Property, BMW’s, and John 17: Masculinities and Ownership (part 1)

Posted on May 15, 2012


American Public Media’s “Marketplace Money” program recently aired an audio essay written and narrated by comedian Michael Ian Black. During this exposé, Black tells us about his experience buying and owning a brand new BMW. Interestingly, he also makes clear that his decision to purchase this car was based in large part on his own gender identity: he was making the conscious move from a “girl’s car” to a “man’s car.” So, what Black presents is not just a story about ownership of some sort of property, but a story about what this particular type of ownership says about his own identity. Or, in other words, because he owns something for a certain purpose, his gender identity has been altered for that reason. In all of this, the questions are raised, “What type of masculinity is this that a man feels the need to purchase a car to help protect an identity? What type of identity is this that it needs to be protected?”

In both this post and the next, I want to explore the theme of ownership in gender identity and it’s role in masculinities. First, I will engage with this audio essay and discuss the way Black deconstructs a contemporary performance of masculine identity. In the next post, following this one, I will discuss issues of ownership in John 17 and how this text might be read in light of Black’s masculinity.

Ownership as Gender Identity

From the outset, Black recognizes his own “financial indulgence” and its associated shame, but then he acknowledges that his sense of shame appears to come from what kind of “guy” he might become from his ownership of a BMW 328xi: ” That type of guy is commonly referred to as a ‘d—–bag,'” he says. However, it seems that the identity of “d—–bag” is itself a gendered one, especially considering that he also seems to have an aversion to his wife’s VW Beetle, as it is “a girl’s car.” Contrary to the gender association of the Bug, Black’s dream German automobile is a “man’s car.”

Still, it should be noted that the car itself is not manly, rather the act of owning that particular vehicle is manly. Take, for instance, Blacks’ narration of his first moments with the car:

I need some alone time with the car. I spend the first twenty minutes of our time together just admiring how good I look in it. My God, I am handsome in this car. Picture a cowboy riding a bucking great white shark. That’s pretty much how I look.

On the drive home, I dawdle at stoplights, waiting for panties to be thrown at me through my open window. I careen through narrow turns on the country roads near my home at speeds marginally higher than the posted speed limit. I am James Dean.

Upon entering this car, the driver (and owner) becomes “handsome,” “a cowboy riding a bucking great white shark,”  someone who might have women’s underwear thrown at him, and/or be James Dean. Indeed, it’s the point of ownership where a man apparently gains identity, according to this essay. Sure, this man also owns a VW Bug, but his ownership of that particular car is a burden. Perhaps ownership of this sort is the burden like Black must bear! But, when in possession of something as powerful as a BMW, the man himself is proven to be exemplary and special, even “different.”

Available at your friendly BMW dealership

The Type of Ownership Identifies the Type of Man

Even if ownership is that thing which makes a “man” the way in which they act out that ownership appears to reflect upon them and their identity. That is, not only does Black own a BMW, but he makes sure people know he owns it by taking it through car washes a little too often, polishing its hubcaps, or “parking it in conspicuous places.” Furthermore, his identity in relationship to the ownership of this car changes as the car itself becomes impacted by its usage: “The kids inject irretrievable food morsels into the rear seat folds, the creamy leather becomes stained from my blue jeans, the fuel consumption is a bit on the greedy side.” Yes, even the ultimate, BMW-owning man can be affected by unforeseen circumstances and the realities of everyday life.

However, as Black reminds us, ownership entails a relationship in which the piece of property also influences the identity of the owner. So, in the case of the BMW 328xi we see a car that responds to its owner without judgment, shows love, and interestingly, responds to its male owner as a woman (female pronouns are used to describe the vehicle). Thus, it appears the masculinity performed by Michael Ian Black also demands affirmation from the property. In other words, the thing that is owned enters into a relationship wherein it also helps construct the masculine identity in question.

Ownership and Masculinities

Black’s [de]construction of masculinity through car ownership provides a his readers/listeners a tool for taking a critical look at the way masculinities influence our world, because it makes the man,  who might generally be given an amount of unspoken autonomy in society, and makes him the object of criticism. In short, it makes him, much like women and sexual or ethnic minorities, a “demographic.” He then moves to define this demographic, not by anatomical features such as skin color or sex organs, but through performance. The “man” is labeled as such because he stakes so much of his identity in those things he can own. And, importantly, he can own almost anything, but it is both the item owned and the quality of that ownership which matters for his identity. But, while this phenomenon might appear to give a large amount of privilege to the man, it in fact outlines the a way in which his gender identity is constructed and completely dependent upon his property. In the end, then, this creates a very uncertain identity which is always under negotiation.

The question still persists, however, “What other types of ownership, then, construct masculinities?” “If ownership creates the masculinity, how can we also construct a more subversive sort of masculinity?” My next post, dealing with John 17, will take up this issue.