Don’t Macho EVs Alienate Female Audiences Too Much?


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Each morning I receive A.Word.A.Day, which gives me a quick moment to assess and expand my vocabulary. A target phrase this week caught my attention: “Bechdel test.” It’s defined as “a test of inclusion and representation of women in a work of fiction.” Ah, the notion of including and representing women complements ideas posed in a recent Wired article: US automakers continue to favor a male worldview for their EV design. That bold/ in-your-face/ Transformer-inspired design pattern now extends to electric powertrains, so that macho EVs are all the rage.

Since women comprise half of all US drivers, doesn’t it make sense to design more EVs to appeal to women? It’s clear — macho EV design fails the Bechtel test.

Driving represents independence, control, and freedom in the western world. Cars have served as a symbolic physical embodiment of dominant masculinity since their mass adoption in the early 20th century. A 2023 white paper explains how car aficionados tend to emphasize masculine powers in a way that is purposefully exclusive. Automotive culture, it follows, permits escapism as passion for cars that is endorsed by the larger society so that men conflate their identity with that of a powerful vehicle.

In the Car Guy subculture prevalent symbols of masculine group identity provide a safeguard against masculine identity threats. Automotive marketing capitalizes on these male performance fears and desires. Messaging leads men to select certain vehicles in order to join the club of accepted masculine ideals, and it separates men from boys and men from women.

Even men outside of the Car Guy subculture tend to view interest in cars as a masculine credential.

Interestingly, the onset of the transformational era of battery electric vehicles has not moved beyond the car as a male identity marker. “The auto industry, despite the disruptive arrival of electric powertrains and a near 50/50 split in men and women drivers in the US alone,” Wired argues, “is doggedly continuing to favor a male perspective on how cars look.”

We can start with the recent craze over Tesla’s Cybertruck. The long awaited battery electric pickup truck reportedly has anywhere from 1.5 million to nearly 2 million reservations pending. As if the stainless steel, gigacasting, and bullet-proof materials weren’t enough to capture the male gaze, its big, dominant, and aggressive size combines for an ideal iconography of testosterone gone rampant.

We can’t forget the GM Hummer EV line, the larger model of which Road and Track describes as “dominated by ultra-aggressive elevated headlights that sit above a sloping bumper designed to maximize ground clearance for a vehicle that already towers over almost everything on the road.”

Certainly, these and many other high profile, aggressive EVs connote phallic power. Look no farther than Marjorie Taylor Greene’s thoughts last year. “Democrats like Pete Buttigieg want to emasculate the way we drive and force all of you to rely on electric vehicles.”

A writer on Medium responded to Greene’s comment in such a terse and humorous way that it absolutely deserves repeating.

“Marjorie Taylor Greene knows exactly what she’s doing. There is a certain kind of man in America for whom everything relates to his penis. His house, his lawn, his guns, his wife, his kids, everything. He only drinks Tennessee whiskey, no ice, because that’s manly.”

Early auto manufacturers weren’t concerned with how a car looked, rejecting and attributing aesthetics to the feminine. The first electric cars were seen as a ladies’ car for flitting about the city, compared to the more “manly” gas-powered option. But 21st century EV designers haven’t followed suit. Many companies have redesigned the electric models in their catalogs with higher profiles, sharp lines, bursting bodies, and formidable grilles.

An editorialist in Curbed went so far as to argue, “These cars represent the worst possible future for electrification — dangerously powerful trucks driven by people who can’t see what’s in front of them, barreling through neighborhoods that were not designed for vehicles of this size.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk doesn’t care about the criticism over macho EVs. “We want to be the leader in apocalypse technology,” he said in 2020 on Jay Leno’s Garage. Wearing black from head to toe, Musk added that the Cybertruck’s bed was large enough to “mount a missile launcher.”

Can EVs be designed to be adaptable outside of gender constraints? What can be done to rethink EV design so it’s more customized and sized to fit a driver’s needs — beyond masculine gender power?

Reimagining EV Design beyond Macho EVs

EVs require no transmission tunnel, so that means there’s room for a flat floor and a focus on aerodynamics. The Wired article explains, “There is a giant opportunity to completely upend that standard (speed, handling, aerodynamics) and reconsider the way we think about, build, and design cars.” It’s not a stretch to think beyond macho EVs so electric sedans, SUVs, and truck come without wheel overhangs, with a streamlined exterior shape, and with interior layouts that foreground function and comfort.

Instead of the aggressive identity marker of macho EVs, battery electric transportation could be reinterpreted as sophisticated and stylish and could exude a self-evident confidence.

Derek Jenkins, senior vice president of design and brand at Lucid Motors, told Wired that no longer must car design be inherently male. Take the Lucid Air, for example. “We deliberately moved away from aggressive language,” he says. Jenkins added that it’s important that the Air not look “overtly boastful” or “overtly masculine.

”There are no fake vents or holes or scoops, there are no menacing qualities of the car. I looked at it more like a jet aircraft—effortlessly sleek. When I see the car on the road, it glides like air. To me that’s not a masculine nor a feminine thing. It’s just elegance.”

Rethinking design as a result of a new electric drivetrain will take ingenuity and clever marketing so today’s norm toward macho EVs loses a bit of its luster. Part of that will emerge from a conscious realization of female purchasing power — in 2019 female consumers accounted for 62% of all new cars sold in the US and influenced more than 85% of all car purchases.

Perhaps that epiphany about attracting new EV audiences that include women will steer altogether away from feminine or masculine and, instead, balance effective and efficient EV operation in the environmental and physical conditions to which it will be exposed alongside the aesthetics of rich comfort and individualized technology.

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