When my son was young, he and I took karate lessons together, along my sister-in-law and her young son. The lessons were in Lexington, so the four of us usually drove the 60-some-mile round trip together.
Inevitably, at some point during our weekly journey — often at multiple points — some doofus in a ginormous pickup would fly up right on our car’s rear bumper, the truck booming, vibrating and looming over us as if the driver meant to ram us. We’d get out of the way if we could, and then the truck would throttle past us in a deafening roar.
Every time, my sister-in-law would roll her eyes as the pickup disappeared into the distance. She’d hold up a hand, the thumb an inch from the forefinger.
“The bigger the truck, the smaller the …” she’d say.
Because there were kids in the car she never finished that sentence, but she didn’t need to. To her, an oversized truck combined with an overly aggressive driver revealed more than the driver realized: a major insecurity about his manhood. The bigger and louder the pickup, the more dire the lack for which the driver was compensating.
It turns out my sister-in-law was even more correct than I realized.
This isn’t to imply a one-to-one correlation between a pickup truck’s horsepower and its owner’s other, uhm, power centers. Lots of people drive great big pickups because they have great big jobs — pulling backhoes out of muddy culverts, hauling cattle or moving a half-ton of bricks.
I’m in no way, shape or form against either pickups or their owners. In fact, most of my friends own trucks.
But recently I read a fascinating piece in the Washington Post, in which columnist Paul Waldman looked at who drives pickup trucks today and why.
Last year, the three top-selling vehicles in America were pickups.
It turns out that most people who drive pickups (read: suburban white guys) don’t do it for practical reasons, but because they see the trucks as declarations of their identity, masculinity and even their political preferences.
Their trucks aren’t work tools so much as personal statements.
According to Waldman, the popularity of pickups “took off even as the number of people who actually need one for work — farmers, for example — was steadily declining.”
This popularity coincides with larger cultural trends. More and more, men have been shifted from brawny, hands-on labor to sedentary and physically undemanding jobs. Simultaneously there’s a heated debate about gender that disparages longstanding ideas of masculinity as toxic. For men, it’s a double whammy.
“Conservative men in particular watch with horror the denigration of … the traditional habits and obligations of manhood,” Waldman said.
For his column, Waldman drew heavily on the observations of Mark Metzler Sawin, a historian at Eastern Mennonite University who has studied the meaning of pickup trucks.
“The same impulse that caused people to vote for Trump,” Sawin told Waldman, “is also what is causing them to continue to buy pickup trucks: this frustration that the world changed, and it changed in a way that made my life worse — or at least made me less powerful.”
Not surprisingly, then, when marketing their products, pickup manufacturers appeal to images of power.
A Dodge Ram TV ad declares, “A man will ask a lot of his truck. Can it tow that? Haul this? Make it all the way over the top of that? Well, isn’t it nice to know that the answer will always be: Hell, yes!”
Waldman said, “That imagery is meant to evoke a kind of manhood that embodies self-reliance, competence, mastery over the environment and a physicality most men have no need for in their day-to-day lives.”
Indeed, a lot of trucks now are luxury vehicles. Front ends keep getting bigger and bigger and the cabs get roomier and roomier, even as the beds — the business part that hauls stuff — get shorter and shorter. Pickups have bucket seats and state-of-the-art sound systems. F-150s can sell for $100,000.
According to industry data, 75 percent of truck owners actually tow something once a year or less, about 70 percent go off-road once a year or less and more than a third use their trucks for hauling once a year or less, Waldman wrote.
“Owners do, however, cite their desire to ‘present a tough image’ and ‘have their car act as (an) extension of their personality’ as reasons to own a pickup,” he said.
Pickups have become signifiers. For some guys in some states of mind, their pickup tells everyone else, “My ride is bigger and stronger than your ride. I’m virile. I’m one tough hombre. You’d better get outta my way.”
All of this, as I said earlier, tends to make my late sister-in-law look prescient. But in my experience, that’s usually the case with women. Typically, the message we guys think we’re sending them isn’t the message they’re receiving. Not at all.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.