Passion in Paint

Watercolor of Alfa Romeo Guilia by Claudia Liebenberg.

Women show their passion for automobiles in a myriad of ways. Some become gearheads. Others go into racing. Many enter the auto industry as engineers, designers, or line workers. They work at auto dealerships and auto factories. Women collect cars, join automotive organizations, and become automotive historians. They are employed as automotive journalists, editors, reviewers, and photographers. And some demonstrate auto appreciation by simply getting behind the wheel.

As reported in a recent Petrolicious article, Claudia Liebenberg is a South African artist who displays her enthusiasm for cars through painting. Although her first love is motorcycles, she developed an interest in automobiles through her father who spent some time as a race car driver in his youth. As she notes, “he always had some sort of classic car parked at home and always took us out for rides.” Her favorites are classic European sports cars; the detailed grills and sleek curves present an artistic challenge she gladly takes on. Liebenberg’s medium of choice is watercolor, which can be difficult and unforgiving. As Liebenberg remarks, “it’s got a mind of its own. […] You have to try and capture and guide it into the shape you have in mind, to the color gradient you have in mind.” 

Liebenberg’s works are minutely detailed; they capture every nut and bolt, each shadow and reflection. Her love for the subject matter is evident in every stroke. Liebenberg shares her  creative process on Instagram; folks can follow the evolution of a vehicle step by step. Liebenberg’s Instagram account functions as her own assembly line as she invites people to be part of the process. Her work has garnered notice; she recently embarked on an evolving career painting commissioned pieces for brands such as BMW. Liebenberg’s dedicated passion for machines and her own honed artistic ability has produced exquisite paintings admired by both the creative set and dedicated auto aficionados.

It is a longstanding assumption that women do not have the same appreciation for the automobile as their male counterparts. However, it is not that women are indifferent to cars, but rather, they express their passion in different ways. As the article focused on Claudia Liebenberg argues, art – whether painting, drawing, photography, or sculpture – can provide women with the means to illustrate – literally and figuratively – a love of automobiles.

Anderson, Arabella. “Be Honest: The Water-Color Paintings of Claudia Liebenberg.” 26 June 2020.

Barbie Cars and the Woman Driver

Barbie and her hot pink Corvette.

In much of my research, which explores the relationship between women of cars in a variety of contexts, I am always curious to discover how women developed a passion for automobiles in a culture that discourages women from participation. Many of the women I encountered learned about cars from their fathers; they discovered early on that an effective way to develop a relationship with Dad was to become interested in the things he loved. These young girls stood alongside their dads as they worked on a car project, asking questions and helping in the garage. Some, on the other hand, had car crazy boyfriends who spent their weekends under the hood. These teenage girls gained automotive knowledge as a way to spend time together. Still others married into car culture, and discovered a passion they did not know existed. 

However, for those who grew up in a more traditional environment, in which girls were encouraged to behave in a particular gendered way, exposure to car culture was less likely. Yet as I recently discovered, some young girls developed an interest in cars in a most unlikely way. As it turns out, Barbie, the popular, shapely doll oft critiqued for its focus on appearance, clothing, and dating, has, over the years, owned a number of sporty, stylish, and non-traditional cars. Barbie could, in fact, be described as a bona fide car enthusiast.

As an early baby boomer, I missed the Barbie phenomenon by a few years. So until an article about Barbie cars turned up in my automotive feed, I had no idea that Barbie had such a fine collection of automobiles. Although women in mainstream culture are traditionally associated with practical cars – station wagons, minivans, and crossovers –there is not a mom car to be found in Barbie’s garage. Over the years, she has driven an Austin Healey, Porsche, Corvette, Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes Benz, hot rod, dune buggy, and a myriad of other fun cars. Apparently I am not the only one who is impressed; Haggerty, the premier insurer of fine and classic automobiles, ranked and wrote about the Barbie car collection. Given the Barbie doll’s longstanding association with stereotypical femininity, what is surprising is that these cars are not in Ken’s driveway, but were produced especially for Barbie behind the wheel. And being the good big sister, Barbie passed on her love of cars to the younger Skipper, who acquired her own car collection when reaching the doll’s version of driving age. 

Cars have always represented freedom to women, which accounts for patriarchy’s longstanding efforts to curtail or constrain women’s automobility. The cars in Barbie’s garage allow her to engage in activities and adventures that have frequently been discouraged in the woman driver. These attractive, sporty cars – in a variety of bright, cheerful, and vibrant colors – not only provide Barbie with transportation to school or work, but offer the possibility of exploration, adventure, new experiences, social networks, and just plain fun. Not having to rely on men for a ride offers Barbie the opportunity to become independent and to travel her own road. Barbie cars, rather than contributing to the stereotypical gendered view of women’s roles, reinforces the importance of cars to women’s agency, identity, and empowerment. As The Drive journalist Stef Schrader asserts, “Barbie’s cars continue to play an important role in expanding the automotive world to kids who might otherwise feel excluded from it, and for that, they deserve your respect.”

Schrader, Stef. “Barbie Has the Best Toy Cars.” 11 Aug 2020.

Car Advertising and the Woman Driver

1983 Buick Regal Ad.

In an article posted a couple of years ago, Jalopnik blogger Elizabeth Blackstock discussed the lack of automotive advertising directed toward women. Although, as she noted, women compose over half of licensed drivers, 62 percent of all new cars sold in the US are purchased by women, and 85 percent of car buying decisions are made by women, advertising most often portrays the universal driver as male. When women are featured in car commercials, it is most often in the most stereotypical of roles. As Blackstock writes, “In the off chance that women are driving—sheʼs with her female friends staring at Ryan Reynolds, sheʼs picking the kids up from soccer practice, sheʼs by herself, or sheʼs marketing (dear God) car insurance. Youʼll be bombarded with those before you get one ad telling you to defy labels and pick the vehicle that truly suits you.”

The root of automakers’ failure to advertise to women is, plainly stated, masculinity. Car manufacturers are uneasy when automobiles become associated with femininity and the female car buyer. As I argue in my article about the chick car, women’s attraction to a particular automobile causes members of the male population to question the car’s technology. As the article states, “The assumption that women lack technical expertise creates a reverse kind of logic in the minds of many male consumers. They believe that since women cannot appreciate the finer technical characteristics of a car, such as power, handling, and performance, the cars women purchase must be technologically deficient. Women’s approval, in the minds of many men, leads to the devaluation of the car” (525). Consequently, the majority of cars that are, in fact, marketed to women are those of little interest to men.

This practice of selective car marketing is not a recent phenomenon. Over 35 years ago I worked in the creative department at a Detroit automotive advertising agency. My [female] partner and I were assigned the Buick Regal, which had been designated as the “woman’s car.” This classification was not due to its popularity among female consumers nor to any “female friendly” automotive features. Rather, it was because sales figures for the outdated Regal were dropping. Reconfiguring the Regal as the Buick offering especially appropriate for the woman driver was a dubious strategy to reinvigorate the brand. Traditionally, automakers have attempted to market unpopular cars to women when “authentic” automobile aficionados –  male drivers – would no longer buy them. 

Since the Regal held no apparent benefit for the woman driver, we decided to invent one. My partner and I put a clever spin on a tired female stereotype which suggests that attractiveness and brain power are mutually exclusive. Both the print ad and the television commercial feature a blonde, professional-looking woman posed next to a 1983 Regal. The print headline – “Good Looking Outside, Good Thinking Inside” – relies upon an often used and effective advertising strategy which calls upon a common positive attribute to link the product and the person who uses it. In this case, the line could be talking about the automobile or the woman standing beside it. The ad copy goes on to expand the misconception often applied to women – “that someone, or something, that’s got a lot in the good looks department, may be lacking in the good thinking department” – to include the smart and stylish Buick Regal. It mentions the beauty of the vehicle’s exterior, while also remarking on the vehicle’s powerful engine and intellectually designed interior, intimating that the woman who drives it is attractive, powerful, and intelligent as well. 

While I don’t recall the exact words of the television commercial, a similar message was delivered by the same woman featured in the print ad. The technique called upon was what is known in the ad community as a “talking head” – the actor delivers the entire commercial speaking directly to the camera. The 30-second commercial ends on a somewhat prophetic note, as the spokeswoman turns toward the imagined audience and remarks,  “Whoever’s in charge at Buick; she must really be something”. Who knew?

Although this campaign for the Buick Regal was created primarily to address an automotive sales issue, it did, at least, noted an automotive blogger, construct the female consumer as “classy, smart, and hard-working” (Kubin-Nicholson). The same could not be said for automotive advertising today. Women are stuck in minivans while the auto industry, ever fearful of offending the male customer, just keeps marketing cool cars to the guys.

As Blackstock notes, advertisements have an effect on the people who see them. As she writes, “If we’re bombarded with car commercials catered specifically to men […] we aren’t going to see women as interested in cars, so women won’t be as interested in cars, and, maybe more importantly, women aren’t even going to feel capable of understanding what makes a good car.” It’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself. Blackstock asks, “when do the girls get to take the wheel?” I enthusiastically echo her sentiments.

Blackstock, Elizabeth. “If Half the U.S. Drivers are Women, Why Aren’t Auto Manufacturers Doing a Better Job of Marketing to Them?”  8Aug 2018.

Kubin-Nicholson (blog) “The Evolution of Car Ads.” 13 Apr 2013.

Lezotte, Chris. “The Evolution of the Chick Car: Or Which Came First the Chick or the Car?” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.3 (2012): 516-531.

Lezotte, Chris. “McCann & Me: One Woman’s Experience in Detroit Automotive Advertising.” Manuscript in Press, Automotive History Review.