Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Masculinities and gender relations in a car advertisement of the 1960s

By Athanasios Koufopanos

Porsche 911 Magazine Advert, UK, 1964. Courtesy of The Advertising Archives.

Contemplating about cars in his short essay on the Citroën DS in the 1950s, French philosopher Roland Barthes writes:

‘[The car is] devoured as an image, if not through its use, by a whole people that sees in it a perfectly magical object.’[1]

Barthes’ reference to the ‘image’ and the ‘use’ of an object is a starting point to understand the depiction of a product in advertising representations. For example, in the image above, a German Porsche advertisement in a British motoring magazine of the 1960s, we can see the car itself, with its image ‘altered’ to indicate its use. More specifically, the right half is covered in dirt, as a result of a car race, with the victorious German driver standing in the side. The left half of the car is neat and clean, with a man and a woman ready to enter.

This is an example when the presence of individuals in the picture emphasises and determines the use of the object more effectively than its image does. Furthermore, the figures in the picture imply a gendered understanding of the use of the car. This text will show how in the 1960s Britain a car was perceived in advertisement not only as a symbol associated with masculinity but also as an indicator of gender relations among the heterosexual couple.

Mobility in Britain can be considered a gendered issue, dating back to the mid- 1930s in which only 12% of license holders were women. This can be accredited to the fact that women required their husband’s permission to drive the family car.[2] Women’s experiences as drivers in the Home Front during World War II and the expansion of automobility in Britain after the war enabled a respective increase in the number of women licence holders and drivers. Women entering the relevant market is reflected in car advertisements of the 1960s, which, compared to the previous decade, are more female inclusive, though still confined by traditional sexist stereotypes. More specifically, by projecting the ‘modern domestic comfort’ of the 1960s car, advertisers incorporated women in the consumers’ spectrum, based on the assumption that they would appreciate a luxurious interior in the same way men appreciated elegance, power and speed.[3] In early post-war Western Europe, cars being a basic commodity came to incarnate individual freedom and the middle-class affluence of the period.[4] Kristin Ross connects the freedom to defy space limitations through driving with the model of l’homme disponible, the available man, in 1950s and 1960s France.[5] Alongside moving through space, car ownership gave the affluent middle-class family the opportunity to expand or transfer its domestic space and consequently the gender relations, traditionally of female subjugation, deployed in this space.[6]

Freedom from space limitations could also be freedom from safety concerns. The danger of car racing is a connotation of the racer in the right section of our advertisement piece. The danger of driving in general can be associated with an adventurous model of manliness. James Dean’s death in his Porsche in 1955 was inextricably waived in his legacy, a legacy celebrating freedom and masculinity.[7] Of course, the car racer in the image seems to have survived the danger intact. His maleness reflects a statistical reality concerning race drivers, since very few women were occupied in the sport. Therefore, as Helena Tolvhed shows in her relevant article, a Swedish woman winning the Argentina Grand Prix in 1962 was discussed in the press of the time in explicitly sexualised terms, as a feminine exceptionality.[8] We could say that the male racer can be identified with the hegemonic model of masculinity elaborated by R.W. Connell, a normative concept summarising the masculine ideals that are legitimised in a given socio-cultural milieu to dominate other versions of masculinity and perpetuate patriarchal subjugation of women.[9]

If the car racer represents adventurous masculinity, the suited man on the left section resembles to the more grounded model of the bread-winner. In Connell’s concept, that could be understood as the ‘complicit’ version, a type of masculinity that does not adhere to the hegemonic model but neither poses a threat to it, as it reproduces social conformity.[10] This man’s clothing and the fact that he carries a briefcase imply that he is about to drive to work at that moment. He holds the key, a tool of control over the car, ready to open the door for a woman looking at him with profound admiration. If we assume that they are a couple, we get a clear depiction of female dependence, even more emphasised in the scenario that he is about to drive her somewhere before going to his job. In real life, however, things could be the other way around as well. In the 1960s Britain it was already the case for many unemployed wives to drive their husband at work and then use the car for everyday shopping. Moreover, the female presence in the advertisement as a co-driver may underestimate the existence of women drivers in urban areas but still points to women as consumers, since it was common for purchasing luxurious cars like these to require the combined capital of a married couple.[11] Therefore, middle-class working women could contribute in buying a car, irrespectively if they would drive it or not.

According to Ben Griffin, driving had been a traditional masculine activity that was reshaped by the increasing presence of women behind the wheel.[12] This development was on its way during the 1960s. Given that, it is of interest to note that images like the one in reference reproduced the norm of the car being an object that expressed versions of masculinity, in this case the one of a racing driver and of a providing husband. Even more, the car as an extended domestic space enables us to trace patterns of gender relations within the heterosexual couple. Therefore, since the male was still identified as the main car buyer, sketches like that kept depicting him generously driving the dependable female, and not vice-versa.

[1] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Paris, Editions de Seuil: 1957), p. 150 (my own translation).

[2] Sean O’Connell, ‘Gender and the Car in Inter-war Britain’, in Moira Donald and Linda Hurcombe (eds), Gender and Material Culture in Historical Perspective (London, Macmillan Press Ltd: 2000), p. 177.

[3] Simon Gunn, ‘People and the car: the expansion of automobility in urban Britain, c.1955-70’, Social History 38:2 (2013), pp. 230-231.

[4] Gunn, ‘People and the car’, pp. 221, 226; Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of the French Culture (Cambridge MA, The MIT Press: 1995), pp. 19-22.

[5] Ross, Fast Cars, p. 22.

[6] Gunn, ‘People and the car’, p. 231.

[7] Ross, Fast Cars, p. 46.

[8] Helena Tolvhed, ‘Ewy Rosqvist, rally queen: gender, identity and car racing at the beginning of the 1960s’, Sport in Society 20:8, pp. 1050-52, 1055-56.

[9] Raewyn Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge, Polity, 2005), pp. 77-78.

[10] Ibid., pp. 79-80.

[11] Gunn, ‘People and the car’, pp. 230, 234-235.

[12] Ben Griffin, ‘Hegemonic Masculinity as a Historical Problem’, Gender & History 30:2 (July 2018), p. 389.