Motoring has long been a common subject matter for gender stereotyping. In the early stages of child development, the choice of toys to play with is still largely gendered. Even when parents are supportive of boys playing with so-called ‘girly’ toys, the fact that there is still a strong recognition that there are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ toys speaks volumes.
This distinction appears to lay the foundation for the generally macho image of motoring, but how far has this image endured in the 21st century?
There are some strong indications that the connection between motoring and masculinity is as strong as ever. The idea of men as more aggressive drivers, particularly young male teenage racers for instance, is not only still a common social stereotype, but also corroborated by DVLA records. The Telegraph reports that, according to the DVLA, 654,263 men were caught speeding in 2015, compared to only 267,290 women.
One explanation for this stark contrast is an inherent risk-taking tendency in men, which is less present in women, at least according to a 2012 psychological study. This disposition was “genetically shaped by evolution”, where men’s role as hunter-gatherers necessitated risk-taking, according to the study’s author Geoff Trickey.
'Masculinity isn't fixed'
Nevertheless, it still seems a bit of a stretch to contend that men speed chiefly because it is a ‘manly’ thing to do, at least not consciously. The fact that men can be seen to drive more recklessly doesn’t in itself display that men identify this behaviour with their masculinity per se. That is, this correlation arguably establishes a connection between men and certain driving habits, but not necessarily between motoring and their identity as men. More specifically, how individuals self-identify with their masculinity. It appears an entirely different question to ask to what extent men take pride in their motoring habits and interests, rather than merely their observable behaviour.
This aspect of identifying motoring with one’s own masculinity is somewhat harder to grasp, and one that appears to be changing with time. Masculinity as a concept isn’t fixed – the emergence of metrosexuality challenges this for example. Bearing that in mind, it’s something of a typical image of the baby boomer generation of men that they’re keen on cars, not merely taking control of driving, but also taking an interest in tinkering with running repairs and improvements to their car. In contrast, one survey found that 70% of young men (under 35) can’t change a tyre, and 60% can’t replace windscreen wipers, whereas 65% of men over 50 can change a tyre.
In some sense this is surprising, given the immediacy of ordering replacement parts through sites like this, and the ubiquity of ‘how to’ guides on the internet – something older generations didn’t have the luxury of. The greater willingness of older men to dedicate efforts to caring for their car demonstrates a closer connection, perhaps even pride, to motoring than their sons and grandsons have. Even on an anecdotal level, it appears that at least young men are taking less pride in motoring, which indicates a shift in the association between masculinity and motoring.
The perception of cars and motoring as a masculine pursuit, then, is at best hazy and difficult to pin down. As the concept of masculinity develops in the 21st century, along with individuals’ self-identification with it, the connection with cars seems to be becoming more tenuous. This is not to say, of course, that a certain association between a ‘pedal to the metal’ attitude and ‘manliness’ persists. However, in the context of a society where men are being challenged more than ever to scrutinise their own gender identity, the nature of this attitude is evolving.
By Peter Riley