Sexualized language colors women's role in auto world

ILLUSTRATION BY SCOTT MENCHIN

Here's a comment among the thousands in our Project XX Survey that really hit us:

"Cars have been coupled with sexual language for so long, it's hard to get men to change the way they talk about cars and women."

It's intriguing to think about how language intersects with behavior and the impact it has on women who work in the industry or simply love cars.

So we reached out to Maggie Stiefvater, a New York Times best-selling author who is so in love with things that go fast, she once bought herself a race car, and asked her to give this idea some thought:

What impact does sexualized language have on women who interact with the auto industry?

The guy approached me at a gas station.

It was the witching hour. Half the station was tucked away under construction-site plastic. It was the sort of place your parents would tell you to skip, to go on to the next exit, but my souped-up Mitsubishi Evolution was not gifted with patience. Already graced with a small gas tank, the Evo's mods had transformed it into a hummingbird. It spent all of its time darting or feeding. If it stopped without getting gas, it died.

We both looked upon the car sulking and feeding between us. It had a taste-the-rainbow paint job. The spoiler was large. The rims were spendy. The engine note thrummed not-stock-not-stock-not-stock. I prepared myself for the conversation; I have had many of them.

"This your car?" he asked eventually.

"Yeah."

"Not your man's?"

My man likes his cars steady and reliable, with good trunk space. I like them stupid-fast and neurotic, with twitchy handling. "No."

"You sure?"

"Pretty damn," I replied.

"You just don't see women in cars like this." His voice carried a tinge of wistfulness.

"You're seeing one right now," I pointed out, but he shook his head. The fact of my presence had proved nothing to him about the rest of the world. Death and confirmation bias, the two things you can count on.

A knowing smile slid across his face. "But can you drive it?"

Some questions are best answered through derisive laughter. I have cultivated a fine laugh for this purpose, although I do not often have call to apply it.

The man explained himself: "A lot of women have cars like this but can't drive them, you know? Women drivers, women drivers."

Death and confirmation bias, man, they always get you in the end.

Here's what's frustrating: I am a fact. My existence, my cars, my driver training — facts. But language is the interpretation and distillation of facts, and the antiquated dialect of automotive culture doesn't know how to deal with me — or any woman. It's a language that was constructed decades ago by people who regarded cars and women as objects of desire. By a culture that didn't think women ought to pull up chairs to any intellectual table.

Now it's 2017, and we're all grown up, but car culture still sounds like a horny 14-year-old boy with "Knight Rider" and bikini posters on his bedroom walls.

Babe magnets. Chick cars. Grocery getters. Crumpet catchers. Hausfrau Porsches. Secretary Mustang. Drive like a woman, race like a man. My car's got a girl's name because cars and girls both let you inside them, get it?

This is the linguistic pedigree of women in automobiles.

Even as women participate more in the automotive world (the numbers show that more women than men hold driver's licenses and that more than 80 percent of car-buying decisions are made by women), the one thing they can't buy is respect.

Women and cars are described in the same words, in the same breath.

Articles underline the worthlessness of cars associated with women: "The 10 Girl Cars You Don't Want to be Caught Driving," "16 Cars Considered 'Chick Cars'" and "15 'Chick' Cars That Men Should Never Drive." If they do acknowledge that women are attracted to high-powered, desirable cars, it's surely only because that's what they want their mate to drive.

Women who make their way upward in motorsports are judged for hotness first, skill second. If there is too much of the first, commenters dryly assume that looks or affirmative action must have landed them their sponsors.

And if a picture is worth a thousand words, classic car ads have the most to say about women, and what they're saying is this: Women are attractive props. Anyone who wants to find a muscle car online will have to wade through dealership websites featuring young women draped over hoods or posed beside fenders. It's a digital form of what you'll see if you walk through any automotive trade show: men in polos walking the floor, booth babes in booty shorts plying brochures. Buy one, whispers the advertising, and you might snag the other, as if the two belong in the same category, the sexy object and the sex object.

Other industries have long since left behind this Stone Age misogyny, but car culture lags like a rental Nissan Versa.

What's the holdup?

Words. Words, words, words.

Our automotive lingo keeps describing women who can't drive, don't understand their cars and don't want to understand their cars. It keeps making women who know cars well into exceptions and turning fast drivers into pinup models. It rejects any information that refutes this version of reality and embraces and amplifies any that doesn't. I'm telling you: Death and confirmation bias, man, they both get you in the end.

Outside the car world, women are coming into their own, finally shedding the tender condescension that believed women were not only never going to be intellectual equals but also that they didn't even want to be. Women are finally ignoring the voices telling them again and again that they aren't interested in engineering and they aren't good at it even if they do try. And more and more, they're finding they are very interested and that they can be very good.

Women drivers, women drivers. I've been one of these my entire life, but I've never heard that phrase except as an insult. It's a joke I'm expected to share. Men — and women — have described women as one thing for so long that they don't recognize a different truth even when it's idling in a Mitsubishi Evo right in front of them.

It's time for the automotive world to rip those posters off the walls. It wasn't even cool in the '80s.

The other day, I pulled up to a gas pump in my ever-starving Evo. Three young men approached me and asked if they could look under the hood.

As they did, one of them flicked back his flat cap so he could look me in the face. He said, "I've never seen a girl in a car like this."

"It's getting more common," I told him. "I'll bet soon it'll be 50-50."

He looked back to the engine. "That'll be awesome."

Yeah. Yeah, it will be.