Petrosexual’s Insatiable Truck Fetish

April 4, 2023

1967: Ha! What a Pussy!

Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice – Functional, symbolic and societal frames for automobility: Implications for sustainability transitions:

Relatedly, manufacturers have long exploited prevailing gender norms when they tried to frame cars as masculine, including the notions of control and mastery (Oldenziel, 1997Franz, 2005), as well as automotive design that emphasize aggression and noise. For example, Campbell (2005) has noted how sport-utility vehicles came to be masculinized by their association with jeeps and military technology and a sweeping emergence of “cultural militarism” and a “re-masculinization” of American identity and heroes after the American defeat in the Vietnam War. According to Campbell, early sport-utility vehicle drivers, mostly male, would have given up dreams of becoming air force pilots and firefighters, but purchasing and using the vehicle enabled them to feel carefree and adventurous.


But that doesn’t mean the decision to buy a $50,000 truck with a 4,200-pound payload rating for the occasional trip to the golf course or hardware store is strictly rational. Personal vehicles are not merely functional appliances: They are used as refuges, fortresses and private enclaves, and serve as important signifiers of class and gender identity, as Sovacool explored in a 2018 study.

….the booming appeal of bigger and more brutish trucks reflects “a crisis of masculinity,” he says. “Nothing could be more emasculating than driving a minivan. So you want the vehicle that’s going to maintain your performative masculinity.”

The fact that supersized pickup trucks were often deployed as political props (and weapons) during the Trump era did not escape the notice of scholars like Cara Daggett, a professor of political science at Virginia Tech. In a widely shared 2018 journal article, Daggett coined the term “petro-masculinity” to describe flamboyant expressions of fossil fuel use by men (and some women as well, but mostly men) as a reaction against social progress. To these drivers, “the affront of global warming or environmental regulations appear as insurgents on par with the dangers posed by feminists and queer movements seeking to leach energy and power from the state/traditional family,” she wrote.

Petro-masculinity helps explain not only these vehicles’ confrontational styling, but the often equally belligerent way in which they are operated.

The EPA estimates that more than half a million trucks — 15% of the diesel-powered pickups on U.S. roads — have had their emissions equipment modified over the last decade in order to increase their power and polluting potential. There’s a cottage industry devoted to the practice of bypassing emissions standards; such modified vehicles are believed to emit as much pollution as 9 million emissions-compliant diesel trucks. While illegal, some drivers flaunt their ability to pollute, via the behavior known as “rolling coal,” in which drivers of modified diesel trucks blow black smoke at targets of their disapproval (often Prius drivers or bicyclists).

“Burning fossil fuels can come to function as a knowingly violent experience,” Daggett writes, “a reassertion of white masculine power on an unruly planet that is perceived to be increasingly in need of violent, authoritarian order.”

Angie Schmitt in The Atlantic:

Back in 2002, the New York Times writer Keith Bradsher noted in his book, High and Mighty, that the auto industry tapped into some “reptilian” impulses for more aggressive vehicles. A marketing savant at Chrysler in the 1990s, who helped launch the SUV trend, liked to compare the road to a “battlefield.” Bradsher quoted him as saying, “My theory is, the reptilian always wins. The reptilian says, ‘If there’s a crash, I want the other guy to die.’ Of course I can’t say that out loud.” He probably meant “the guy in the other car.” What about the guy in the street? In 2003, a study found that SUVs were three times more likely than sedans to kill pedestrians when they struck them. Leg injuries are dreadful, but “serious head and chest injuries can actually kill you,” the injury-biomechanics professor Clay Gabler told the Detroit Free Press in 2018.

Without any intervention from regulators, the attempt to appeal to the “reptilian” impulse has only grown. Front ends have morphed into towering brick walls. Consumer Reports notes that the weight and hood height of new pickups have grown by 11 percent and 24 percent, respectively, since 2000. Pickup trucks make up one in five vehicle sales—and the full-size models dominate now in a way that they didn’t in the past. Some of the best-selling pickups and SUVs in America are now bigger than military tanks from World War II, Vice magazine, among others, recently pointed out.

The consequences of the bigger-is-better fad are felt unequally. Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately hit and killed while walking, as are older Americans, people with disabilities, and people who live in low-income neighborhoods. The low social status of these victims—especially compared with that of wealthier new-car buyers—may help explain why we’ve been willing to ignore auto-industry excesses.

Smart Growth America:

To put it simply, pickup trucks and SUVs are two to three times more likely than smaller personal vehicles to kill people walking in the event of a crash. Recent research from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found the share of pedestrian deaths involving trucks, vans, and SUVs has increased from 22 to 44 percent since the mid-1980s. More SUVs and trucks in the fleet = more pedestrian injuries becoming deaths instead.

You don’t need a PhD to see why trucks and SUVs are more likely to kill people walking: They’re taller, have worse visibility, and are more likely to produce head/neck injuries than leg injuries.

graphic showing silhouettes of people comparing size of sedans vs trucks/suvs

A landmark investigative report from the Detroit Free Press in 2018 explored the data in depth, one of the first major media outlets to take a close look at the dangers posed by larger vehicles:

Data analyses by the Free Press/USA TODAY and others show that SUVs are the constant in the increase [in pedestrian deaths] and account for a steadily growing proportion of deaths. Our investigation found: Federal safety regulators have known for years that SUVs, with their higher front-end profile, are at least twice as likely as cars to kill the walkers, joggers and children they hit, yet have done little to reduce deaths or publicize the danger.

This was foreseeable. In fact, two engineers at Rowan University chillingly predicted our current decades-long increase in deaths of people walking in a 2002 academic study about the impact of trucks and SUVs, one of the first peer-reviewed studies examining the increased danger to people walking posed by larger vehicles.

Below – Journalist Amy Westervelt has investigated the psychological marketing of fossil fuels over the past century.


8 Responses to “Petrosexual’s Insatiable Truck Fetish”

  1. Do we really have to come up with new words for these people like ‘Petrosexual’? Can’t we just call them ‘stupid’ like we used to?

    Or is that considered ‘brain-shaming’?

  2. Ten Bears Says:

    For many years I drove a ’69 Chevy 3/4 ton in that body style. Good truck

    These day’s I drive an eMini …

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      My sister is one of the growing number of long-time pickup drivers who are frustrated at how hard it is to find a non-humongous pickup truck. For one thing, with the bed so much higher it makes it harder to load things in the back, both in terms of energy to lift cargo higher and with shoulder strain.

      She bought a bigger pickup because the market was tight, but has since traded it in when a smaller model became available.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Hey, how is that eMini? I’m on my second Leaf despite the fact that it is a larger car than I want, and I’ve been eyeballing eMinis.

      Of course I might have to add some tall flags to make it more visible to the monster drivers.

      • Ten Bears Says:

        I’m loving it – drives like a Pontiac, crossed with an MGB or a Jaguar … got lot’s of power. I’ve taken to zooming away from tailgater trucks faster than they can keep up. An old hot rodder, I’d race anything off the line with it.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          First EV?

          The zoom factor in my Leaf was the first major difference I spotted after my last ICE car. Within a week or so I came to see ICE vehicles—spewing out of their tailpipes at the stop light next to me—as practically barbaric.

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