it really is just a collection of metal, rubber, and plastic. Perhaps the simplest way to describe what it means to be a car person is that a vehicle is more than the sum of its parts, and that it evokes something from within.

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A car, as a product of engineering and design, is not merely functional, but a work of art. It may be a poor work of art, or the art may be more in its functionality than anything else, but the shaping and moulding of panels, the calculating of proportions and angles and sight-lines, the tone and growl of the engine and exhaust, all require at least some measure of esthetic intentionality. It may look like a cross-eyed bullfrog but you know that someone somewhere presented that design to some decision makers who decided to make that hideous car.

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This is why we can begin to speak of a car’s personality, stance, face, rear-end, or ethos. Some cars exude power and aggression, others confidence and class, and still others just scream “I’m a Korean-made sub-compact from the mid-90’s and I’m utterly terrible.” Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got nothing against the Koreans – in fact they make some very fine cars now – but don’t ever buy a Daewoo, or a mid-90’s Hyundai. When you contact Daewoo to tell them that your driver’s seat fell through the floor of the car and the gear lever came off in your hand, they will simply laugh at you and say: “Hey! What you expect? You buy Daewoo!” Or that’s the rumor at least.

We all know that cars can be an endlessly fascinating subject of interest and conversation among men. The majority of those people who have an above-average interest in cars are indeed men. But like anything in which the majority of participants are men, there are some problems, and I’d like to talk about one of the major ones.

For a long time, I’ve wondered why it is the case that many magazines and websites which feature nice pictures of nice cars, will also contain sexualized pictures of women models. This is predominantly true of anything in the tuner culture, but is also more broadly applicable. If it isn’t outright portrayals of women in sensual poses, the same spirit is there in the sexist jokes and comments that presenters or writers make. Regardless of the form it takes, there is a pervasive attitude in much of this sub-culture that women, like cars, are pretty playthings that exist for men to enjoy.

This is done so casually and thoughtlessly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to have some woman in her underwear standing beside a car. As the father of a daughter, I feel very strongly that this is not a natural thing at all. Say what you will about the decisions and career choices that these women have made, but I wouldn’t wish for any woman to have to take off her clothes in front of leering men in order to make a living, or to have worth in people’s eyes. I want my daughter to be valued for her character, personality, and spirit. For a long time, I didn’t really understand why this association between cars and women was so ubiquitous in car culture.

Then one day it hit me.

Men like cars for many reasons but one of the main ones is that they are good looking objects. Well then it only makes sense to have another good looking object to go with it.

Never mind that this second ‘object’ is a really a human being with a heart and soul and is of precious worth far beyond that of any Ferrari of Bugatti.

Never mind that all the men leering at the pictures of these girls wouldn’t want their own sisters, wives, or daughters displayed like that for all to see.

It’s just one of a hundred thousand ways in which our world doesn’t see or portray women as full and complete human beings, worthy of dignity and respect. It’s not right, and it’s not okay.

I’ve always told myself that I would love whatever my kids love and not try to get them to be interested in my own interests. So I don’t know if I failed at that or if my son really came to love cars by himself, but anyways he really loves cars and trucks. He’s only two and a half, and already (with a bit of coaching from me) he can tell the difference in his toy car collection between the ‘Porsche Nine Elebben’, the GT-R, and the Audi, as well as between the Jaguar E-Type and the Toyota 2000GT, which look quite similar at 1:64 scale. I want to be able to take him to the annual Auto Show when he’s a bit older, but it makes me sad to think that I will have to explain to him why there are women dressed in really small, tight dresses standing around in the modified cars section.

We need to do a better job of guarding the honor and dignity of all human beings, especially those whose honor and dignity and humanity are so often dismissed.

And we also need to treat objects as objects. I did go to the car show this year, and although I really loved seeing all those gorgeous cars, pulling open the back door of a $500,000 Rolls Royce (I wasn’t supposed to, but how often do you get the chance?!), climbing into the trunk of a Toyota Echo to test out the emergency release cable they’ve installed in there in case of kidnapping, and pushing all the buttons and knobs in the Jaguars and Audis, I left the conference center feeling quite flat about the whole thing. At the end of the day, it really is just metal and rubber and really nice leather, and we would do well to remember it.

The sad reality is, for many people walking through that auto show, they had a far more human interaction with their dream cars than they did with the ladies who were put on display. They were far more conscious of the personality and soul of that new Audi than of the eternal value of each of those girls.

Dear car culture, you’ve humanized the object and objectified the human, and that is my big beef with you.

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About Phil Cotnoir

I'm not so unlike you.
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