Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV
Lads, lads, lads, what is happening to your willies? On The Big Breakfast
(C4) recently, they premiered the 'wonderpant' - the male equivalent
of the wonderbra. It gives you jut, lift and substance. You too can be a
But does the new erotics of the male body really betoken an unashamed, hedonistic
self-confidence? And why are they called Chippendales? Is it something to
do with furniture? Or is it to do with those two rodents on the cheapo Disney
videos? And why 'wonderpant' as opposed to 'pants'? Am I the only one troubled
by the use of the singular?
Seeking reassurance, I tuned into BBC 2's slot for willy enthusiasts - Top
Gear. It got off to a worrying start with the head of Mitsubishi talking
about the 'added value of smallness'. Then it moved on to a reassuring item
in which a man with a huge chin and a leather jacket (like Peter Perfect
from the Whacky Races) was test-driving the new Jaguar, which has
a 12-cylinder engine.
If the car is a penis substitute, this is the equivalent of a whole salami
down your 501s. He drove it over the moor with The Doors on the soundtrack.
He had an emphatically masculine manner, placing all the full stops a little
bit. Too early. He stressed words that didn't need. To be
stressed. He also had a thrilling habit of turning every other noun into
a verb. Having noted that the car was 'powerfully engined', he 'petrolled'
it and drove away. I felt. A whole lot. Better. Especially when I
saw 'Mike' - a man who had stripped down a Jag and turned it into a tricycle.
The huge, exposed engine rose up in front of him as he straddled its seat.
He looked like something from those obscene frescoes in Pompeii.
Of course you can't actually use a 12-cylinder engine in any meaningful
way in Britain, unless you hook it up to a steel rolling plant. Executive
car design is not about unleashing power, but restraining it, about keeping
the wild horses on a tight rein. Think of all those spoilers. What does
a spoiler on the back of a car say? It says, we did such a good job on the
aerodynamics that we had to bugger them up again, otherwise it would fly
Executive saloons are not really for driving anyway, they are for parking.
Almost no big cars in this country are privately owned. It is fleet car culture
that has given rise to the myriad nit-picking variations that come with
every saloon. What is a GLE as opposed to a GTI? Only a GIT would know.
These things are a way of valorising the vehicles, of arranging them in
a hierarchy that reflects the pecking order of management. It is also why
this type of car is so ludicrously over-priced. Like mid-week in a Trusthouse
Forte, it is all on the firm and therefore on the taxpayer. This proliferation
of extras and treats has turned the inside of saloons into cosy little nests
of self-indulgence. You don't have to pull hard on the steering wheel any
more or even wind down the window. Now, I ask you, is this masculine?
All right, I know there was never really anything butch about driving a
car. In the traditional family set up, the 'family car' is driven to work
by the man, who gets to sit back and listen to Derek Jameson on the way
while the woman battles with bus queues and weather. He is as prissy about
his vehicle as any sitcom maiden aunt would be about her best parlour - anointing
it with turtle wax and hoovering the insides. But this was once presented
with a masculine rhetoric of mechanical maintenance. Not any more.
When Peter Perfect moved on from the power of the Jaguar to the 'ergonomics
of its actual driving environment', an oddly wimpish tone crept in.
Peter was 'saddened' by the interior which, he felt, did not 'cosset' him
properly. He all but sucked his thumb as he said it. I would not have been
surprised if he had asked for airbags that inflate in time of stress and
suckle him. For the truth is, the car is no longer a penis at all. The car
has become a womb.
Once upon a time cars were all thrust. Suddenly, they are all regression.
The new adverts for Jaguar and Rover and the impending launch of the little
yellow MG Midget all promise the driver a second childhood. These are the
cars you dreamed about when you were a wean, now at last you can drive them.
And they are so well-upholstered you can drive them in the fetus position.
Even in the celebrated VW advert - the one with The Bluebells (more regression)
singing 'Young at Heart', the Strong Woman who is lightly shrugging off
her divorce allows herself a tear once she has snuggled down in the safety
of her padded hatchback. And here hyperreality has done one of its cheery
little back flips. The advert has put the single back at Number One, enabling
you to pretend that it really is Yesterday Once More every time you switch
on the car stereo.
Nowhere is this regression more apparent than in the cars the detectives
are driving. James Bond had an Aston Martin, bristling with an arsenal of
gadgets; The Saint had the underpowered but slick Volvo sports; the Batmobile
was practically a space ship, and even Hong Kong Fooey (Number One Superguy)
drove something that was 'faster than the human eye'. Morse, on the other
hand, drove an antiquated Jag and his imbecilic replacement Anna Lee (expelled
from Hill's Angels for being too dim) drives an Alpine Sunbeam. Back in
reality, the latest generation of Japanese cars is round and retro. Of course,
cars have always been toys but they used to be Hornby, now they're more
sort of Tomy.
Let me assure you that I have never had any need for and do not regret the
passing of the phallic substitute. I drive an egg-shaped seven-seater Previa
myself. I never pass a Sierra Cosworth or a BMW without keying its paintwork.
But there is a worrying sub-text here. Attached to the phallic imagery of
the traditional car advert was a promise of freedom, of blasting around
mountain bends, over heath and heather before the post-coital groan of the
gravel in the drive.
Now obviously this is not quite honest. A car is nowhere near as liberating
as cheap public transport would be. It saddles you with debt and plonks
you down in a traffic jam. It increases your contact with the forces of law
and order and it makes your city uninhabitable. Children, in particular,
have been imprisoned by the car. Only 10 years ago, 90 per cent of eight-year
olds walked to school unaccompanied. Now it's five per cent. They go with
watchful parents, worried about traffic. Or they go strapped firmly into the
back seats. We always knew this, but previously we suppressed the knowledge,
and were brought into the auto-mart with a promise of liberation. Now the
drawback has become the main pitch. The car is being actively promoted as
a padded cell, a cosy prison and all our dreams seem to be of retreat and
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993