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Masculinity in danger? Autonomous cars as cultural challenge

How manly is a car that drives itself? (Photo: Marcus McCoy/ bit.ly/CC-Attribution)

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Anna-Lena Berscheid
Anna-Lena Berscheid
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A technological revolution always has an impact on culture and society. This article seeks to provoke new reflections about the connection of cars and masculinity in times of automated driving. A guest contribution by Anna-Lena Berscheid.

In the (western) world, the car is more than the dominant means of transportation. It also represents a strong symbol of status and individual consummation and plays a key part in the idea of a “good life”. Yet it seems paradox that cars are also one of the main reasons why this good life is threatened by environmental pollution, fatal accidents and the waste of resources and space.

Automated driving is not only an important topic for the car industry, political actors or people interested in innovative transportation devices: I – as a social scientist – also find this new technology exciting as it could be a game changer on both structural and cultural levels: The industry promises no less than increased traffic safety, social inclusion of elderly people or people with disabilities and the conservation of resources. Some visionaries even dream of a world where private cars are replaced by autonomous cabs. 2025AD invited me to write about my research that sought to answer the question if and how the implementation of fully automated driving might affect the car as a symbol of hegemonic masculinity and I am happy to provide some short insights.

Driving a car: a masculine symbol

Studies have shown that the car has a gendered character signifying flexibility, independence or power, but also risk taking and thrill of speed. In western culture, all these attributes are considered as masculine and therefore make the car a status symbol for the construction of hegemonic (i.e. a cultural dominant ideal of) masculinity. Images of strong, powerful or wealthy men and their cars are widely known in popular culture, just think about James Bond and his Aston Martin or the super-successful movie series Fast and Furious. As we live in a world dominated by dichotomies, defining masculinity almost always happens in distinction to femininity. Whereas an interest for technology, for example, is connoted as masculine, femininity is often associated with a lack of interest and talent in this field. Men are considered as rational, women as emotional…

This list of stereotypes could go on forever; my point is that there exists a quasi-natural symbolic connection of car driving and masculinity that might be challenged by automated driving and could therefore represent an impediment for the implementation of autonomous cars in the near future. Why is that? To answer that, I conducted an analysis of the German media discourse on the topic to learn about existing opinions on and imageries of autonomous cars.

Heavy-duty four-wheel drive trucks - the epitome of masculinity? (Photo: Ford)

Autonomous driving: curse or blessing?

Even though the autonomous car is still a vision, media received the topic broadly. It is said that human drivers are not reliable enough and that computers are better drivers as they are never inattentive or tired. But even though the promises of a vision zero (a world without fatal car accidents) or lesser emissions are appreciated, a lot of authors express their doubts about safety and reliance of autonomous cars. Some of their questions are not new, they are about responsibility in case of accidents and the role of insurance companies.

A lot more interesting is another opposition: Most writers do not want to give up on their own agency. They argue that the car cannot be trusted and that humans have to decide in dangerous situations. Some even fear that autonomous cars might incapacitate them, degrading them to being “unemployed” passengers abandoned to their fate. Those writers – all of them passionate car drivers and most of them male – seem to fear a loss of control.

In contrary to what spokespeople from the car industry or research labs want to tell us – namely that driving a car is either exhausting or dull, especially in traffic jams during rush hour – a lot of people enjoy sitting behind the steering wheel. The German Autobahn without speed limits or scenic country roads are places where writers claim to relax and have fun – i.e. places where they are able to perform and live out their masculinity. In an autonomous car, driving would be less individual and more streamlined or, broadly speaking, boring. 

The car of the future, an expression of gender-awareness? (Photo: Daimler)

Driverless cars still represent a paradox

On top of that, it seems paradox that the car industry claims we need more safety, however, the most dangerous driving situations are those considered as the most fun, when automated driving is neither wanted nor accepted.

All in all, automated driving definitely challenges masculinities in car culture and provokes to think about new attributions of gender and technology. We could even think about a “gender-neutral” automobility – even though it is hard to imagine that.

My contribution is not meant as recommendation for the marketing departments of automotive manufacturers. I want to point out that a revolution in the car industry would not only affect infrastructures or the legal system, it might also change our culture and society in places not obvious in the first place. I therefore argue that it is important to take the discussion out of the special interest media to have a fruitful exchange on what society wants and needs.

Our author sees a “quasi-natural symbolic connection of car driving and masculinity.” What do you think: Will autonomous driving challenge this perception? Share your thoughts in the comment section! 

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14 shares
4.82 11 votes
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Anna-Lena Berscheid
Anna-Lena Berscheid
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