Monday 21 December 2015

On sports car metaphors

Trud on a metaphor often used thoughtlessly:

The video (which up till now has been shared 500+ times) is meant for fun, yet it reminded me that it still exists, this idea that “a good follower is like a sports car”. Ok, I can see why “sports car” could sound like a compliment. I mean - quality and exclusivity and generally being the object of desire for most guys? C’mon, you’d be stupid not to want to be viewed like this. There’s just one problem with the metaphor: a car does not have a mind of its own. It doesn’t even have a brain. And for following, you need a brain.
I agree and disagree, for different reasons.

I completely concede that most women are likely to understand this metaphor as referring to an inanimate object that looks pretty, serves someone's vanity or pleasure, and has no other meaning. Because the world of sports cars - as often the case with STEM fields in general - is likely to be seen as unwelcoming to them, they will not have in mind any of what the car really represents.

But, for reasons particular to me, my default interpretation of 'sports car' is not, and never has been, a scaled-up designer handbag driven by a prat in shades. These do exist, of course, and they may well be what people have in mind when the metaphor is used. But I don't have to interpret any metaphor the way the speaker has in mind. Instead, I interpret it as a car designed for sport, that is, to win races.

Secondly, a racing car is much more than an inanimate object. It did not grow as it is, like a plant or an animal, or erode like a mountain. It is a made thing, made by people. Nor is it made to serve the driver; it is made to serve their mutual purpose of unreasonable speed. The two are made and chosen, respectively, for that alone.

If you think about what and who is really represented by that physical object, you will see something between a few hundred and several thousand people. The numerous highly skilled workers who made all the pieces, put them together and kept them in perfect working order; the enormous logistical effort; the trackside operation from the team principal, to the race engineer, to the fifteenth mechanic; and significant numbers of people with centuries' collective knowledge and experience of complex technology and critical engineering, materials science, physics, chemistry, fluid dynamics, electronics, computer science, and so on. I once briefly dated a guy who wrote scientific papers at a famous university about how the tyres worked. That's the kind of brain-power you need to put a racecar on the road, even a bad one. Driving is a skilled job, but it takes a lot more than that level of skill, dedication, or talent, to make a racecar.

I do not argue for one moment that anyone who uses this metaphor actually means it this way. I do not recommend using this metaphor. It's more likely to be understood as crushing and alienating, than not.

However, don't tell me that a racing car doesn't "have" a brain. While trivially true, it is also total nonsense. It has hundreds, and most of them are probably pretty good ones. And if someone uses this metaphor to you, I invite you to understand it my way.


Anonymous said...

Yes. Cars as metaphor provides you with a lot of "language" that simply doesn't exist in tango. You can talk about shoes in the same way as racing tyres, or the way a follower has chosen to "design and build" her following and indeed, her body and clothing.

Someone who really means the woman is a pretty handbag, is going to convey that regardless of the metaphor they use.

MOCKBA said...

Trud's point about the cars "being brain-less and just obediently executing commands" does disservice to the technology too. Features like anti-locking and stability controls are pretty standard now - where the car senses the conditions and interpret the driver's intent instead of "mechanically executing exactly what's been ordered". And newer cars sense a lot more about the conditions of the road, their mass and speed, the objects around them ... even to the point of self-driving. (Not that it makes me like the comparison :) but for a different reason!)

And is it, in any case, the *brainpower* that we need on the dance floor, as follows and as leads? As opposed to intuitive and suconscious being in the moment and being together with each other and the music? After a few nights of dancing I can't escape sensing how tango-stupid I become, how it seems that the music is in my spine now, rather than going through my head... and it's a sweet feeling.

stompyzilla said...

You make a very insightful point about the sports car metaphor. In addition to refinement and skill, there’s an emotional dimension to a sports car for some men, relating to fun times shared with close friends. It can be a marker for shared thrills, discovery, and intimate good times. I would never use this metaphor because it could so easily be misinterpreted, but I understand how it could have a very personal, non-objectified meaning. Far fewer words and a lot less vulnerable than saying “dancing with her reminds me of those long motorcycle rides I took with my girlfriend in college, the girl I was so close to; as we clung together on the curvy mountain roads, through the autumn leaves, time seemed suspended and life felt like it could get no better.”

Yes, I also agree that plenty of jerks, those notorious men of whom one is too often reminded, have some baser sense in mind. What metaphors can we not drag down, if we get literal and look for trouble? (A “divine” follower, really?!) The least we owe is to ask what the actual speaker really means, which may lead to an interesting conversation, or a new friend, or just to the conclusion that the speaker is shallow. Should all positive metaphors be avoided, to prevent the potential for offense? No, I think tango being a social dance means we can converse.

msHedgehog said...


Perhaps we should say at this point that if you are teaching something, your job is to think about what you say and think about what it means to the person who is listening - not what it means to you.

As a student it is of course always advantageous to think creatively and generously what the teacher might have really meant, or might have said if they were more intelligent or thoughtful. It's a bad thing if the student is required to take on too much of that burden, but if the student has the ability then of course they will do it. It's the exact same skill as thinking critically, after all. Then again, this is nothing more than saying it always pays off to be more intelligent than your teacher and be able to work with whatever they can give you. Which is obvious.

I have very little patience with people who moan that others are too easily offended. It's weak minded, it's self-centred, it's the tedious plaint of thoughtless and contemptuous privilege far too accustomed to the world being designed to enforce its own comfort at the expense of everyone else, and it throws away valuable information. That kind of refusal to think when it ceases to suit one is exactly how Dawkins (an important scientist and talented writer, a contemporary of my father's at university) jumped the shark and threw away the last quarter of an until-then valuable career to become little more than a famous misogynist and general-purpose Dick On The Internet, self-importantly wittering about subjects in which his interest is entirely feigned.

Anonymous said...

The image of Dawkins jumping the shark while wittering misogynisticly has made my day. Thank-you!