Friday, April 9, 2010

Motorized Codpiece(s): performative displays of masculinity on the streets of Edmonton.

A photographic reproduction of a extensively modified truck at a gas station in Nisku...can't help but think of it like a giant can of "Monster Energy Drink" with wheels...oh wait...that's the target audience ;)

This blog focuses on how masculine gender identities are performed on the streets of Edmonton, specifically through the use of vehicle modification. In order to understand how gender is performed we utilized Judith Butler’s Gender Performance theory’, in which she suggests that “gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (Butler, 1988). She continues to describe this performance as “not only as constituting the identity of the actor, but as constituting that [masculine] identity is a compelling illusion, an object of belief” (Butler, 1988).

In accepting these propositions we sought to establish whether or not vehicle modification accurately performs masculinity. Through independent research found on YouTube, we were able to conclude that indeed vehicle modification is a method of performing masculinity; but, also that these masculine “[identities are] a compelling illusion, an object of belief”

In some examples, respondents suggested that a driver whose truck has ‘truck nuts’ is simply “putting on a show”. In other words, an individual is performing their desired gender with the use of accessories and vehicle modification.

In addition to this, other respondents explained how this type of masculinity might be an “illusion” or “an object of belief (Butler, 1988), suggested by their statements adding “you don't need to have balls hanging of your truck... just the truck in general [conveys masculinity]”

Another respondent claims that one should put balls on their truck “if [they] have something to compensate for”.

These responses exemplify masculinity as “an object of belief” because both participants had their own definition of what it is to be masculine. Therefore, the definition of masculinity depends upon the belief of individual. Further, the respondents were able to denounce the performance of certain types of masculinity, with the use of ‘truck balls’ as an illusion or phallacy fallacy; while maintaining certainty in their own conceptions of masculinity.

A traumatic experience on the Whitemud early one Saturday morning...

(The first time we encountered these “truck balls” we thought they were a political statement against the government of Alberta for their part in the sterilization (castration) of many citizens during the years of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta (1928 until 1972), operated by the Alberta eugenics board.

Encoding and Decoding:

It is apparent that certain vehicles (most obviously trucks), are associated with masculinity and with added modifications, allow individuals to perform their own interpretation of gender performance. But, where do they learn and conceive of this type of masculinity? In analyzing advertisements for pickup trucks, it is undeniable that the media is partly responsible for providing information regarding masculinity. Further, it can be argued that individuals, who drive pickup trucks with modifications (especially in the case of plastic testicles), take the first of the three decoding positions outlined by Stuart Hall, which he called the “dominant-hegemonic reading” (Sturken, 2009). This position outlines that individuals “can identify with the hegemonic position and receive the dominant message of an image or text in an unquestioning manner” (Sturken, 2009). Contrastingly, we argue that the individuals we interviewed take the second or third position in decoding media advertisements pertaining to masculinity. The messages conveyed through Chevy truck advertisements include the assertion of hegemonic masculine ideals, like toughness. In almost all pickup truck advertisements portray groups of men partaking in rugged activity, like construction work. This illustrates how hegemonic masculinity is encoded by the producers of truck advertisements. In one observation of a Chevy advertisement titled “man step”, a Ford vehicle owner is made to look weak and insecure for using the foot step on his truck

This further outlines encoding of messages attached to the hegemonic masculine ideal. When a participant in a pickup truck was asked if he would put fake testicles on his truck, his response was “[t]hey’re stupid” and “I don’t need ‘em’”

This response indicates that he is content with the masculinity he performs with his truck alone. Furthermore, this indication of satisfaction without added ‘masculine’ products might indicate that the messages of hegemonic masculinity encoded by the advertising agents are enough for this participant to ‘identify with the dominant reading in an unquestioning manner’ (Sturken, 2009). On the other hand, as seen in the earlier video clip, a male participant said, “balls on trucks is dumb, just the truck in general [conveys masculinity]” This could indicate a negotiated reading of truck advertisements because although he accepts the belief that trucks are masculine, he will not go overboard in portraying an exaggerated form of masculinity because that is “dumb”. Finally, one individual seems to have completely rejected the hegemonic masculine ideals conveyed in truck advertisements. This respondent described masculinity as “sensitivity” (as was seen in the earlier video clip). This exemplifies an “oppositional reading” indicated by his ‘complete disagreement’ the hegemonic masculinity associated with toughness and promoted by truck advertisers. In sum, truck advertisements are encoded with meanings about hegemonic masculinity. The meanings are then decoded differently by viewers. This seems to be indicative of the three different types of opinions and understandings of performing masculinity, which we encountered in the YouTube interviews.


It can also be argued that the display and modification of vehicles allows the driver, as well as pedestrians to negotiate power between and against one another. This negotiation of power is first elaborated by Michel Foucalt, in which he argues that power “is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, in seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of action upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action. A set of actions upon other actions” (Dreyfus, 1982).

Respondents in the video clips suggested that if someone with “truck nuts” would get attention on the road, they all concluded that it would catch their attention. Moreover, all participants noted that this form of vehicle modification, and even driving a truck, would incite them to make assumptions about the gender of the vehicle operator. For example, when asked who they think might be driving a certain type of vehicle, female respondents answered by saying, “a guy”.

Also, some participants admitted that the bulls balls on someone’s truck would induce amusing behaviours like laughter:

In this sense, the action of driving a truck and modifying it with a 'truck balls' demonstrates Foucault’s “actions upon other actions” because “they bear upon [the] possible actions” of the pedestrians, who then incite specific assumptions about the gender of the vehicle operator, as well as inducing specific behaviours.

WOW, look at that guy's massive unit! Just looking at this beast lets you know you are a lesser man within the hierarchy.

Works Cited

Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. 40 (4).

Dreyfus, H. &. (1982). Michel Foucault: The Subject and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sturken, M. &. (2009). Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford.