Saturday, 31 January 2015

Scooters and Stereotyping

When I visited the Piaggio factory in Pontadera, Italy a while back I really bought into the story of how the Vespa brought mobility to Italian women in the '40s. But company advertising over the decades suggest a more subtle, mixed message.

This early poster in the Piaggio museum was a glorious start:

Female employees I met at Piaggio are proud of that poster. It symbolizes women waving goodbye to the past after the Second World War when they won the national right to vote. And the Vespa and the Piaggio factory did do a lot to promote women and mobility at the time.

In the Piaggio archives there's this photo of  factory employees in the '40s. Enrico Piaggio, building up the firm's reputation and infrastructure after its destruction in the war, promoted hiring women. Trying to get away from the military history that nearly brought the company down, he's known for saying he wanted to build a vehicle that even "women and priests could ride."

There are no posters from that period of priests on Vespas but there are a lot with women. They don't always stress the triumphant breaking from history the first poster suggests. There are a few that do:

But many of the posters in the museum from the late '40s and the '50s are just redos of the classic sexy woman selling a vehicle.

And when the ads of that time show women and men on scooters it is the man riding with the woman on the back.

Flash forward to this decade and sexy women are still selling Vespas. Take the Vespa 946, an homage to the prototype of 1946 and clearly to the mixed message.


In a French commercial for the 946, a woman in red heels gets on her scooter to ride through the streets in Paris with a flashback to old commercials where men are riding the original Vespas with adoring women behind them. Is the attractive woman dreaming of a time when men rode women around? Is that the message?

I know this has more to do with the world of advertising than the freedom scooters provide so I don't want to make too much of it. But advertising does reflect society. And Vespa is a model for not just scooter manufacturers around the world but for the message as well. A quick search online for images shows that the message of equating sexy with scooters is repeated over and over in Asia.

Take the commercial from India where a sexy female rider of a Scooty pouts and stamps her red high heels to convince a policeman to let her through a police line. Or another one in which a woman on a pink scooter smears lipstick on her lips at a stoplight to tease the male driver beside her. This in a country where women fear gang rapes on the streets!

I suppose in writing a blog with the words 'Scooter Girl' in it, I am buying, to a certain degree, into this notion. I named it that (as I first wrote when I started this blog) after a retro tin doll I have with that name.

That's the image I love, along with that first Vespa poster. I could change the title of this blog to Scooter Woman but I'm not sure that would make a difference. So I'll aim to recommit to finding stories of how scooters and mobility have been positive for women.

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