It’s probably similar to girls, isn’t it; the look of it is what attracts you to start with and then you get to know them a bit more, so I think it’s the same with cars.
– Michael Owen, in an advert for a car dealership
In 2008 BMW released what’s called a ‘concept car’, a way of showcasing a company’s design capability without worrying too much about practicality. It was created using a fabric to cover the body of the vehicle instead of metal, which was stretched over the machine like a supple skin. It wasn’t a car: it was a creature. They called it GINA.
The fabric meant that the car’s elastic body could move, flex and stretch. The headlights open up like eyelids, the doors like butterfly wings, and – intriguingly – a gash on the bonnet dilates to reveal its interior anatomy. ‘GINA’, according to BMW, is an acronym for ‘Geometry and functions In ‘N’ Adaptations’, and they pronounce it ‘geena’. But the bonnet’s vulvic opening suggests another pronunciation.
The relationship between women, cars and sexuality is longstanding. And Hollywood has been especially influential in developing this associative network. Throughout cinema’s history, the car has been used as an emblem of erotic potentiality, with lusty teens driving to deserted roadsides to undergo their first sexual experiences. Some cars – the fastest, biggest, smartest cars – are revered as aphrodisiacs, or, colloquially, as pussy magnets.
Nowadays, cars have become combined with women to the point of equation. Commonly referred to with the feminine pronoun (‘listen to her purr’), cars, as with other motorised vehicles, have become feminised. Cinema has developed a sexual language that especially insists on the female and sexualized nature of cars. Nowhere is this more blatant than in the car wash scene. From at least as early as 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, to Cameron Diaz’s more recent example in 2011’s Bad Teacher, male directors have choreographed car washes with slippery, soapy, bikini-clad women. In these scenes, the women and the car appeal to the male gaze as one composite delight: the body becomes an extension of the man inside, groomed and sanitised by a host of willing floozies.
The ‘car = woman’ metaphor reaches its cinematic zenith in Michael Bay’s 2007 film Transformers, where Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) appears on screen leaning into a car, as if the open bonnet is a visual innuendo for the desire to open Banes’ legs. ‘It squirts the fuel in to go faster’, Banes says, referring to the car; ‘I like to go faster’, Shia LeBeouf’s character replies, referring to Banes. This exchange equates Banes with the car.
In contemporary advertising, semi-naked women tend to be placed on, in, over, around, and next to (but never actually driving) cars. They are made to adorn them like an extra spoiler or a wing mirror, completely devoid of function. Or, as in the photo below, the simile takes on a more extreme form, and becomes a visual metaphor.
This woman’s skin colour is indistinguishable from the leather of the car’s interior, to the extent that it can actually be confusing to look at. It’s almost impossible to detect where one ends and another begins. The woman is the car and the car is the woman. It is, as philosopher Noel Carroll defines it, a visual metaphor:
‘a visual metaphor is a visual image in which physically noncompossible elements belong to a homospatially unified figure’. [Aspects of Metaphor, ed. Jaakko Hintikka (Kluwer Published, 1994), 189-218]
BMW’s elaborate acronym from (or, more likely, backronym) ‘Geometry and functions In ‘N’ Adaptations’ possesses a palpable smugness, derived from the absence of any real attempt to provide a convincing justification for the name GINA. It is a nod to their male customers’ penises. And it’s not the first time BMW have exploited the car-woman metaphor. In a perverse twist on slut-shaming, their advert for second-hand BMWs parades the logic that, like a car, if a woman is beautiful enough then you can see past the fact that she’s been “used” before.
Carroll argues that a visual metaphor ‘encourages viewers to explore mappings between the relevant constituent elements and/or categories or concepts to which they allude.’ [ Ibid.] What exactly, then, is being encouraged here? R Kelly perhaps holds an answer.
In his 2003 best-selling single ‘Ignition Remix’, R Kelly contemplated ‘The way you do the things you do, / Remind me of my Lexus coup’. The song is an exploration of the ‘car = woman’ metaphor, where, importantly, the man is introduced into what is a complex metaphorical system. And, of course, with the man comes the penis. ‘I’m ’bout to take my key and / Stick it in the ignition’. In this double entendre, the penis unlocks the vagina like a key unlocks and activates a car. The penis is presented as a tool of activation and control, and the vagina as a passive, obedient recipient. The woman can merely express pleasure or discomfort (differentiating between the two is unimportant to R Kelly): ‘Can I get a beep beep / Can I get a toot toot’.
This is more than simple objectification. R Kelly cultivates the idea that a woman is dormant until unlocked and ignited by a man and his penis. She is a sex toy on standby. Further, a car is something that is driven; it is passive, and controlled by the driver. Hence, all the woman can do is ‘beep beep’; she reacts, responds, but doesn’t exert any agency. Further still, the car/woman is unlocked by a key/penis. As the old adage goes, a good key unlocks many locks, while a good lock is unlocked by only one key. As seen with the BMW advert, a fundamental aspect of the car-woman metaphor is that the man owns them both, and should be accessible to him and only him: only he should be able to turn her on. R Kelly’s ignition/vagina metaphor perpetuates this notion.
What also emerges from the song is that the ‘car = woman’ is more than a single metaphor: it is a complex metaphorical framework, the sort defined in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s seminal work Metaphors We Live By (2003). Metaphors, they argued, not only exist in complex frameworks, but also play a role in shaping the way we think. Their most powerful example is the ‘argument = war’ metaphor:
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.
You disagree? Okay, shoot.
These are separate metaphors, but they exist within a system, and are all mutually dependent. Saying ‘he shot down my argument’ makes sense because of all the other ways we equate argument with war. When seen for the conceptual framework that it is, it’s difficult not to think that this encourages associations between argument and antagonism, especially in terms of binary conflict.
Sophie Zadeh explored a parallel issue when discussing the padlock as a symbol for love, where couples weigh down the Pont des Arts with lovelocks. Ownership, monogamy, entrapment – these connotations all sprout from that symbol. But what’s special about the padlocks is that they serve as a fitting metaphor for the way metaphors themselves work, locking concepts together. How can we unlock them?
Lakoff and Johnson imagine unlocking the ‘argument = war’ metaphor, and replacing it with another:
Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.
The ‘car = woman’ metaphor might not be so ostensible as ‘argument = war’, but it is equally prevalent. Lakoff and Johnson imagine a culture where the ‘argument = war’ metaphor doesn’t exist; can we imagine a world where women aren’t viewed as cars?
That’s hard when the metaphor finds constant visual reification, in car-wash scenes and Michael Bay montages. BMW’s GINA epitomizes the metaphor’s incarnation: it’s a ‘concept car’, a visual object designed to influence our concepts. They don’t want us to buy the car; they want us to buy into it. But that metaphor, at the core of BMW’s ‘concept car’, clearly encourages toxic attitudes towards female sexuality. Can we unlock that metaphor? What could we encourage instead?