Tag Archives: masculinity

Fear Briefing: Lawn Sign Signals

It wasn’t the first time I encountered the “Hillary for Prison” lawn sign, but the second. In the first instance, I was walking a friend’s dog around their neighborhood. In the second, I was walking around my own.

It’s no mystery to me that I live in an area populated with people who hold largely different political views than I do, but it’s a peculiar sensation to feel attacked by those with whom I’m otherwise on polite, if distant, terms.

I am usually able to dismiss bumper sticker discourse as inflammatory trollspeak, but these lawn signs struck a chord of fear inside me as I passed. It was the deep discomfort that comes from knowing you’re in enemy territory–or that the people occupying the territory alongside you would consider you an enemy if they only knew your beliefs. Those of us in the minority are often silent.

I’m lucky that this type of discomfort is a rare sensation. For me, that sensation inspires a blog post. For many in this country, that sensation inspires at best steeled resignation, but more often indicates it’s time to be on guard. For many, that sensation is uncomfortably familiar, and the stakes are impossibly high. That sensation could mean death.

Clinton’s candidacy, like Obama’s before her, incites the endemic hatred of the Other that underlines our country’s patriarchal, racist social structure. There’s a reason Clinton faces so much push-back, such odd media coverage. We, as a country, remain deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of a leader who is not straight, white, and male.

A lawn sign that implies the female presidential candidate might be a criminal springs from this discomfort. There are no “Trump for Prison” signs, after all. When you’re faced with the most qualified candidate in history, what’s left to attack but the aspect of her identity that sets her apart–albeit in veiled ways. An 11-hour hearing there, a rumor about a health crisis here, and a dig at her ambition (so unbecoming on a woman!) for good measure. Chip, chip, chip. And every so often, a thunk rings out, resonating in the hearts of those who share her gender. Putting us on alert.

Just as racism became more blatant after Obama became president, forcing our country to reckon with our shameful legacy of slavery and discrimination, I worry that a female president will inspire the misogynists to pour forth with their hatred more publicly than they already do. It’s painful to realize that this is how progress is forged–with a representative from a marginalized group coming forward, only to be pushed back by those so invested in the status quo that grants them a higher status that they can’t see there’s room for more people on the pedestal. And everyone who shares that marginalized identity is at risk.

People who display these lawn signs are angry that someone who isn’t like them might gain influence. They worry that it means the power they consider their birthright is being taken from them. These people have forgotten the important Kindergarten lesson about sharing, because our society teaches white men that their place is at the top, and there’s only so much room. So push those with the audacity to reach for the top back down. Defend the hierarchy at all costs! Try to elect the most under-qualified candidate you can find, as long as he is a he and pays lip service to your (fragile) identity and (very real) economic concerns. But for the love of a tradition that conveniently privileges you, don’t expend energy fact-checking or looking beyond your prejudices. That would be too much.

“Masculinity is always in crisis,” my history professor reminded us in 2006. Sitting in the safety of that classroom, I never imagined how viscerally gender trouble would manifest in the real world. Having come to consensus in class, I naively assumed the issue had been similarly resolved in the real world. And now we’re ten years in the future, and look what’s happening. Progress is not an arrow. Change swings every which-way. Those with power are loathe to relinquish it. So we work and work and work. We give up. We try again.

It’s those who are first to step forward who bear the brunt in public of what they incite in those who never imagined they’d dare to stand up. The scarcely concealed hatred underlying the hierarchy is forced to the surface, in full view. The bravery of those who go first triggers a fierce backlash, and the rest of us also bear the brunt, but in private. In conversation. In passing. Until we (hopefully) survive and count ourselves among those who comprised the catalyst for social change.

For now, I walk, and live, among people who can’t stomach the thought of a woman at the helm of our national government. And I am a woman. So maybe they can’t stomach me, either. I increase my pace as I walk past these signs, hoping their owners don’t notice me.



Filed under Contemporary

Archetypes in Competition: Couldn’t They Just Get Along?

I’ve been reading Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America: A Cultural History and in the first chapter he introduces a few archetypes of manhood, or masculinity, that were prominent as the United States first became a country. He argues that the “Self-Made Man” archetype became the dominant one over the course of America’s history, and actually gained dominance fairly early on. This led me to wonder if the various gender archetypes are/were always in competition for ideological dominance in the United States, or if they could have been (and are) peacefully coexisting. Is is always a struggle for hegemony? Don’t people construct their gendered identity from a mixture of archetypes, drawing on characteristics inherent in each one to form a masculinity they can successfully embody? Or even unsuccessfully embody. Is the ideal always one archetype, or can is be cobbled from facets of different ones?

For example, one archetype Kimmel discusses places an emphasis on civic duty–that a man’s masculinity was measured in how he contributed to his community. Cannot that coexist with the Self-Made Man’s emphasis on personally acquired wealth?

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Filed under Gender Trouble, Historical

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