Like seemingly all boys, my 16-month-old son Declan is obsessed with all things automotive. As someone who has worked as a film critic for nearly 20 years, it pains me deeply to concede that I'm certain that once he starts watching movies, "Cars" or, god forbid, "Cars 2" will be his favorite Pixar movie, despite being among the worst product the animation super-geniuses have ever been involved with. And I have no doubt that my son's obsession with cars has a lot to do with societal conditioning.
Though women are expected to drive cars just as men are, they aren't incessantly programmed to love cars, be obsessed with cars, and dream about that epic day when they too will be able to drive cars. When you're a little boy, cars almost seem magical. Just by pressing some buttons or turning a wheel you can fly down the road at breakneck speed, propelled by the invisible but hard-working gremlins in your car's engine.
It starts early, with Hot Wheels and Transformers. As puberty kicks into high gear, owning a car is considered an essential component of a boy's dating arsenal—it's hard to project virile, masculine self-confidence if your mom needs to chauffeur you on dates. As men get older, cars tend to get wrapped up in their notions of themselves and their sexuality. The balding 50-year-old man in the flashy, too-expensive sports car is cheekily accused of overcompensating for sexual shortcomings, but an equally impressive car in the hands of, say, James Bond increases his glamorous, dangerous sexuality.
This even holds true for car casualties. When people like James Dean or Paul Walker die young in an automobile accident, it reinforces their image as sexy, dangerous outlaws who died doing what they loved: riding fast cars and courting danger like impossibly beautiful yet masculine badasses. But if a women like Jayne Mansfield or Princess Di dies in a car crash, it feeds into their image as tragic victims kicked around by cruel fate and hurled violently towards a premature end.
The fact that I am rapidly approaching 40 and have only recently started the process of learning how to drive is partially due to nature and partially due to nurture.
Yes, boys in our society are conditioned to love cars. Yet I somehow never picked up that gene myself, just as I didn't pick up other manly genes that might lead me to play video games obsessively as an adult or enjoy the music of Led Zeppelin. The fact that I am rapidly approaching 40 and have only recently started the process of learning how to drive is partially due to nature and partially due to nurture.
My Multiple Sclerosis-stricken father got into a lot of car accidents when I was a kid. So while I associate my dad's driving with that wonderful feeling of comfort and security I felt while snuggled up in the backseat of his car during long drives, I also remember all too vividly hearing that my dad was in a bad accident or seeing one of his smashed-up cars.
And when I was at the age when most boys start salivating about the freedom, autonomy and power that comes with knowing how to drive, my dad's MS got the best of him and he stopped driving altogether. In a move that summed up my dad's tragicomic relationship with cars altogether, he didn't sell or give away his last car after the brakes went out—he just left it in the street, where it was eventually towed away forever.
It's one thing to be comfortable with your own limitations, it's another when your limitations affect the people you love as well.
Sure, it sucked that I didn't have a car as a teenager to take girls on dates, but it also sucked that I spent my entire adolescence in a group home that forbid us from getting driver's permits and licenses for financial and insurance reasons. So I had lot more to be embarrassed and self-conscious about than my inability to drive.
Here's the thing: I've always been way more comfortable not knowing how to drive than my girlfriends and family and friends have been. I've seen it as a charming eccentricity whereas others have seen it as a character flaw, a limitation and a weakness.
Yet I am learning how to drive all the same. I don't subscribe to the notion that you can't be a real man until you know how to drive a car but I do think that I will be a better father to my son if I know how to drive. I remember how vulnerable waiting around for someone to give us a ride from family functions makes me feel when I'm with my own father, and I don't want my son to grow up having to deal and cope with my limitations.
It's one thing to be comfortable with your own limitations, it's another when your limitations affect the people you love as well. On another level, I'm learning how to drive to be a better husband. I'd love to be able to drive my wife places to repay her for the many years she handled driving all by herself.
And I'm driving in part because I would like to have more skills than my son. When he dreams about cars, and pretends to be driving cars, I don't want to be dreaming along with him; I want him to know that his daddy can do what other daddies do as well, with the possible exception of growing hair. That just ain't going to happen.
Yes, I'd like to be able to drive before my 16-month-old does for reasons that have more to do with parental responsibility and a desire to be the best dad I can be rather than conforming to rigid gender roles. Thankfully, while I'm about 23 years too late to get my driver's license at the same age everyone else does, I've got a long lead on learning to drive before my son. The race is on, and this is one that I'm cautiously optimistic I can win.