Pickup Trucks: Less Needed for Work, More Needed to Signal Masculinity?Historians in the News
tags: masculinity, Rural History, cultural history, Pickup Trucks
At a moment of rapid social change in which gender norms are being challenged, it was predictable that conservatives would begin warning of a new “crisis of masculinity” — practiced as they are in fomenting backlash to trends that unsettle their traditionalist base. That makes this a good time to consider one emblem of manhood that has fascinating implications for gender and politics: the pickup truck.
Nineteen years ago, then-presidential candidate Howard Dean caused some controversy when he said that Democrats needed to appeal to “guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks.” While he was accused of stereotyping Southerners as Confederate sympathizers, no one questioned the idea that Democrats had a serious deficit with the pickup demographic.
Since then, a significant divide has opened up between what pickups symbolize and who’s actually buying them — a divide that says a lot about the place of geography and masculinity in a country that grows more urbanized with each passing year.
While some people still buy trucks for work, the pickup has also become a luxury item that carries in its bed a cargo of ideas about rural culture and manhood, enabling men to spend as much as $100,000 on an identity that may have little to do with their actual lives.
I spoke about this with Mark Metzler Sawin, a historian at Eastern Mennonite University who has given serious thought to the meaning of the pickup truck in America. Its popularity, he notes, took off as the number of people who need one for work — farmers, for example — was steadily declining.
More Americans than ever are employed in service industries and jobs that involve working at computers all day. At the same time, men’s dominant position in the culture is under constant challenge. They remain atop society’s hierarchy — 91 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives are men this year, as are 41 of 50 governors and 76 of 100 senators. But women are making more and more progress toward equality in high-status jobs in business, law, medicine and plenty of other fields.
Meanwhile, today’s cultural debate around gender often characterizes old-fashioned masculinity as something dangerous and harmful. Conservative men in particular watch with horror the denigration of “everything that their grandpa did and was praised for,” the traditional habits and obligations of manhood, says Sawin.
“The same impulse that caused people to vote for Trump,” Sawin says, “is also what is causing them to continue to buy pickup trucks: this frustration that the world changed, and it changed in a way that made my life worse — or at least made me less powerful.”
Which brings us to how pickups are marketed: by placing power at the core of their appeal.
In the most common type of pickup ad, the truck is presented as a work machine that gives the man who drives it almost limitless power.