Images are important—they impact identity and interpersonal relationships. That’s why representation of marginalized groups is so essential for social progress. When a group only sees certain images of itself in magazines, TV shows, and movies, that group will often internalize those images, which are usually stereotypical, restrictive, and derogatory. Women have historically been one such marginalized group in America. This exhibit will examine images of women in automobile advertising to explore questions of patriarchy, gender roles, and the fight for social progress.
Theorists have long considered images to be a part of a wider power structure. In a collection of essays published in 1971, French Marxist Louis Althusser formulated the concept of the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). Hoping to refine the broad-strokes approach of traditional Marxism, Althusser argued that ISAs subtly enforce an ideology, or system of thought, that benefits a dominant class. These ISAs include organized religion, public school, and popular media. Each of these institutions functions as an enforcer of a power structure that keeps repressed groups at the margins. Advertising also functions as an ISA, creating images and thus ascribing identities for certain groups that will aid the dominant group in its maintenance of power.
The car has been particularly significant in American culture, and gendered car advertising has taught and reinforced an ideology that marginalizes women. As you will see in this exhibition, car culture (and thus American culture), as it is constructed through advertising, is a culture that excludes women. Car advertising enforces a few restrictive identities and roles for women—each of which works to prop up patriarchy. This exhibition focuses specifically on women as they appear in American car advertisements from the middle of the 20th century. There has of course been some progress in representation since then, but some of the common tropes still persist.
This exhibition invites you to explore these tropes, which are divided into broader categories: Woman as Driver, Woman as Passenger, and Woman as Object. Then, explore a few exceptions to these tropes, and think about the ways in which women negotiate these images. Women are not simply passive consumers, soaking up messages from the media. Images are important, but women have agency. Keep this in mind as you consider both the hegemonic impacts of advertising as an Ideological State Apparatus and the actual women who process these messages.