This was originally published elsewhere on November 15th.
The Death of Cheerios and the Search for the New Manhood
The first car that I remember my family having was a beige Ford Falcon. Older relatives talk about a VW Beetle my parents would have had right after they got married, but that one is entirely missing from my conscious memory. In any case, as pressures towards respectability and our size family grew, a still larger car than the Falcon was soon in order. One of my stronger early childhood memories then is of the day when the dark blue-green ’65 Oldsmobile Jetstar 88 pulled into our driveway. That became the real car of my childhood. Through my parents’ divorce, three changes of address, countless beach trips, all of my pitiful Little League career, some wild family camping adventures and the rest of my pre-teen life, that was our family car. It was one of those living rooms on wheels, with a simple AM radio, bench seats front and back, a big V-8 engine, automatic transmission, power steering and no frills beyond that. Even after its U-joints started to fail and it sat in the gravel lot behind our apartment building for over a year, that chunk of Detroit heavy metal remained in my mind the model of what a “normal car” should be like: substantial, powerful, roomy and protective.
My own first car turned out to be a ’69 Ford Galaxy 500, which I never particularly loved, and which has actually caused me to avoid that brand ever since. Objectively speaking it wasn’t the manufacturers fault, but the engine, transmission, body and suspension system on that beast proved to be pretty much equally unreliable. I did have a beautiful girlfriend for most of the year I had it, and thanks to its tank-like bulk I did live through the time I fell asleep driving it, but that’s about all the positive things I can think of to say for that old beater. It was dubbed “Battlescar Galactica,” and by the time I junked it there was no love lost.
The next car I got was a ’70 Pontiac Lemans. That was a much sweeter machine. My father actually picked it out for me, bought from a retiree in his neighborhood in Connecticut. The gear ratios were a bit high for country roads, and the two-door body was a bit awkward to get groups of friends in and out of, but it was fast, stable, reliable and sporty. It was the closest I ever had to a true muscle car. I had one minor wipe-out with it in a snowstorm, but other than that I never had any significant mishaps with it. My sister got her driver’s license in that car, and along the way there were more interesting adventures with it than I have time to write about this weekend. I wish I could have afforded to keep it for longer. For all I know the lady I sold it to could still be driving it.
Over the years that followed I also owned a full sized Buick and a full sized Chevrolet. Those were less successful discount purchases, but they were better for me than the Ford at least. So it was with some nostalgic melancholy that I listened to the radio news last week that GM was retiring its “Mr. Goodwrench” service division. Their Pontiac division also bit the dust this fall. Oldsmobile was already long gone. Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac remain, but the GMs that left the most positive early impressions on me have now gone the way of the dinosaurs whose decayed bodies provided their fuel.
Some industry pundits have said that a big part of GM’s mistake was to keep four different brands of cars which were virtually indistinguishable from each other. To provide respectable competition for the Mopars and Mercs on the NASCAR circuit, the Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldses started popping in Chevy motors. A Chevy-Olds became known as a “Cheerio” and the same label got tacked onto its Buick and Pontiac sisters. Meanwhile, out on the street, the Camaro, the Corvette, the Firebird and the Goat maintained a certain credibility among those addicted to the sound and feeling of a four-barrel kicking in, but that dwindling group was becoming less and less capable of supporting a full sized market. So GM tried unsuccessfully to morph these makes into things things that middle-aged baby boomers could justify buying on practical grounds. The result was the equivalent of seeing the girl you had the hots for in your sophomore year turn into a saggy, baggy divorced leftover. The magic was gone. By the time these brands were discontinued it was hardly a surprise to anyone.
Not that these beasts ever really made much sense. The best that could be said of them is that they gave men a certain sense of power: production cars that embodied the hot rod spirit in grand scale–tons of steel roaring forward at speeds never before available to the common man, and with a sense of even greater possibilities. Many allowed themselves to start believing the “American Graffiti” style myth that this mechanical power would also make a man influential and sexy. For a lot of guys that just rang true, all evidence to the contrary. This sort of masculine success didn’t depend on social politics or conforming to anyone else’s standards. The rumble of that fine tuned V-8 made you a man’s man. You perfected this symbol of your power within the sacred chamber of your own garage or workshop, and then you could take it out and gain respect for this symbolic masculine power, confronting any fools who might dare to challenge you man to man, machine to machine. It was almost like being a knight errant, only not so bloody.
According to the myth these contests were capable of charming women, but in the end that was hardly the point. It was ultimately a matter of proving your manhood to other men. If women didn’t get it, well… the standards of whatever planet they came from didn’t necessarily apply. In some respects this was the masculine equivalent of what the fashion industry is for women: such things are supposed to help them impress men, but ultimately that’s not really the point; the main thing is to prove that one is as powerfully feminine as the next girl. If men don’t get it, or if they fail to be impressed, that’s their problem.
In some regards then the loss of the Pontiac brand for men who have used it to bolster their manhood is the rough equivalent of what it would be like for “Sex in the City” fans if stiletto heels were no longer to be produced. In terms of practical utility and enabling someone to be a better partner or spouse, they are worse than useless; but in terms of giving the person a sense of confidence in being able to stand out as a woman’s woman or a man’s man, and attract those of the opposite sex on the basis of that sort of feeling of confidence and power… its easy to see how some might become emotionally dependent on such things.
Of course every generation has had its own abstract symbols of power and success for each gender. Some day stilettos and muscle cars will entirely go the way of whale bone corsets and powdered wigs, to be replaced by only God knows what. Whether the opposite sex will find these new power symbols attractive or not remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, we have those of both genders who are not out to win over those of the opposite sex so much through a display of power as by a display of submissive appeasement. For women this can be the soft-spoken, contented little home-maker image; all the things true feminists have tried so hard to stomp out. For men, on the other hand, this can be the role of the undemanding and supportive “bread winner”, or that of the general household assistant. This too can be something that others of the same gender might look down on as beneath the dignity of someone with self-respect. So both men and women are forced to think about who they really want to seek approval from: those of their own sex or those of the opposite sex? And what are they willing to sacrifice to gain this approval?
One thing that can both provide personal satisfaction in terms of reinforcing a solid, self-respecting gender identity, and at the same cement an attraction to the opposite sex, however, is active parenthood. This too can be a battlefield, but it shouldn’t have to be. When women have the opportunity and feel empowered enough to live on their own terms as mothers, there is nothing more reaffirming for their femininity… or so I’ve been told. And when we men are able to build relationships with their own children on their own terms, or even within moderate matriarchal restrictions, there is nothing more reaffirming of our masculinity, says the voice of deeply felt experience.
It is now the wee hours of the morning following the day designated on the Finnish calendar as Father’s Day. I’m running considerably behind schedule with many things, not only this blog. When I wake up in the morning I’ll have to hit the ground running to catch up on many matters of boring and existentially meaningless routine responsibility, which are byproducts of my semi-chosen profession and lifestyle. With any luck at all my car will get me to all the places I have to go, but it won’t prove anything to anyone about what an important man I am. But regardless of all that, today my adult sons made a point of spending a bit of quality time with their crazy old dad, and for now that gives me as much personal reinforcement as I can ask for. In this respect at least I really am valued for who I am as a man. Of course I still keep hoping for more, but for now I’ll content myself with having that much.