Two decades ago, with America still reeling from 9/11, one vehicle emerged from the discourse as a shining new testament to America’s strength, scale and military courage. It was the perfect ride for an age of superficial patriotism and material excess, emboldened by a culture desperately seeking new highs after hitting an existential low.
That vehicle was the shining new Hummer H2: A three-ton SUV with gargantuan proportions and enough height to block out the sun for any passing sedans. With a suggested retail price of $54,000, it was practically a luxury vehicle, without much in the way of luxury. Maybe that’s why it didn’t sell all that well in its first year after release, notching just over 18,000 units.
Nonetheless, the American populace began a torrid love affair with this military-inspired truck, which became a litmus test of so many things that had nothing to do with car culture. Its ludicrously gas-hungry nature made it a statement in a time of enlightenment around climate change and environmental damage. It took up far too much space on streets and in parking lots, forcing others to give way. It looked bulletproof and ready for the apocalypse, even if in reality it was constructed of aging GM parts and a dump truck’s worth of Fisher Price-quality plastic.
In so many ways, the goofy H2 was a paragon of American pride and insecurity at the turn of the 21st century. America was under attack, and the War on Terror was on; at home, citizens coped by turning to consumerism and spending their dollar as a political statement. Along with the reality TV boom and a growing fascination with the virtual realities of internet media, the H2’s rise to the zeitgeist affirmed our nascent obsession with the hyperreal — a simulation of a feeling rather than the real thing itself.
And what better activity to soothe our national pain like driving a simulation of a real military truck? The origin story of the Hummer began in 1983, when the Pentagon awarded a contract to AM General Corporation to develop and build a fleet of High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles — aka the HMMWV, better known as the Humvee. These utility vehicles gained fame through images of the Humvee driving into the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War.
In 1992, AM General released the first-generation Hummer to the civilian market, hoping that a slightly modified version of the military vehicle would be exciting for fans of the military-grade model. While it only sold around 10,000 vehicles — including an entire fleet to Arnold Schwarzenegger — the brand was attractive enough by 1999 for General Motors to buy the rights to the Hummer name.
Fast forward three years, and the H2 was born, promising the same rugged durability, strength and off-road prowess as the Hummer of yore, but tweaked with creature comforts to make daily driving a more attractive, affordable task. But the similarities were skin-deep: While the first-gen Hummer was designed for literal battle, the new H2 seemed to have more in common with GM trucks like the Chevy Tahoe, just with worse fuel mileage, comfort and drivability.
It drove like a yacht on city streets, guzzled gas (notching a paltry 12 miles per gallon), had less usable interior space than a Honda Pilot SUV and featured terrible visibility due to its oddly proportioned windows. The rampant use of aging GM parts from a coterie of other cars made its interior look and feel like a sea of cheap, creaky plastic. Then there were the nonsense contradictions: GM boasted about a special chassis designed for maximum ground clearance, then sabotaged that clearance by attaching huge metal steps to the sides of the truck.
“You first look at the Hummer H2 expecting to drive a super cool military truck like the one Sean Connery drives in The Rock, but it ends up being the equivalent of a Ferrari kit car body strapped on top of a Pontiac Fiero,” William Clavey wrote for Jalopnik in his 2017 re-review of the H2.
Not only was the H2 a flawed vehicle, it just about summed up every needlessly macho, capitalist vibe in the American zeitgeist of the early aughts.
I think of the H2 ad that featured Brazilian supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio in the driver’s seat, making eyes at Regis Philbin while intoning that she “loves off-roading”; the camera pans out to show them surrounded by beautiful people on the deck of a yacht. Far from being just a gag for an ad, the reality of H2 owners actually did mirror this kind of conspicuous consumption — one researcher found that, for a subset of affluent Southern California owners, the H2 served as status symbol and affirmation of identity (no matter how poorly made it was).
During a time of rapidly growing enlightenment around the harm of climate change, fossil fuel consumption and endless consumerist growth, the H2 stood as a literal defense mechanism, declaring to the world that such worries were better left to the frightened masses. We didn’t have the words for it then, but men were starting to confront fears of an existence in which “metrosexuals” become dominant and “traditional” masculinity was under attack; in response, they clung to objects like the H2, and GM was happy to affirm that this made them bigger men. Consider the H2 ad that frames vegetarianism as both weak and stupid — and the meat-eating, Hummer-driving man as the rational alternative.
Even without the label of “toxic masculinity,” this kind of discourse caught the attention, and hilarious ire, of many critics who saw the H2 as an ostentatious piece of bait for insecure men. Hence the rise of the term “hummersexual,” in ideological opposition to the queer-adjacent “metrosexual”; it signified a man who was performative about his own rugged “masculinity,” despite red flags that they’re just a tryhard.
“This isn’t retrosexual at all, but hummersexual — a noisy, overblown, studied and frankly rather camp form of fake masculinity that likes to draw attention to itself and its allegedly old-fashioned ‘manliness,’ but tends — like driving an outsized military vehicle in the suburbs — to be a tad counterproductive,” Guardian columnist Mark Simpson gleefully ranted in 2006. “Despite his best efforts to convince you, the hummersexual is not retro-sexual. Since when did ‘regular guys’ need several tons of military hardware, or ‘new macho’ lifestyle magazines such as Best Life, or books such as the bestselling Alphabet of Manliness and Men Don’t Apologise, to be ‘regular’?”
Twenty years later, we still see the same kind of performative “truck masculinity” that had a chokehold on America back in the early 2000s. There are still men who are desperate to cosplay as revolutionaries, riding through cities and agitating from behind the wheels of their extremely unnecessary lifted trucks. The advertisements haven’t changed all that much, even if they might not be as aggressively homophobic as GM’s spots in the mid-aughts. One 2015 Super Bowl ad from Chevy, for example, uses the conceit of a “focus group” to affirm that real, sexually desirable men drive big trucks while sedan-owners are emasculated in the eyes of women and children alike.
“Attaching value to objects that are marketed as ‘tough’ may influence men to repress their true selves, preventing a healthy range of emotional expressions in favor of consistent roughness and virility,” journalist Derrick Clifton notes in his analysis of that ad for Mic. “This ideal has negative effects on how we view women too. Hegemonic masculinity encourages a static view of men as dominant and women as docile — and heterosexual, of course.”
The incredible irony about the 2000s obsession over the H2 is that, in hindsight, it was a truly dumb vehicle (or, as car reviewer Doug DeMuro puts it, “the single most embarrassing vehicle a human being can drive on a road”). The official cause of death of the H2, formally discontinued in 2010, was plummeting sales as gas prices rose and the Great Recession pummeled American consumers. But I’d like to think that people woke up, realized that paying damn near $70,000 for a sloppily built, prohibitively fat SUV is wasteful, and decided to segue to Range Rovers instead.
Today, amid a whole different chapter of the cultural battle over sexuality, gender and expression, driving an H2 around is an exercise in patience and self-awareness. We may still drive way too many gas-guzzling SUVs, but it’s become easy to judge anyone in an H2 as trapped in the past. “The only thing you constantly think about while driving this car is how you’re perceived. You don’t really feel superior to everyone on the road, which is sort of the point of a vehicle that looks like this, because nobody takes you seriously in this car,” DeMuro notes in his review.
Perhaps that reflects the reality of regressive, look-at-me masculine expression: They might feel right to the man, but seem ridiculous to bystanders, and especially dumb in hindsight.
And yet, for all the talk that the Hummer H2 is a relic of the past, another iteration is soon to be born: The Hummer EV, which aims to address the petroleum-lined sins of its past with the promise of a clean, green, yet still imposing truck.
Is it any surprise that even this electric vehicle could be an inefficient, carbon-burning waste of energy? Of course not. There are so many ways we could travel efficiently through time and space, but naturally, American consumers want to feel like master and commander of the road ahead, via the most blunt tool possible: A hulking truck that’s too big and too wasteful, literally by design.
The Hummer is dead. Long live the Hummer.