It was precisely at this point where cars were cheap and plentiful. As you can well imagine, nineteen year old kids or guys who just graduated high school looked to the American automotive industry and the American automobile as the symbol of their burgeoning male virility as well as the expression of all sorts of ideas regarding what it means to be free in the United States. In other words, people were reading in all sorts of sociological and cultural symbology into the automobile, and Detroit was more than happy to oblige them.
It’s as if every teenager could fulfill all their fantasies by simply buying the right kind of car. You only need to look at the ads that were being run during that period of American history to get a clear understanding of how this all played out. If you were to look past the messages that were obviously being sent and consider the subtext, it all comes back down to sex.
Now, you may be thinking, why the focus on sexual tension, sexual conquest and prowess? Well, it really makes all the sense in the world because the target market are young males. This is a demographic that is a little bit wet behind the ears. They’re untested and they have a lot of insecurities.
So what you’re doing is you’re playing in to this fantasy. You’re both feeding it and directing it at the same time. And the whole conversation about a sex-filled cultural milieu, so to speak, was driven by that all-American red-blooded male’s need for dominance.
So whether the product being sold is a brand new sports car or simply a hyped up car that doesn’t really have all that much power and muscle, the advertising was the same. The cultural symbology and personal psychological vocabulary being used spoke to these deep, unfulfilled needs and the insecurities that informed them.
It’s quite interesting to look at this part of American history and chuckle because in a way it is a journey to a more innocent time. There’s a tremendous amount of nostalgia there. But if you’re really serious about this cultural anthropology and you look at the genealogy of American signals and how sexual needs and frustrations are projected into mass culture, you probably would come to one startling conclusion. The conclusion is that things haven’t changed all that much.
A lot of our current cultural obsession about the Kardashians, American Idol—all of these have gone through many different reincarnations, but the same bundle of frenetic energy and optimism about the future informed by a tinge of sexual tension and frustration remains the same.
It’s kind of like the constant back beat of a jazz ensemble playing through many different decades of American history. The specific range of emotions you feel might differ, the obvious messages might vary from one historical period to the next, but the same core set of cultural values, psychological touchstones, so to speak, barely change.
Make no mistake about it, America’s demographics have changed radically ever since the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Prior to that time, most American migration came from Europe, but after that time, the US started looking much more like the rest of the world.
But despite that huge demographic sea change, the whole range of American cultural expressions and the values underpinning them haven’t really changed all that much. In other words, people can come to America to start a home, but America also starts a home in their hearts.
People can’t help but become Americanized regardless of whether they want to or not. And that’s why muscle cars and the whole culture that grew up around them continue to persist to this very day. You just have to read between the lines and pay attention to context.