Automobiles, Advertisements and Gender Stereotypes

Today’s post expands on a sentiment quickly expressed in Prescriptive Literature about the actions of car manufacturers as they began to realize the consumer power that women had when it came to the purchase of the family car, and how they started to shape the stereotypical ideas we have today on what is a “manly car” and a “girly car” through design and advertising.

With the automobile’s creation of increased access to affordable leisure and its usefulness in getting people (usually men) to and from work, society began to view autos as an “accepted essential of normal living.”[1]  As their price fell, and with the ability to purchase them with credit and payment plans, “the car became a purchase second only to the family home.”[2]  In addition to the rise of prescriptive literature on how to go motoring, automobile ads also increased.  Their appearance quickly outnumbered all others; advertising costs in 1927 alone reached $9.269 million.[3]  Auto advertisements appeared in many magazines, including those marketed to middle-class women, which were sensitive to their consumer power.[4]

A “constant utilization of gender stereotypes” proliferated within popular culture, including advertisements for the auto.[5]  “The industry,” Virginia Scharff writes,

[identified] women with the automotive features associated with affluence and leisure and considered cosmetic or superfluous.  They described men’s preferences as practical and mechanical, linking male automobility with thrift and work.[6]

Soon, automobile manufacturers began to market and design automobiles with gender differences in mind.  Designs adopted stereotypically male or female characteristics.  Scharff continues,

These gendered notions also tended to reinforce a questionable distinction between automotive function (identified with masculinity and with such qualities as power, endurance, economy, price, and service) and form (identified with femininity and with such attributes as luxury, comfort, style, and even safety).[7]

Even though there was really no correlation between these socially-constructed stereotypes and what cars were purchased by which gender, cars became gendered objects.[8]  In some respects, they remain so today.


[1] James J. Flink, The Car Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1975), 154.

[2] Dorothy M. Brown, Setting a Course: American Women in the 1920s (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987), 106.

[3] James J. Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 191.

[4] Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992), 49.

[5] Clay McShane, Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 149.

[6] Scharff, Taking the Wheel, 119.

[7] Scharff, 119.

[8] Jeremy Packer, Mobility without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 259.

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One Response to Automobiles, Advertisements and Gender Stereotypes

  1. Pingback: A Quick Note on Male/Female Differences in the Advice they Offer « Three Months By Car

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