While I’m admittedly not really a “car person,” I can find myself swayed by the aesthetics of a particularly sleek vehicle, or by the science behind a new automotive innovation. Which is why when I first saw a picture of a Tesla Roadster, my “ooh, shiny” reflex went off and I decided I wanted one. Then I saw the price tag, and decided that one of my parents wanted one, and they wanted to let me drive it. Impracticalities of price and driving it in Wyoming aside (I think I’ve seen exactly one place in Wyoming that has a Tesla charging station, and I think I would make it over exactly one pothole before I scraped the bottom layer of the car off) there was often something else that seemed to bother me about Tesla—it didn’t really seem to be for me. For good or for ill, Tesla always seemed to have a “boys club” aura about it. So the announcement that Tesla had done a specific focus group to see what women drivers wanted from their vehicles was exciting. Finding out that the new “female-centric” car looked like the monstrous offspring of an SUV, a minivan, and a DeLeorean was…. not.
In the article about the new Tesla X (not sure if Tesla’s trying to compare women to X-Men or if they’re literally naming cars after our second chromosome….) Elon Musk calls the Tesla S “a little too guy-centric,” but doesn’t really explain his reasoning for why that is. I would drive that car. I would drive the hell out of that car. But Tesla as a corporation has done very little to actually advertise that car to me, or to make it seem like something I should be interested in. As Friend R pointed out, Teslas as a whole are “much more gadgets and appliances than previous cars, and gadgets and appliances are for dudes, right?” Don’t worry, he was joking, but he was also tapping into the general attitude that seems to surround tech, gadgets, and electronic toys in general: no girls allowed.
If you look at the advertisements for Teslas, they fall somewhere between “heavy metal album cover”:
and “9th grade science project”:
There’s also the “shameless 80s movie callback/science fiction” angle:
Or the super classy “Don’t wet your pants in an electric car”:
I’m honestly not certain if you’re supposed to be wetting your pants out of excitement or terror because the Ominous Car in front of Ominous Clouds is going to eat you.
Overall, they seem to be trying to tap into the same sense of fanboyism, nostalgia, and “oooh, shiny” reflex that has propelled everything from the A-Team movie to the Apple iWatch. But along the way, Tesla seems to have forgotten fangirls (unless they’re the ones in the short dresses leaning on the car). In the same way that being interested in new gadgets or “disrupting” tech (whatever the heck that means) seems to be understood as a male pastime, being cool/edgy/techie enough to drive a Tesla also often seems to be reserved for men.
As a result, female drivers seem to have been snubbing Tesla. Apparently 86% of drivers who bought the Tesla S were men, despite the fact that in general women buy about 40% of vehicles overall. In some ways, the new Tesla X seems to be trying to make up for the fact that the company hasn’t exactly been female-friendly prior to now. But the Tesla X seems like they’re going from zero to “soccer mom” in five seconds. I don’t doubt that many of the women who were part of the focus group did ask for a vehicle with more room (seeing as women are still primarily responsible for things like childcare, grocery shopping, etc.), and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Tesla offering a wider range of products to fit the needs of various drivers. But something rubs me the wrong way about the fact that they are trumpeting the fact that this newer, clunkier, heavier car is specifically addressing the needs and desires of female drivers.
The Washington Post cheerily announces that the Tesla X is different from the other, “sportier” Tesla models, sailing right over the word they were obviously trying to say: sexier. The other cars are sexier. They are sexy sports cars, and only men are interested in sexy sports cars, right? Lady drivers want comfort and stability and not all of that flash and aesthetics. Ladies want the vehicle equivalent of mom jeans.
Now, this could be me projecting things onto Tesla. I don’t know what went into their thought process for marketing the previous Tesla models, let alone what went on in their super-secret #ladybrain focus groups. They could be trying their very hardest to give female drivers what they want. But it makes me wonder how hard they tried to give female drivers what they wanted with the previous models, or to even advertise the previous models to women at all. What about the Tesla S is, in Musk’s opinion, “guy-centric?” How does a car become “guy-centric?” (Besides the obvious, putting large fake testicles on the trailer hitch.) How hard did they work on telling women that they were allowed to be interested in the cool, sexy, car/gadgets of the Tesla S and Tesla Roadster? How hard are they going to work on telling male customers that they could be perfectly happy with the Tesla X? If I stepped into a Tesla showroom, which vehicle would the salesperson try to show me first? There are a lot of issues at play here.
Maybe by the time that I can afford one of the Tesla cars, they’ll have figured out how to market all of their products to both genders.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not wishing Tesla had a better marketing department, she studies gender in popular culture.