My worst nightmare is to be thrown in the middle of a party where well-heeled stags are swilling scotch, rattling antlers and bragging about real estate investments. No, wait, that’s my second-worst nightmare. My worst is when those stags get high and start yakking about automobiles. When terms like adaptive cruise control and regenerative braking come out to play, I swerve off to find another party.
This isn’t the sort of confession one makes in a reputable men’s magazine, but I’m not really a car guy. I drive competently. It’s a necessary skill that has served me well. But don’t expect me to get orgasmic over some curvaceous, fancy-shmancy apparition in sheet metal that smells of grease and leather polish.
At the wheel, I am decidedly bipolar. On long highway drives, I’m a picture of bliss — chatty, singing, and providing nerdy commentary on the topography. Put me in the same place during peak hours in city traffic and I transform into an ogre — cussing, carping, blaspheming. My fecund vocabulary, rich with dehumanising descriptions of fellow motorists, might win a nod of admiration from Ganesh Gaitonde.
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You see, I’m not the kind of guy who lets his wife drive only when he’s had one too many. My parking skills are legendary even when I’m sober, so I’m happy to let her take the wheel at any time. Moreover, it allows me the freedom to continue my tirade at the world from the passenger seat while she steers me through the seven circles of hell, unfazed. Heck, she even changes the tyres while I stand around and pretend to make calls.
While you sit there getting judgemental about me, here’s a little exercise. Thumb through the pages of any magazine from the last three years and do a quick content analysis of the auto ads. How many of them feature women at the wheel? And how many put women celebrities in the driving seat?
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Let’s see… KIA featuring Tiger Shroff. Ciaz with Ranveer Singh. Renault endorsed by Ranbir Kapoor. Case closed.
Subtlety has never been the auto industry’s saving grace. Like any other industry, it has sold more cars by reinforcing male stereotypes. An early print advertisement for Tata Indica pictured a pregnancy testing kit displaying a red plus sign, and the slogan ‘Go further.’ Not much of a hat-doff to Suzanne Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, historically the first woman to drive a car in India. About a decade ago, we refused to entertain the very thought of upgrading to an SX4 because Maruti-Suzuki used the tagline ‘Men Are Back’.
If there’s anything more galling than the entitled chatter around driving, it’s the patriarchy infecting it. Even Saudi Arabia kept its delayed date with the 21st century by allowing women to drive and yet, there are more dumbass jokes about women drivers in circulation than there is space to park them. In Britain, where some of the nastiest gags thrive, women pass driving tests only about 25 per cent of the time, pointing clearly to a seriously biased system.
This inherent prejudice implies that women can’t depend on driving as a profession, and fewer women drive taxicabs in the United Kingdom than they do auto-rickshaws in India. In Kerala, where women drive private buses, taxis and ambulances, the government has framed laws that make it easier for them to get public sector jobs as drivers. One can’t say that attitude applies to the rest of the country.
Men might imagine that the driving seat is their sworn inheritance, but car salesmen since the 1920s have known better. When you go to buy a car, observe how the foxy fellow always talks unctuously to the woman. He blabbers to you about BHP and torque, but to her he stresses with great sincerity the car’s safety, comfort and practicality features. No surprise, because research proves that women have always driven (ironic choice of verb) car-buying decisions.
In her book Women At The Wheel, gender historian Katherine Parkin chronicles a century of American automobile history from the perspective of women. In the 1950s, she writes, a woman picking up a man at the station in an Oldsmobile turned a lot of heads, and set off a lot of wagging tongues.
For women, this perception of liberation has come at a steep price. In the present-day, despite the encouraging number of women drivers on our roads, a woman driving a car-pool of male colleagues still gets a lingering double-take. If she shows up at work driving a Porsche, her colleagues are likely to speculate on the depth of her husband’s pockets. These stereotypes are unlikely to fade even when self-driving cars become the norm.
Which brings me to a more serious quandary: In a self-driving world, whom will I cuss at?