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May 3, 2010

Anthony Suau: Sex and the Time Warp

This is the third post in a series: “Anthony Suau on The Great Recession.”

American classics: sex and cars. Detroit has been using glamor and beauty images to sell automobiles since the dawn of the industry.

But in the context of bankruptcies and uncertainty about the future, it feels forced, Suau’s photo, above, reminiscent of Diane Arbus’s portrait of the Wade sisters, as she was probing a deeper, darker layer of American culture.

The girls, in fact, were perfectly normal, and grew up to live fruitful lives. But in her photograph they look like freaks — not because they were freaks, but because Arbus was interested in the freakishness of the normal — an underlying contradiction of the postwar industrial boom.

Reflecting on that period, especially the Sixties, when everything we knew as normal suddenly didn’t look so normal anymore, today’s auto industry — struggling for survival — feels caught in a time warp.  Detroit seems stuck in that mindset in which sex and steel were used to appeal to the comfort of conformity.  The models are wearing the same dress, the same high-heeled shoes, presenting the cars in the same old way. It’s like the thinking remains: if your Dad drove a Chevrolet, you should drive a Chevrolet.

More than fifty years later, that the car companies continue to exemplify this approach is what’s freakish.

And then, to have attractive women at an auto show is nothing new. But if the models still look good, using sex to sell cars is more contradictory now.  If the car companies really had faith in this next generation of cars, they wouldn’t be offering us this anachronism. With the industry not just floundering, but looking for an entirely new paradigm, the use of the hottest girls to sell the hottest cars is like Detroit trying to convince itself it’s still viable.

–Alan Chin and Michael Shaw

PHOTOGRAPHS by ANTHONY SUAU / facingchange.org and Diane Arbus

Captions: Detroit, Michigan, January 15, 2010
The Charity preview evening at the North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Center in Detroit. The gala is the biggest party of the year in a town that lives and dies by the auto industry. The event saw men in tuxes and women in gowns that were eye-catching. In all between 7,000 to 8,000 attended the event.

NEXT: Fun In A Fallen City

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