The Politics of Servicing a Car in a Gendered World

(This article originally appeared on lipmag.com) 
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Before I moved out of home, we would take my car to a local guy to get it serviced, and whenever we’d pick it up, the mechanic would always address my Dad when reporting on his progress with the car that was in my name – that I drove.  This same guy would not let his daughter, who I went to school with, join the family business and become a mechanic, even though that’s what she really wanted to do. So, I have been going to my new mechanics because, although it is apparently more expensive than some other places, the workers (all men) are more approachable and professional (read: not sexist hacks). I got my car serviced, with the outside doorhandle replaced (it’s a long story), a few months ago and it cost me $527. That’s almost two weeks’ wages. As I live entirely on Mi Goreng, a recent study has emerged that has made me question my automotive repair experiences, past and present.

North-Western University’s Kellogg School of Management in the United States has conducted a studythat found that women are more likely to be overcharged, or quoted a higher price for car repairs. The study involved participants contacting 4,603 auto repair shops, asking for a price quote on a radiator replacement for a 2003 Toyota Camry. Initially researching information irregularities and the reasons customers receive different price quotes from mechanics, the customers either indicated that they were familiar with the going rate of such a service, were completely unfamiliar, or were aware of a price that was wrongfully higher than the market rate.

The study found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that if you have a higher price in mind, you’re gonna have a bad time. But there didn’t seem to be any difference whether you had no clue, or if you knew all the things – either way, you got a reasonable quote. That’s if you’re a man. Alternatively, women were more likely to be charged a higher price if they did not indicate prior knowledge about the going rate of the job. According to researcher Meghan Busse, ‘shops believe, rightly or wrongly, that women know less about cars and car repair. In the absence of information to the contrary, they will be offered a higher quote’.
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So the advice, ladies, is to get familiar with your sump plugs and head gaskets (I don’t know what either of these are) and get your pretty little heads around the going rate of a transmission repair and standard oil change, because if you do, you’ll be charged the rightful amount. Just as long as you throw in some of these words and make out you know your stuff. Because, according to this study, it seems that if women have no idea, then they really have No Idea. Whereas when men appear to have no idea about cars, the mechanics just think they’re being strategic about it. Sneaky.

So maybe when I got my big $527 bill I should have questioned it/haggled/batted my eyelashes, because this study also found that when women negotiate prices with mechanics, they are more likely to receive a discount. Is this a good thing? (We’re all street-wise, fast-talkin’ lady-lawyers who run in heels). Or just special treatment? (We’re all delicate lady-flowers who need to be showered with compliments, affection and kittens). So much for gender equality if, as a woman you can basically pull out your lady-concession card and get cheap stuff because you’re pretty/have a vagina/nice smelling hair. Then again, considering the gender wage gap and all, maybe we should just cash in on these things. Hell, buy me that drink, shout me dinner/movie, and fix my car half price. What’s a young feminist to do?

Busse stated that mechanics aren’t a bunch of misogynist pigs that are out to rip women off because patriarchy: ‘It’s easy to imagine employees in male-dominated work environments like car repair shops succumbing to gender stereotypes.’ This is a fair point. We still live in a society where stereotypes about men and women that are long outdated still have paradoxical cultural currency and can have a tangible impact on our daily lives.  Women can’t drive and don’t know anything about cars. Men know all there is to know about cars, mechanics and engineering. They can also read maps while women ask for directions. One thing that can be taken from this study’s findings is that when we prove stereotypes wrong, everyone acts like reasonable human beings and the world becomes a better place. Now, excuse me while I go and Wikipedia sump plugs and head gaskets…
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Masculinity, Bravery and Machines: ‘It’s What Defines Us’

Audi’s 2013 Super bowl ad for the swanky S6 has attracted quite a bit of attention in the last few days with many commenting on its questionable representation of gender relations and possible perpetuation of rape culture. I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and throw in my two cents worth seeing as the representation of gender in this ad is interestingly linked to our relationship with technology.

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A basic run down of the ad, titled ‘Prom,’ is as follows: Young guy is a bit bummed out because he’s going to his senior high school prom with no date, and gets all emo when his mum tries to comfort him saying that “now days lots of people go by themselves.” He heads for the door, when good ol’ dad throws him the keys to his BRAND NEW AUDI (yeah, right), wishing him a good time. Young dude gets all excited, pulls up at the school in the principal’s parking space, storms into the prom, hunts down the Prom Queen and forcibly kisses her in the middle of the crowd. Then her boyfriend, a big blond jock comes after him and it is implied that he punches him in the face. Then the young guy speeds away in the Audi with a black eye and a hoot of delight. Cut to tag line: “Bravery: It’s what defines us.”

Let’s start on the line. Who is ‘Us’? And what does bravery define them as? I’m going to make the assumption given that all the main characters in the ad are male and the story is focused around masculinity, that ‘Us’ is Men. Bravery has historically been high on the list of masculine alpha-male virtues. Think cavemen, gladiators, soldiers, explorers etc. So it is implied that bravery is something that defines people with male genitals as Men. However, in a twenty-first century urban environment, how do middle-class men, who are increasingly distanced from earthy, bodily masculinity, exhibit traditional bravery and strength? In a postfeminist climate where women are increasingly out-performing men even in traditionally male fields, how do men who do not fit into the traditional category of alpha-male masculinity negotiate their gender? I think this ad reflects a link between disembodied masculinity and the mastery of technology. The car symbolizes a weapon, a phallic symbol of modern man projecting himself into the world, despite his lacking bodily capabilities. So for contemporary masculinity, technology has become incredibly important in the everyday performance of gender.

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In watching this ad, I was surprised that it was so blatantly targeted at men. Why wasn’t a young woman given the keys by her mum? Or her dad? Or why couldn’t the mum have given the young guy the keys? I would argue that any of these other combinations would dilute the clearly patriarchal frame of the ad. It would also dim down the essence of power, prestige and danger that the ad is attempting to evoke. This is an ad about men projecting themselves out into the world, and the gendered message behind it is that women just don’t project themselves in a powerful way like men.  Young girls don’t drive Audi’s to proms to which they have no date. They probably fuck about in their bedroom doing their make-up until their friends all come over, they then would pile into someone’s Hyundai Getz, tootle along listening to Taylor Swift on the way and then swoon happily into the arms of an Audi-driving guy. If a girl was given the keys to the Audi by her dad, it definitely wouldn’t have sent the same message – it would be daddy’s little girl gets to borrow the expensive car to go to the prom, rather than ‘Cool, bro, I got the car.’ If the mum had given the guy the car it would have a similar dire impact of “mummy’s boy,” no masculine power in that. It’s as if the Dad is giving the son the keys in a sign of patriarchal solidarity. Haven’t we come so far?

Although this ad has numerous gendered problems, I like it because it is a clear example of how technology is so significant in how we perform gender. Although we are led to believe that the protagonist is clearly not an alpha-male, he wins out in the end through his technological extension of mastering the Audi, a symbol of established, confident and powerful masculinity. Although he has no date to the prom, the car allows him to confidently project himself as a viable man, and even though the traditional alpha-male enemy physically overpowers him, he still seems to have hero status in the end, because… well, he’s driving an Audi. Something about the unrealistic situation in the ad leads me to believe that it is more about nostalgia than anything. Lets face it, proms are old fashioned and based on hackneyed gender dichotomies and do not comfortably accommodate for non-heteronormative relationships. The ad reads like the middle-age Dad’s dream of what he wished his prom night was like, and in buying this Audi he can live out that fantasy where he wished he pulled up in the principal’s spot, kissed the girl who was out of his league and had a bit of biffo with that guy he hated cause he was better at sport than him (but still a bit of a buffoon). I don’t really think this ad perpetuates rape culture, because it’s not really about the girl, it’s more about the broader essence of attempting to recapture a fantasy hegemonic masculinity in a time where tangible gender identities are fluid and hard to negotiate. Sure, the forcible kiss is a bit horrid (see the way she kind of grimaces away from him?) and it would have been heaps better if she had given him the black eye, rather than the boyfriend, but I think it is just the tip of the iceberg of a representation of contemporary masculinity in crisis.