Friday, August 5, 2011

Harley Davidson: How Pop Culture's Alpha-Male Gets Around

Google Images

                One arena in which gendered marketing has become entrenched is in the market for motor vehicles. Car companies have engrained into society’s consciousness a distinction between what men and women ought to be driving, to the point where car magazines release annual lists of the “Top 10 Chick/Guy Cars of the Year.” Often times this distinction is created quite subtly. Commercials for “feminine vehicles” like minivans regularly depict a “soccer mom” driving and a rowdy group of children in the back seats, and ad campaigns for the Volkswagen Beetle have historically featured the slogan “Flower Power” to cater to female audiences. On the other hand, commercials for “masculine” pickup trucks like the Ford F150 typically feature a grizzly sounding male narrator, include sequences of aggressive, muddy, off-road driving shots, and construct the amount which one man’s car can tow as a measuring post, alluding to the point that the more towing ability is synonymous with more masculinity. Naturally, campaigns like these have had an observable effect on society, and today it is a rare sight to catch a woman behind the wheel of a pickup truck, or a guy driving around in a Beetle. No product, however, has been more blatant about its gender distinction than Harley Davidson. To sell their motorcycles, Harley Davidson uses phrasing, hyper sexualized women figures, and bearded men to appeal to the tastes and sexual appetite of the supposed alpha-male, and the brand image not only submits to the harmful one-dimensional gender identities created by pop culture, but openly embraces and perpetuates them.

                Consider the role of the male in the ads featured in the collage above. The two images of men in the ads depict guys with beards that extend down to their chests, meant to capture a pinnacle level of masculinity. One ad, in fact, cuts out any other distinguishable features of the man and only shows his beard, heightening this effect. The quips that appear alongside these images are more telling. One ad proudly remarks that the man would never let his wife drive his motorcycle, at least until she turns 18. This quote has creates two key impressions: that women do not belong on motorcycles, and that for men, having a hearty sexual appetite and taking interest in young women who are perceived to be available is both okay and encouraged, regardless of the fact that it would be a crime for the man in the ad to have sexual encounters with a girl below 18 years of age. This ad recalls the ad for Norwegian “Pleasure Ships” which Jackson Katz discusses in his essay about violent white masculinity. The Norwegian ad, which implicitly glorified rape-related crime, left audiences with the same sort of impression as this particular Harley ad: that, despite being criminal behavior, “real men have always enjoyed [rape]” and rape related activity, and that it is “a desirable male pastime” (Katz 354). Harley, then, both creates this distorted gender ideal, and relies upon it as well, in order to sell their product.

                On the other hand, the role of the female in these Harley Davidson ads is perhaps more crucial to creating gender disparities than that of the male. Littered throughout the collage are images of blonde, sexualized models gracing the bodies of different motorcycles. These ads, like many which have been discussed in class, depict women as merely products of sex that are available to men at convenience, and use women with unachievable ideal body figures to validate and perpetuate concepts like the “beauty myth” and the “Cult of Thinness.”Another ad juxtaposes typical car seats with bike saddles, implying that the saddles are superior because women riding in skirts surrender an exposed view of their crotches. The advertisement does not contain any words to clarify this. Two side by side pictures send as clear a message as Harley can convey. This ad, then, perfectly exemplifies what Sut Jhally identifies as our “image-based culture” where images dominate consumer impressions as to the pleasures associated with different goods. As Jhally argues, “sexuality is a powerful component of gender that lends itself even easier to imagistic representation,” which is why Harley can publish an ad comprised entirely of two gendered images and a logo and consider this effective marketing (Jhally 253).Perhaps the most sinister ad, however, does not depict a woman at all, but rather implicitly reveals to audiences that Harley is aware with its harmful depictions of men and women, and simply does not care to rectify them. The ad which touts a bike as a “fatboy that’ll never lay off the carb” shows that the marketers at Harley do have at least some vague understanding of concepts like the Cult of Thinness and the Beauty Myth and how they manifest themselves in society and pop culture. Looking at the rest of the advertisements on the collage, though, it becomes evident that Harley’s marketers do not have any real guilt for the damage they are helping to create. This ad seems to indicate clearly that Harley claims little or no responsibility for their commercial effect on consumers, and indicates that their only real concern is with turning a profit.


Katz, Jackson. "Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity: From Eminem to Clinique for Men." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, 2003. Print.

Jhally, Sut. “Image-Based Culture: Advertising & Popular Culture." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, 2003. Print.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Blog Post #3: Toy Shopping Field Work

                Gendered values are forced upon children from a young age and from a whole host of outlets. Whether it be that the newborn baby aisle that is divided into the blue boy’s section and pink girl’s section, or the television programs that assign character archetypes for men and women, children today enter a society which offers constant reminders as to what their identity should resemble, according to their gender. One of the most influential ways in which these roles are developed, and perhaps one of the more overlooked, is through the toys which young boys and girls play with. These toys, which are appropriated to specific demographics of kids through marketing, impart ideas upon those who play with them.

                Heather is a 5-year-old girl from Mullica Township, NJ. She enjoys swimming, collects Barbies, and is drawn to the appeal of Crayola arts and crafts products. In a perfect world, she would love to have a life-sized Barbie or motorized Barbie car to play with in her yard. Heather, then, is not unlike most American girls her age. For this reason, she comfortably falls into the demographic which toy companies market heavily towards.  The toys which are pushed upon Heather, however, do not exactly promote the healthiest of values for an impressionable child. Instead, toys marketed to Heather instill in her a heightened value on fashion and luxury, which contribute toward the overall identity of the female as merely being presentable and appealing to men.

                One line of toys which particularly embodies these ideas is Bratz dolls. Heather particularly enjoys swimming, so one would suppose it may make sense to get her the “Bratz Spring Break Cloe” doll, complete with a swimsuit and surfboard. Located on in the section delegated for 5-7 year old girls, this doll is designed with girls like Heather specifically in mind. 

 [Photo Credit:]

That being the case, however, it is curious that the doll seems to bear little resemblance to Heather at all. She has cartoonishly long, flowing hair which extends down to her knees, and her face comes with a heavy application of make-up right out of the box. Furthermore, she comes with a “pool drink” accessory which looks more like a cocktail than a soda, suggesting she is 21+ years of age. Heather cannot possibly relate to Cloe, but yet the toy is marketed precisely for Heather. Therefore, it gives off the impression that Cloe is some sort of role model for Heather to aspire towards.

This “role model” framework becomes problematic when coupled with the product’s official description. Pulled verbatim from the Amazon website, the makers of Bratz describe Cloe as “working her bikinis and some major bling,” adding that “Cloe makes luxury look good with styles that look like a million bucks-and the attitude to match.” Taken all together, Cloe appears to be hyped up as a girl living the dream in her twenties – a dream which consists of wearing jewelry, bikinis, and make-up, but not much beyond that. She has a surfboard, but she cannot surf. Hobbies, sports, and other interests then seem meaningless. Instead, the real goal for a girl, which is revealed to Heather when playing with this toy, is to look good and, equally importantly, rich. This way, they will be able to hang out with guys like Bratz Party Boy Dylan (sold separately).

Cloe is not alone in her assault on Heather’s perspective though. She is just one manifestation of what Newman summarizes as the industry-label of “girl’s toys” which “decades of research indicate… still revolve around domesticity, fashion, or motherhood” (Newman 112). As Newman shows, Cloe is not an anomaly, and her influence is not some unexpected negative side effect of Bratz dolls. It is, in fact, the precise intent of the toy as a whole.

Even though Spring Break Cloe may have appealed to Heather, though, it should be noted that this is not her dream toy. Her dream toy is actually a motorized Barbie car. Perhaps Heather has some vague suspicion that Cloe is not much fun and is not exactly conducive to developing an independent individual attitude. Perhaps she realizes that a Barbie car is more fun and/or better for her psyche, which is why she has exceptional appeal for this particular toy. It might make sense to check Amazon for a Barbie car and see how it differs from Cloe, if it does at all.

 [Photo Credit:]

Targeted for ages 3-6 years old and coming in at just under $300, the Power Wheels Barbie Ford Mustang is expensive, for sure, but does not likely price Heather out of the market. After all, the two little white girls playing with the toy in the picture do not look much different from Heather, and they sure seem to be having fun. It is a bit strange that this toy is so popular since girls this age won’t be driving for another 10 years or so, and some may even still ride in car seats, but at least it seems less harmful than Cloe’s suggestive cocktail accessory. After a casual overview, then, one might conclude that perhaps this toy is a preferable substitute.

However, while the product description is not blatantly materialistic like the Bratz dolls, the very same emphasis on luxury and appearance is all present and accounted for, albeit much more implicitly. Talking up the “sophisticated girls colors and graphics” as well as the “detailed styling on the grill and hood,” the product description indicates that some of the appeal in driving this car for girls is going to be how good it looks, and transitively, how good they look inside of it. Furthermore, the images of the inside of the car reveal there to be a toy satellite radio and a toy GPS navigation system in the vehicle as well. In real life, a Ford Mustang equipped with a satellite radio and a GPS system is quite an expensive purchase. There are likely only a handful of cars on the road today then that resemble this Barbie car. However, this toy gives Heather the impression that a car that isn’t a convertible and that doesn’t have expensive luxury electronics in stock is what essentially amounts to a broken toy.

This is a very powerful impression to give a young child since, as Steinem says, “U.S. carmakers firmly believe that women choose the upholstery, not the car” but instead statistics show that “a car is an important purchase for women, one that symbolizes mobility and freedom” (Steinem 224). It was partly because of this misconception that U.S. carmakers were being crushed by foreign competitors, who were capable at addressing women more capably and comfortably, and losing a disproportionate amount of women sales. Toys like the Barbie Ford Mustang, which promote American vehicles, seem to be attempting to swing women consumers into the mold which U.S. carmakers have made for them, that they should be purchasing flashy car interiors, rather than efficient vehicles. In the end, this is all accomplished by placing heavy emphasis on luxury and appearance, and instilling materialistic values in young girls by way of the toys which they play with.

Works Cited

Newman, David. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, &
Sexuality: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality. 1st ed. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2005. 112. Print.

Steinem, Gloria. "Sex, Lies, and Advertising." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Sage
Publications, 2003. Print.