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Tesla Is Changing How Men Are Jerks Behind the Wheel

New research explains how the automaker exploits and influences drivers’ masculinity

In 2014, a consumer researcher, Dr. Markus Giesler, posed a theory of how the car company Tesla — then barely a decade old — had made a splash in an automotive industry ruled by a few giant manufacturers. It wasn’t just the product design and vision, Giesler argued, but “the enduring quest for heroic masculinity.” Nodding to the entrepreneurial mold of CEO Elon Musk, he wrote that, “like Iron Man, Tesla Man combines rugged individualism, entrepreneurial can-do spirit, and a seemingly unshakeable faith in markets and technology with a sensible care for nature, the planet and future generations.” To drive a Tesla was to be cruising into the future.

Quite the positive spin. But recently, a professor of media and communications, Dr. Anne-Mette Hermans, and a postgrad in science and technology studies, Matteo Vivi, authored a paper that complicates our picture of the relationship between Tesla and manhood. “Zero Emissions, Zero Compromises” lays out a convincing case for how the brand has tweaked the ways in which dudes enact and assert their dudeliness through cars, ultimately establishing a new form of gendered dominance known in academic circles as “hegemonic masculinity.”

The authors note that Tesla’s two major claims to greatness — its fully electric vehicles and the autopilot feature — are at odds with the traditional self-conceptions of male drivers, who prize the powerful combustion engines driven by fossil fuel and their own sense of autonomy behind the wheel. Quitting gasoline for the sake of environmentalism threatens their consumer status because such a decision is culturally stereotyped as feminine. Autopilot, meanwhile, threatens a “demasculinization” of male drivers as they’re converted into passengers. He’s ceding control of direction to a machine and losing something of his automotive identity in the process.  

How does Tesla get around these issues and convince men to not only buy the cars, but show them off? In part by leaning into the script provided long ago by Giesler, which is familiar to anyone who has watched TV — sell the electric models as speedy and luxurious symbols of wealth and conspicuous privilege. This aspect of their marketing, same as for any flashy sports car, invites the male driver to perform “demonstrations of aggressiveness, risk-taking and reckless styles of driving, echoing ideals of violent and invasive masculine power.”

The difference with Teslas is that men also have to be taught to fetishize the technology that might otherwise threaten their image. The “zero emissions” concept is therefore framed as a kind of freedom from the guilt of energy waste — the new individualism — even when the rest of one’s lifestyle leaves a significant carbon footprint. Environmentalism, the paper argues, can thus be “weaponized” for men, who will drive like assholes in their electric vehicles, smugly believing this is an act of ecological generosity while “safeguarding the undisturbed reproduction of white, class-privileged masculine hegemony on the road in times of climate change.” 

Meanwhile, both the “green” advantage and the autopilot afford men the flattery of feeling like pioneering, forward-thinking early adopters, while of course signaling their material success. One thinks of the Bay Area Tesla driver repeatedly spotted riding in the backseat with autopilot engaged, in contravention of the system’s limits, which require an attentive person in the driver’s seat to take over in case it fails. Here we have an obvious expression of what these researchers have identified as Tesla’s appeal to “fun” and how men take special pleasure in “techno-eroticism and tech-savviness.” The unrepentant driver described his crime as a “magical experience” and vowed to do it again, exemplifying how Tesla has shifted the intimacies between man and car to produce a new kind of dangerous behavior on the road.     

So there you have it: a thorough, illuminating, footnoted explanation of how guys in Teslas are a different breed of jerk — or, more accurately, reinventing what it means to be a bastard on the road. It’s all about maintaining your classic male entitlement and supremacy while taking on the mantles of climate hero and next-generation trailblazer. High-speed rail can’t come fast enough.