The Harm of Gender Roles in Car Culture

An Argument for Getting Girls Involved

“The masculine dominance of car culture is sustained even though an increasing number of women drive and work as car journalists” (Wollen and Kerr, 363). In her article “Men, Motors, Markets, and Women,” Grace Lees-Maffei uses the previous statement to describe the ways in which women are more and more so getting involved in car culture, yet the culture itself is leaving them at the fringes. As of 2012, males represented less than 50 percent of drivers on the road, leaving the majority of driver’s license-carrying individuals to be women (DeGroat). Yet, due to gender roles, and the overt masculinization of car culture, girls and women are being pushed away from getting involved in and learning about the cars they are driving.

In media, the relationship women are expected to have with cars is that of sexual commodification. For women who participate in male-dominated sports, such as racing, they are often subjected to sexualizing themselves in order to gain corporate partners or sponsors to participate in their sports. For example, Brad Daugherty, owner of JTG Daugherty racing team for the NASCAR organization, has stated, “It’s all about corporate dollars. If you don’t have corporate partners, I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to participate in this sport. It’s not going to happen” (Belzer). Due to this need for corporate representation, women in male-dominated sports often have to sexualize themselves in order to participate. “Men don’t have to be hot to get sponsored, they just need to be tremendous athletes. Women, on the other hand, can and do get sponsorships based more on their looks than athletic ability” (McCarty). Because of this, women are not only compared to men within their athletic performance, but are also criticized based on their sexuality. For example, Danica Patrick was used by her previous sponsor GoDaddy as a sex symbol for their television commercials. Yet, even after receiving sponsorship, Patrick continues to be scrutinized for her lackluster winning record in NASCAR, even though she was the first woman to win an Indy race in 2008 and the highest finishing female driver in the history of the Daytona 500 in her rookie season.

Women are not only scrutinized in mass media, but in social media as well. The trend of sexualizing women in car culture continues into social media; women are simultaneously expected to be sexual around cars while also being criticized, harassed, and insulted for doing so. This is a phenomenon on Instagram, where models, posing in front of or beside vehicles, are verbally abused for blocking the view of the car or being an unnecessary complement to the vehicle pictured. Furthermore, women have resorted to separating themselves from the rest of male-dominated car culture through the use of phrases which note their gender: “female car enthusiast,” “#ladydriven,” “#importdolls,” etc. This action has been both praised and criticized. On the one hand, women are creating space to partake in car culture through social media. Hashtags such as “#ladydriven,” provide a space for women to be car enthusiasts together, and learn from each other in a less intimidating, and less hegemonically masculine, environment. Yet, on the other hand, these categories place women in car culture as “the other,” which perpetuates the idea that car enthusiasts are expected, and should be expected, to be male. As Taryn Croucher, writer for SpeedHunters, states, “Let me ask you a question. When was the last time you ever heard anybody use the term ‘male car enthusiast’? How ridiculous does that sound?...I have a dream that one day there will be no such thing as a female car enthusiast, or rather, the ‘female enthusiast’ label…In my dream, the elusive ‘car girl’ is a thing of the past” (Croucher). Croucher argues that petrol-headed women do in fact exist, and we need to start treating them like they belong in car culture—like they are not the outsiders.

Further, shopping habits and what is presented to shoppers strongly influences the gendered roles of car culture. For example, clothing companies related to cars often only offer male styles or offer only extremely feminized styles in their women’s section. From the colors chosen to the images depicted, clothing strongly emphasizes gendered roles in car culture in the same ways it does in “regular” culture. Additionally, this socialization of gender roles is taking place in children’s toy aisles as well. One of the most pertinent encounters in the gendered toy aisles is the fact that the “boy’s toys,” are often associated with building, yet the “girl’s toys” are often imagination-based without an intended purpose (i.e. Barbie). The building involved in many of the “boy’s toys” introduce skills such as using basic tools like screwdrivers, building structures such as HotWheels race tracks, and interacting with suspension dynamics when building a functional RC car from a “building set,” piece by piece. The fact that boys are receiving these opportunities for experience more readily than girls attests to the human capital theory which refers to “the investment by people in skills linked to productive capability, the stock of skills and knowledge embodied in the ability to perform labor, and the skills and knowledge gained by a worker through education and experience” (Close the Gap). As we neglect to involve girls in car culture from a young age, we are also neglecting to involve them in the opportunities to learn and gain skills such as the ability to use tools, the ability to formulate basic civil engineering, and the ability to come in contact with the ways in which moving parts work—all of which are found in many car-based “boy’s toys.”

The result of gender roles in car culture is a lack of involvement in an asset of modern life for women who are spending more time than ever in vehicles. Because of this, in an unconventional way, “The Pink Tax,” in which women are charged more than men for the exact same product (Horwitz), is affecting women who are purchasing or maintaining their vehicles. In a study published in The American Economic Review, White women were found to have a 50 percent higher final markup than White men when purchasing a new car. Additionally, practices such as Havoline Xpress Lube’s “Ladies’ Day,” are becoming more and more prevalent. In this scenario, Havoline offers an oil change to women on Wednesdays for $18.99. Yet, many women who tried to take advantage of this deal reported feeling harassed and as though they were taken advantage of. Many cited mechanics telling them they had to purchase additional repairs, such as a battery change, new windshield wipers, a synthetic oil change, etc., when the safety of the vehicle would not have been compromised without the additional services. Rather, many women reported spending significantly more money than they had anticipated due to this harassment, and their own lack of experience with car maintenance. Yet, if women are accepted into car culture, and readily taught about basic car maintenance, in the same way we teach home economics to high school students, these punitive gender roles and their consequences may begin to subside.

As girls are constantly pushed out of car culture, it makes it difficult to integrate oneself into this field, regardless of whether it is for the necessity of self-sufficiency, economic need, or pure interest. Women who want to join this “boy’s club” both fear stereotypes while simultaneously feeling like they are clinging to them in order to be accepted. For instance, it is difficult to ask questions about cars in order to learn without the fear of being “the typical girl that doesn’t know anything about cars.” Yet, at the same time, without asking the question, one will be further perpetuating the stereotype that women are ignorant when it comes to the mechanics of cars. Essentially, we must stop pushing women away from car culture and all fields which are overwhelmingly “male,” because this does not only result in a lack of female mechanics and car enthusiasts, but a lack of women who feel they deserve to or are able to be involved in their interests.


Works Cited:

Croucher, Taryn. "Banishing The Female Car Enthusiast." Speedhunters. N.p., 21 Oct. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

Belzer, Jason. "Even If Danica Patrick Wins Daytona, Diversity Still Loses." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 24 Feb. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

DeGroat, Bernie. "Women Drivers Outnumber Men, but Still Drive Less | University of Michigan News." University of Michigan News. University of Michigan, 13 Dec. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

Horwitz, Steven. "Is There Really a Pink Tax?" FEE Freeman Article. N.p., 13 May 2015. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

Wollen, Peter, and Joe Kerr. Autopia: Cars and Culture. London: Reaktion, 2002. Print. 

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