Women, Sex, and Cars

Content Note: sexism, sexual symbolism in theatre

I bought a car this weekend.

The experience was fraught. Little Purple, my trusty steed for the last dozen years, had been ailing for the last year. I had spent close to $1000 on three major repairs since school started, and then she choked out in my driveway on a recent Friday. I cried several times. I tried all the tricks I’d used on her glitchy electrical system over the years, but she was down for the count. Even before I got the call from Cody in the Service Department, even before the tow truck brought her there, even before I called the towing company, I knew she’d driven her last mile. I knew it the same way I knew my grandmother had died when the phone rang on that July morning. I knew it the same way I knew I was pregnant that December evening before I took a pregnancy test. Sometimes a body just knows things.

Nostalgia kicked in. Hard. All the frustration of the last year of breakdowns quieted, and I managed to crank out a few thousand words on a new chapter for April Showers

Twice she crossed the mountains on eastwardly all-nighters. During the first, my sister and I traded driving duties every four hours while our mother sat in the back seat in variations of annoyance and anger with us. We entertained ourselves with music and a rapping sock monkey named Maurice; mother was not amused. Eventually she fell asleep; so did Katrina. When it was Katrina’s turn to drive, mother woke, briefly, and then she slept some more. I nodded off quickly. After two hours, Katrina woke me, wracked with anxiety: it was dark, we were crossing mountains, mother was snoring. She begged me to take over. I took the wheel and Little Purple whispered through the invisible Montana landscape, the mountains parting to accept her and swallowing her up as the pass quietly zippered up behind us.

I am well aware that I refer to my car with feminine pronouns. Last summer, I performed the role of Li’l Bit in Paula Vogel’s play How I Learned to Drive. One of the (many) themes running through the play is the connection among cars, women, and sex. The sexualization-of-cars metaphor seems clear in the text and subtext of the script, but in case anyone has missed it, there is one scene when Uncle Peck is teaching Li’l Bit to drive and classic 50s and 60s pin-up style shots of women with cars are projected on the back wall of the stage; cut into the the slide show are era-style pin-up shots of Li’l Bit (a.k.a. me). Li’l Bit asks her uncle why the car is a she. He brings the metaphor to its full by spelling it out for us. For me, Little Purple as a she carried sexual implications, but in a mutually empowering way, rather than in unidirectional objectifying way. We carried each other, we ailed together, we soared together. There’s a reason the call from the Service Department reminded me of finding out I was pregnant.

I accompanied my sister when she bought her Jeep last summer, and I saw how the salesman treated her. He did not take her seriously or see her as an equal until she got a (male) friend on the phone, one who happens to be a successful car salesman. She passed her cellphone off to HotShot McWranglerpants and I could hear him swallow his heart. To hear that smarmy voice change to one of young man knocked down a few pegs infuriated me. Why did it take a man in his mid-forties to get this hot-shot prick to actually listen to my sister? Why are women treated this way when it comes to purchasing and servicing cars? How did one man on a cell phone elicit more respect than two women in person?

Why does Jiffy Lube have a “Ladies’ Day”?

The dynamics of power between men and women are quite plain in the automotive world. The only women I’ve seen employed at the dealership where I purchased my car work at the coffee counter and in the payments department. I’ve co-hosted a few remote broadcasts from that dealership with my radio job, so I’m acquainted with a few employees. As I waited in the payments department to make my down payment, a salesperson I’d previously met walked by, patted my back (hooray for unsolicited bodily contact!), and said, Congratulations, sweetheart! I replied non-noncommittally. It’s a nice car! he reassured me as he walked away (hooray for drive-by nonversations!). I turned to my salesperson (who is, by the way, my sister’s friend from the other end of that phone call with HotShot McWranglerpants) and said, I know it’s a nice car. I bought it. I just don’t like being called sweetheart.

Anyone who thinks we live in a post-feminist society has not purchased a car recently. Or if they did, they are probably a man who purchased a car from a man. I’m not a car person, but I am a person. This whole men-sex-women-cars thing looks as dated as the 50s pin-up pictures we took as publicity shots for How I Learned to Drive, which were, by the way, intentionally vintage. Buying a car as a woman should not take extra strategies or back-up plans or friends on-call if the deal goes south.

So again, I ask: why does Jiffy Lube have a Ladies’ Day?



  1. When I gave up an ailing Bluester this fall I too was on my own at the car dealership. I had done all kinds of math and calculations and felt pretty good about what I could negotiate and what I would accept in the deal. But it still took calling a friend’s husband to come and sit with me before I felt like I was taken seriously. FH didn’t do any of the negotiating, didn’t say anything at all to the sales guy, I did all the negotiating myself, but sales guy didn’t start listening until there was a man sitting at the table with me.


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