Arnold Schwarzenegger brought us the Hummer. The recession took it away.
It was June 1990 and Arnold Schwarzenegger was shooting Kindergarten Cop on location in Oregon. Given the actor’s preposterously prolific career as an action star in the ’90s, the film in which Schwarzenegger plays a police officer who reluctantly goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher could have been lost to time. That is, if it wasn’t for Schwarzenegger’s discovery of what would become an exceptional passion of his: a military-grade Humvee, the nearly 6,000-pound vehicle used by the armed forces.
“He just went ape for that machine,” said his agent, Lou Pitts, as quoted in the unauthorized biography Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I mean, it was big, it was unique, and it was something that was larger than him.”
In this vehicle that dwarfed even the beefiest of men, Schwarzenegger saw a business opportunity. He contacted AM General, the heavy-automotive manufacturer behind the Humvee (the military vehicle on which the Hummer is based) and other purpose-driven vehicles, to communicate his adoration. He was sure the Hummer needed to be made available for purchase to regular people, and though the company was initially hesitant, the Hummer was introduced to the civilian market in 1992.
Though it wasn’t an immediate hit, the vehicle had become a cultural phenomenon by the early aughts. Its position as a symbol of early-2000s excess and militarist aesthetic obsession was cemented by its recession-induced demise: The last Hummer H3 was produced in May 2010. Until now.
In January 2020, General Motors Company announced it will launch the GMC Hummer EV — an electric vehicle, of all things. It will debut in May 2020, with an ad airing during the Super Bowl. It’s been a long road to get there.
Consumers took their time warming up to the car, as Jim Lynch, the owner of the first dealership to exclusively sell Hummers, remembers. “They’re rough around the edges,” Lynch says. “They were designed to be a military truck, and they were expensive and weren’t very refined.” Besides slapping in an air conditioning unit and a radio, AM General did very little to make the Hummer more accommodating for everyday users.
Even if they weren’t very practical, they were still widely coveted soon after launch. “I remember when I was a kid, you’d see a Hummer rarely and you would think, ‘That’s the biggest fucking thing I’ve seen before,’” says Doug DeMuro, an Autotrader editor and YouTuber with more than 3 million followers, recalling his awe for the car as a kid in the ’90s. In one video, DeMuro tours the 2006 H1 Alpha, pointing out its numerous quirks: an absence of airbags, a dinky steering wheel he compares to that of an arcade game, and hooks on the Hummer’s hood that allow it to be dropped from the sky by a helicopter. The selling point of the vehicle is its unparalleled abilities in off-roading, which necessitated its design, but it was impossible to have a car that maintained this ability and measured up to the average comfort standards for an everyday car.
In 1999, General Motors bought the brand from AM General and became responsible for its promotion, and that’s when the Hummer became unavoidable. The vehicle’s outlandishly masculine aesthetic made marketing rather simple for the company — all it had to do was prey on a man’s fear of being emasculated. The timing was particularly ripe for this marketing tactic: The word “metrosexual” had been coined in 1994, and the concept of a well-groomed, urbane man was cropping up in both brand campaigns and everyday conversation, threatening traditional masculinity.
“Perceiving the metrosexual as a mockery or threat to ‘real’ masculinity, some have tried to put the notion to rest,” Margaret Ervin writes in her essay “The Might of the Metrosexual,” published in the book Performing American Masculinities. “But the advent of the metrosexual heralds a very real change in the social construction of masculinity.” The creation of the label crumbled the long-held homogeneic idea of masculinity as an innate way of being for straight American men. As Ervin went on to explain, the admission that men could choose to be cultured and manicured implicitly meant that men were deciding to present as traditionally masculine; it wasn’t an inherent byproduct of having a Y chromosome and being heterosexual. “This marketed set of alternative identities for men — regular, badass, metrosexual — undermines the notion that masculinity is a natural, essential category,” Ervin writes.
In the wake of metrosexuality’s rise, men grasped for ways to prove their devotion to traditional masculinity. In 2006, Hummer ran an advertisement that focused on a man buying tofu and vegetables at the grocery store. He notices that the man behind him is buying massive piles of meat, clocks a Hummer ad on the back cover of a magazine next to the cash register, and races to a Hummer dealership after completing his purchase. “Restore the balance” was the ad’s tagline, which had been changed from the original — “reclaim your masculinity” — following criticism. The Hummer succeeded by making itself look like the obvious choice for heterosexual men.
From practically the outset of the Hummer’s availability to civilians and the coinage of “metrosexuality,” the vehicle’s link to traditional masculinity has been its main strength. As cited in The Hummer: Myths and Consumer Culture’s “Primordial Enchantment” essay, a ‘94 Forbes article purported that driving a Hummer will “inevitably … alter one’s hormonal balance,” allowing a man who had become softened by society to connect with his inner alpha male. In “Primordial Enchantment,” a piece that considers the media’s response to the Hummer, author Shane Gunster wrote of the intrinsic biological essentialism of the car’s marketing: “The rhetoric is that of emancipation, authenticity, and joyful regression: The aggressive behavior and atavistic fantasies inspired by the Hummer are applauded as expressive of the true needs and desires that stand at the core of what it means to be a ‘real’ man.”
The war on terror reinforced this anxiety and inspired men to gravitate toward traditional masculinity. In her 2007 book Terror Dream, author Susan Faludi cited Hollywood films, a Washington Post article on the “return of the alpha male,” and morning news segments following 9/11 in her documentation of this phenomenon. The same impulses that still lead fearful Americans to buy guns they’ll likely never need to use drove them to, well, drive Hummers. Whether you were a soccer mom looking to demonstrate your support for the troops while you picked up groceries or a middle-aged man wanting to show the public you weren’t ready to give in to the new masculinity, the Hummer did an adequate job of communicating your take on the cultural climate.
Shortly after 9/11, June 2002 saw the timely release of the Hummer H2. The H2’s redesign, for which it had GM to thank, meant it was more hospitable to the everyman, both in comfort and in aesthetic. The H1s looked more like something you’d find shrunken down and shelved next to a G.I. Joe doll in a toy shop — but the H2s were rounder and shinier, their magnitude more a symbol of early-aughts excess. Close to 12,000 H1s were sold between ’92 and ’06, but drivers rushed to dealerships for the H2, which sold more than 18,000 its first year in a huge jump for the Hummer line.
Elwood Watson, a professor at East Tennessee State University who has written about masculinity in academic publications, books, and for the Good Men Project website, sees the morphing nature of masculinity as being linked to the relative youth of America. Different contexts merit different gender expressions, he says, and compared to much older Latin American, African, and European nations that have more fixed ideas of masculinity, the US is still figuring out for what, exactly, its context calls. The nations that have more self-assured understandings of masculinity, Watson explains, ultimately create more relaxed environments for their men. Relative to other countries, American masculinity is a confused teenager, thrashing around in an attempt to find itself and feel understood. Watson credits the 21st century with major advances in the reshaping of masculinity, the most dramatic development being the dialogue surrounding toxic masculinity.
AMERICAN MASCULINITY IS A CONFUSED TEENAGER, THRASHING AROUND IN AN ATTEMPT TO FIND ITSELF AND FEEL UNDERSTOOD
The Hummer’s heft made it susceptible to criticism not only on an aesthetic basis, but also because its weight made it notoriously bad on gas mileage, and thus awful for the environment. In a study published in 2010, Marius Luedicke, Craig Thompson, and Markus Giesler examined the polarizing vehicle by interview interviewing owners and inspecting anti-Hummer forums, like fuH2.com.
“Interestingly, many Hummer owners I met cared deeply about the environment,” Luedicke tells me. “They only have an understanding of how the car contributes to pollution compared to a Prius. … Being accused of harming the environment made them laugh, as they thought the Prius driver does not understand the science, rather than reconsider their consumption choice.” Fans and owners of the vehicle ultimately found the image it evoked too alluring to prioritize its negative environmental impact.
The Hummer was a cartoonish relic of old masculinity that hadn’t yet stopped to second-guess itself. It was uselessly macho, even if the features were technically implemented with the intention to be useful; for most drivers, the knowledge of its ability was more alluring than actually putting it to use. The average American, like the average American car, will never really have to enter battle. The Hummer’s abilities became a marketing ploy: The vehicles were shown off-roading in commercials with the same wonder you might imagine in a spot for a children’s toy tank, followed by panning to the children residing over their toy set, playing God.
In 2005, when Doug DeMuro wrote a series for his column at Jalopnik in which he allowed his audience to vote on which car he would buy and drive for months, the overwhelming consensus was that he buy a Hummer. “I think for people who grew up in the ’90s, we’ve always found that car alluring,” DeMuro tells me, explaining his viewers’ attraction to it. “It was so big and so wide, and the military and all that. But nobody wants to personally own that. I think what drove them to recommend it to me was, ‘Hey, here’s our chance to find out what it’s like, but we don’t have to actually take the plunge to buy this ridiculous vehicle.’”
Along with the benefit to drivers who were less likely to grow weary of the uncomfortable car, its high sticker price and the cost of refueling made more sense for the wealthy. The problem with this? When the stock market crashed in 2008, the majority of people were suddenly worried about money. The Hummer was among the many victims of the Great Recession: GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and the Hummer brand was dismantled the following year.
Since the last original Hummer came off of the production line, we’ve watched masculinity morph and create new dominant expressions. According to a 2011 study by Ilana Demantas, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, the recession’s greater effect on men meant many of them were left to reconsider how to define themselves when they were no longer the “breadwinner.” This shift naturally left many men embracing what was traditionally considered women’s work, as Demantas pointed out, thus altering the range of what masculinity could be.
The Hummer’s brand identity, more than mere sales numbers, is what made it a success in the early aughts. In the past decade, we’ve seen another car company’s branding propel it into popularity: the Tesla. The company’s branding has always pushed innovation and sustainability, an ideology completely opposed to the Hummer’s emphasis on traditional values and, more obviously, absolute disinterest in improving fuel efficiency. Along with the rise of the Tesla, there’s been a notable shift in the automobile industry toward SUVs, with SUVs and pickup trucks accounting for 70 percent of vehicle purchases in 2019, up from 53.2 percent in 2003. But despite the persistence of these gas guzzlers, the new electric Hummer coming in spring 2020 embraces the same kind of sustainable messaging as Tesla.
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