Teasing Out Some Gendered Assumptions in “The Saturday Evening Post”: Cars, Love, and Tailfins

One of the more long-term projects I’m working on centers around 1930s print advertisements for cars and masculinity. In the process of researching these topics, I hope to test-drive (see what I did there?) some of the ideas these topics inspire on this blog. Additionally, I may occasionally post about things related to these topics that I come across as I move reluctantly through the contemporary minefield of life. While these posts and the research and stumblings from which they come may never yield the extended investigation that I hope for, these posts (some of them centering on the Post) can still hopefully be enjoyed as arbitrary loci from which to radiate out to broader topics and tangents. Today I offer up one of those random posts:

Way back in April (because this blog is nothing if not behind-the-times), the woeful shadow of what used to be The Saturday Evening Post featured an article about America’s national obsession with the automobile. Its author, William Jeanes, proposed that this vehicle “not only displaced the horse and buggy, but changed us in every way possible” (30). This post will review “VROOM! VROOM!: Celebrating America’s 125-year Love Affair with Cars!” and explore some of the issues and themes it touches on. Especially the subtexty ones, ‘cause that’s just how I roll: somewhat unfairly.

The title* of the article immediately sets up the romantic nature of American’s relationship with cars: it’s a “love affair” between people and machines. And not just the physical objects themselves, but the idea of them and all that they represent. Jeanes’ article offers up a small social history of the automobile in America, if not focusing on the time period when it really became ubiquitous, then holding that era up as the moment when things really got good between us and our vehicles. The images overwhelmingly  represent the 1950s—five of the nine Post covers it reprints are from the decade, not to mention a few other images.

Speaking of images, let’s talk a little bit about race. The article offers up several old pictures and previous covers from the Post to illustrate “the impact of the automobile on American culture” and the glamour of life with automobiles (35). And that glamour is white. In fact, all of the images offered up on a platter of nostalgia are of white people. The erasure of all other American peoples is staggering when you think about it, especially since they drove cars, too. But the imagined audience of the front-pages of magazines and car advertisements was hardly ever a marked category of people: it was usually upper-middle-class whites.

All right, all right. Back to what Jeanes thinks he’s doing in this article: giving us a nice narrative of how widespread automobile adoption changed Americans’ everyday lives. He gives the example of mobility: one can simply go farther, faster in a car than by horse—the alternative as far as personal vehicles went. He hyperbolically argues that the car “freed every American from the tyranny of geography and the loneliness of isolation” (30). Good, safe, interesting point in a narrative that is cozy and familiar even if we haven’t specifically heard it before. It just jives with common sense, right? So far so good. (Except maybe the “every American” assertion, as obviously not every people could or can afford to own a car.) Jeanes takes his readers to Europe in the late 1800s to remind them that no, Henry Ford didn’t invent the car, he just made it crap-tastic and mass-produceable by adopting Taylorism. That’s right, he didn’t really invent the assembly line, either. Come back when you’re done crying in your corner of smashed illusions and we’ll go back to dissecting the minutiae of Jeanes’ article, rather than widely held grand-history notions.

Right. So gender. The women in this article don’t have names–they are stand-ins for their sex, held up as a novelty in a world where cars have become inextricably intertwined and associated with (notions of) masculinity and the male sex. The fact that it was a woman who invented windshield wipers is touted as a grand achievement and little-known fact. Well, lookie here, this little lady’s gone and rigged up a device to fit on an automobile. A thing like that! Are we supposed to congratulate the author on being so magnanimous as to include the contributions of non-males in this automobile narrative? When he couldn’t even bother to look up their names? Women in Jeanes’ American automobile narrative are treated as an anomaly: a fluke. When of course, women have always been involved in all things automotive. Not in as high numbers on the development and production end, perhaps, but certainly as consumers and drivers of cars. Not to mention livers in a world with cars, and thinkers about cars and their meanings and everyday practical uses.

From a marketing angle, women were used to sell cars in advertisements almost from the beginning of the rise of print advertisements in the 1920s–and not just as sexy meat to dangle next to the chrome bodies. No, images of women were positioned as savvy consumers making evaluations of the various accoutremonts of this or that model. I should perhaps be fair: Jeanes is, after all, writing for a magazine intended for a mass middle-class audience. It is perfectly natural of him to go for the safer narrative, just throwing in a few details framed as surprises amongst the flat humor and expected mentions of Benz and Ford. All right, that’s enough niceness for now.

Jeanes, positioned as he is in contemporary society, looks back and assumes the same conflation of sex and gender that exists now, as well as the association of men with production and women with consumption. But the interesting thing is that men are also imagined to be the consumers when it comes to cars, rather than the standard woman. In fact, men are perhaps most often imagined as consumers in the context of automobile-buying and car advertisements. This complicates the tired dichotomies of men/women; producer/consumer. What’s with that? Why is it cars that messes up the normative intersection of these two false dichotomies? (Questions I hope to find answers to with further research and conversations with other interested parties.)

Back to the article, Jeanes takes us from Germany back to America, where Ford has just trotted out the Quadricycle.  I. Want. One. How awesome is that name? !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ahem. Excuse me. So, we stick with Ford for a bit, get introduced as expected to the Model T, and are fed some statistics about how quickly and completely they dominated the market in the ‘teens and ‘twenties. Then comes a section about automobile manufacturing as a locus of one-ups-manship. Cars became tools for racing and record-setting almost immediately. Jeanes insists this is human nature, and I won’t take the time to quibble because that would just devolve into a one-sided shouting match. Institutions such as the Italian Grand Prix are introduced, and Jeanes continues on his narrative of progress: of course cars got “better.” (Better meaning faster.)

Then the author turns to infrastructure. The automobile, like all mass-adopted transportation innovations, significantly altered the landscape of transportation. More people buying and using cars created a higher demand for surfaces that were easier to drive upon. Hello, system of roads and highways! See ya, railroad tracks. Jeanes touches on some interesting points: that municipal and federal governments as well as corporate interests and wealthy individuals looking to make names for themselves in addition to butt-loads of cash (such as Goodyear and the owner of Packard) would be wise to collaborate on these new systems of roads. This really was a national project: the transformation of America into a culture of car-drivers and riders. Planning began in the late 1930s and the building really got going in the 50s—which fits with the accepted narrative that the 1950s was the golden age of automobiles in America.

As Jeanes moves from infrastructure back to the machines themselves, he touches on gender once again. He notes that before 1911, most cars had to be started by turning a crank, but then the electric starter was introduced, meaning that “now even small women and little boys could operate an automobile” (33). Before, they were physically associated only with men and big, strong women. Perhaps this is one reason why cars have from very early on in their history been tied with men in the American imagination. Then again, “in 1924 alone, women inventors came up with 173 devices for automobiles” (33). So where does this leave the gendering of cars? Obviously there were many female contributions to the machines themselves, not to mention the use of female images to advertise cars. And yet the dominant gendered association has been male. The author falls back on this when he mentions the tailfin trend of the late forties and fifties, calling the invention of these decorative body-additions “a ‘mine are bigger than yours’ styling war” (34). But maybe that is my fault for interpreting that type of contest as primarily male. Shit, I’m as guilty as Jeanes!

Maybe. Jeanes repeatedly says that it is America as a whole (with all it’s component male and female parts) that has had this long-lasting love affair with the car—but his underlying emphasis on the “natural” association between cars and masculinity suggests otherwise. As I mentioned, women in this article are treated as a surprise—why, what are you doing here? In spite of the fact that the majority of images included in the article are female-dominated, Jeanes’ narrative assumes the male as the subject, framing the inclusion of women players as something to take note of. There is no need to set up mens’ parts in the development of cars as something special—it is merely assumed that their involvement would be natural.

It is men who are tied to the history of the car, and women are thrown in as an afterthought, when they are allowed written space at all. Jeanes decides that the Ford Mustang was a boon to men going through a midlife crisis (34). What about women going through a midlife crisis? Do cars not mean as much to them? Are cars a symbol of only male youth and virility? Why is that? When did this association take hold? Jeanes’ article, as it is a short survey of the history of cars in America, can’t be expected to answer this. But it sure does confirm the need to find out, as he relies so heavily on these tropes and assumptions that both overtly and covertly tie men and masculinity to automobiles.

*****

*Jeanes, William “Celebrating America’s 125-Year Love Affair with Cars: How the Automobile—once reviled as a smoke-belching, unreliable creation—not only displaced the horse and buggy, but changed us in every way possible” May/June 2011: 30-35

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Filed under Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Technology

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