Back in the 1960s and 70s sex was unashamedly used to sell cars and other products. Flicking through old car magazines reveals a whole level of sexism which is not in mainstream automotive publications today. Women were presented as accessories to enhance the cars rather than as consumers in their own right. (Gill,2008). They were either pictured draped over the bonnet of a car or the butt of all sorts of innuendo.
One particularly shocking example by British Leyland was the advert for the 1971Mini Clubman Automatic which blatantly patronizes and downright insults women by suggesting that they are not very good drivers and struggle with changing gear with a manual gearbox. There is a big picture of a Goldie Hawn lookalike at the wheel of a Mini wearing a perplexed and anxious expression. The caption underneath reads: “The Mini automatic. For simple driving,” while the copy continues with the insults: “Our automatic has some hidden benefits. You can’t stall on the clutch because there’s no clutch pedal to stall on. You can’t grind into the wrong gear because you don’t change gear.” If these insults were not bad enough, the advert goes the whole hog and unashamedly ends with: “It makes driving as effortless as sleeping. Sleeping, luv. You lie down lose your eyes and…” (Glancey, 2007:175)
It was these sort of one-sided messages that riled the growing second wave of feminists in the 1970s and 1980s. These women faced a much greater challenge than earlier movements in the 1940s and 1950s (Gill, 2007:9). By this period in history the media had become much wider reaching, with gendered messages appearing in news magazines, television and radio (Gill, 2007:9). But this second wave feminist movement was made up of several different strands; some focused on industrial disputes and class conflict, or about the lack of opportunities for women working within the media. Outside of these specific areas, other groups protested about the represention of women generally, and were keen to dispel the demeaning and one dimensional stereotypes that women were subjected to (Gill, 2007:10).
During the 1980s, although sex in advertising and gendered objectification of women in car advertising continued – it became more ironic. A 1980 advert for Faberge aftershave is almost sending up the fact that sex is being used to sell its product. The scene pictures a dapper young man clutching a set of car keys.
On his right shoulder leans a glamorous young woman. In the foreground is an oversized picture of a the product. The whole picture is tinted red to suggest both passion and danger. The caption reads: “Turbo by Faberge. Turn it on. A very new fragrance for men. It delivers”. (The Best of CAR, 2008)
But this approach was not to last.
However, the trend began to move away from depictions of women as straightforward objects for men to look at, and there is a new different emphasis on how women are placed. Feminist theorists have labelled this ‘sexual agency’ (Gill, 2003; Goldman, 1992; Macdonald, 1995; Winship, 2000). From this a more sexually dominant idea of femininity was created (Macdonald, 1995) Taking shape as young attractive women who are aware of their sexual power and not afraid to capitalize on it. (Quart, 2003) Manufacturers have side-stepped this issue by adapting the old passive style of framing women in car adverts and now presents them as active consumers in their own right (Gill, 2008) Women are now depicted as independent, powerful and as having strong emotional bonds to their cars – which highlights their independence from men. Gill argues that although women’s bodies are still presented erotically – the method in which this is done has now changed. In the 60s, 70s and 80s women were represented in the media as sexualized mute objects of an ‘assumed male gaze’, today they are seen as desiring sexual subjects who decide to objectify themselves for their own personal empowerment. (Gill 2008) “Women are presented as not seeking men’s approval but as pleasing themselves, and, in so doing, they ‘just happen’ to win men’s admiration.” (Gill, 2008:10)
But in many ways the status quo has remained the same. Instead of motherhood or domesticity, or pretty objects for men to admire, it is now possession of a ‘sexy body’ that is presented as women’s key source of identity. (Bordo, 1993) So has anything really changed from old forms of objectification? If, in earlier regimes of advertising, women were presented as sexual objects, then this was understood as something inflicted on women externally by a sexist advertising industry – an activity which fuelled heavy criticism from feminist activism. But in current advertising, young attractive women are presented as the arbiters of whether they decide to be sex objects. This shift cleverly side steps a great deal of feminist critique.
(Bartky, 1990; Bordo, 1993)
Another factor at work here is what Williamson defines as Retro-sexism. “Retro-sexism is sexism with an alibi: it appears at once past and present, “innocent” and knowing, a conscious reference to another era, rather than an unconsciously driven part of our own”. (Williamson 2003) McNair is of the opinion that irony connects with another of the fundamental trends of advertising – what he calls the expansion of the ‘pornosphere’ (McNair 2002). This concerns the continued ongoing linking with porn narratives and poses evident throughout advertising. Gill asserts that subjectification is the modern spin on objectification. “Women are still located in their bodies, indeed as bodies, albeit voraciously heterosexually desiring ones, as in conventional pornography.” (Gill, 2007:111)
This is a trend which has been taken up by the modified car scene, where numerous examples can be found of both the objectification and subjectification of women. Many of the editorial pages and advertisements feature a sexy girl posing by the car or product. Many of the websites, including Fastcar.co.uk and Modifiedcars.com have dedicated ‘girl’ sections and feature galleries of girls – both amateur and professional – posing for the camera in a sexually provocative manner in an almost burred mix of sexual object and subject.
This genre of automotive publication was epitomized by the recently defunct Max Power magazine, which, in its heyday was the biggest of its kind and at the height of its success in 2003 boasted a circulation of 238,000.(Sootheran, 2011) Max Power also had a wide following with the running of numerous annual events and motor shows – the adverts for which were similarly gendered. The 2004 advert for a Max Power car show contained highly sexualized images of women, that differed from the smiling and submissive models of the 1960s and 70s. Here they were depicted as knowing sexual subjects toying with/luring male readers. The image of femininity that was presented resembles soft porn.
Comparing automotive advertising from CAR Magazine of the 1960s and 70s and also of more recent customised automotive publications, the recurring theme is use of a meanings system which reproduces highly traditional gender power relations. Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, the viewer is expected to adopt a masculine spectating position and to view the woman as an object offering sexual gratification. (Gill,2008)
According to Rosalind Gill: “ Since the late1990s, women’s increasing financial independence meant that they had became targets for new products, as advertisers had begun to recognize the significance of many women’s anger at being objectified.”(Gill, 2008) Afterall, it didn’t make much sense for advertisers to depict women draped over a car as an enhancing accessory, if women were in a position to buy that car. (Gill, 2007:84) In 2005 data from the SMMT revealed that 80 percent of all of retail car purchases were influenced by women. (Smmt, 2005)
As far back as 1998, Britain’s first motoring magazine for women was launched. Named Nuts about Motoring, the female-friendly magazine aimed to cater for women motorists who were alienated by the mainstream car press. At the time, Editor Helen Mound was quoted as saying that the magazine would
“stick two perfectly manicured fingers up at magazines which rave on about cars that snap knicker elastic at five paces and compare automotive curves with Daryl Hannah’s curves.” (Garner, 1998)
Nuts about Motoring has long since folded but in its wake other women focused motoring magazines have appeared and also folded. 2009 saw the launch of Women and Wheels, which aimed to demystify the motoring world for the women motorist. Run by two London based mothers – it was built on the premise that women are the main decision makers of household consumer goods, so it provided how-to-guides on everything from paying utility bills to buying and selling cars. (The Next Women.com , 2009)
Dubbed Britain’s best motoring site for women, Evecars.com is a women-focused car website which has remained. Although the factual content is derived from What Car, it is edited to appeal more to women by using different colours and language. An example from a review for a BMW 3 Series Coupe highlights this woman-focused approach: “Smooth, sexy and sophisticated, it makes you feel as glamorous as a Bond girl”.
The level of gendered editorial content in car magazines has also changed over the years. According to Roy Kent, the changes can be seen in the development of CAR magazine since the 1960s, where the editorial was full of what would now be considered sexist language. Serious motoring writers described stylish cars as a ‘tart trap’ or crumpet-catcher’. (Kent, 2007) Visually the magazines also reflected these attitudes with glamour models used both the cover and the inside the pages, posing next to cars, serving to perpetuate the male myth that cars really were girl magnets. (Kent, 2007)
Although this kind of behaviour has long since disappeared from CAR magazine, it was still evident in customised automotive publication, Max Power, right up to its demise earlier this year.
Other places where there is still evidence of this sexist and gendered content is in Men’s and gadget magazines, such as Stuff, GQ, FHM, Loaded, Nuts, to name but a few – where if the pages are anything to go by, men are “interested in women, cars, sport fashion and not much else”. (Gauntlet, 2008:172)
These magazines also appear to be focused around working class stereotypes such as sport, beer and sex. This downmarket format was taken further in 2004 with the launch of two new weekly men’s magazines – Zoo and Nuts. These magazines made no bones about mainly focussing on “hot cars, pin ups of sexy women, sports news, gadgets and unashamedly sexist and homophobic jokes”. (Gauntlett, 2002: 168)
The new men’s lifestyle magazines construct masculinity in terms of fun, lack of responsibility, pleasure – seeking and the consumption of women’s bodies that bore similarity to the automotive publications of the 1960s and 70s. (Gill, 2007) What is different is the socio-political climate that this current breed of men’s magazines are operating in. Gill and Gauntlett, see these representations on offer as out of place and mirroring the past. (Gill, Gauntlett, 2007) Men are still put forward as the dominant controlling sex, whereas women remain largely as sex objects. (Gill, 2007:217) Not only does this go against the economic reality, it also is a naturalisation of gender difference and male power – but the ideological representations contained within these men’s magazines remain uncriticised, thanks to the presentation of the language which emulates ideas that tie in with post-feminism, such as sexual power and choices.
(Jackson, Stevenson, Brooks, 2001)
Not forgetting irony – which is men’s magazines strongest weapon – and can often be found to be veiling some of the strongest examples of sexism. Women are referred to as “rusty old bangers” or alluded to in other demeaning, yet trivial and humours ways, which allows the claim that the magazine is sexist free.
(Gill, 2007) David Gauntlett is of the opinion that the sexism in men’s magazines is “knowingly ridiculous, based on the assumption that it is silly and pointless to be sexist, so consequently is funny in a silly light-hearted way”. (Gauntlett, 2002: 168)
Since the 1970s advertising has had to adapt and change with the economy and societies values – such as the feminist movement. Changes too in technology and communications have meant that advertisers have had to completely rethink the way they target their customers, who are now much more aware and used to how advertising operates. (Goldman, 1992).
Yet it’s interesting to note that while sexist adverts of old have largely disappeared from automotive media, there remains certain elements of it that continue to portray women in a highly subjectifed manner.
This is especially apparent in the modified automotive publication scene illustrated by Modified cars.com , Fast Car and Max Power. Here we can see that the link between cars and sexy women has not been severed but merely taken on a different gloss. Instead of a submissive smile it might now be a purposeful pout, but “sexy ‘babes’ are still selling cars.” (Gill, 2007) The sticking points can also be found in men’s magazines, which seem to be particularly guilty of hanging on to old sexist stereotypes, albeit dressed up in a slick modern irony that somehow makes it acceptable. (Jackson, Stevenson, Brooks, 2001)
Yet changes in other areas–no matter how small – have begun, with the launch of motoring publications aimed at women. An increase in consumer buying power with more women now buying and owning cars surely is set to increase this demand. Women’s ongoing fight in all areas of life throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium has highlighted this inequality. Of course there is a long way to go to balance out gender stereotypes in advertising, motoring and other media, but it is fair to say that finally the movement towards positive change is well under way.
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