Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Representing the 99%!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Motorcycle as a Cultural Icon By Cordell Drew

Photo @ The Bike Shed
Motorcycles have been part of popular culture for many years. Though many have ridden them, others who haven't have commented both positively and negatively about bikers and motorcycle culture as perceived by society. Mainstream media has created an image of motorcycle culture that is both derogatory yet mystified. Motorcycles in advertisements, like shown in Harley-Davidson commercials, capture the spirit of the 99%'ers even if Harley-Davidson motorcycles itself are often representative of 1%'er gangs. I think that the sanitized version of motorcycling encourages society and some governments, with the exception of Quebec, Canada, to put less emphasis on destroying that culture, as it is not at all what it used to be.  Motorcycles are considered an art to some, as a cultural artifact too many and as governmental culture still to others.

The Motorcycle As Culture

Photo @ Harley-Davidson
The 99% is the average Joe who drives a motorcycle.  They distinguished themselves after the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) renewed the image of the bikers and announced that only 1% of the bikers were actually radical and unlawful people.  At that point, the 1% took their “new name” and embraced it.  Furthermore, the commercials that are used today reflect masculinity though they are also beginning to advertise to women introducing the motorcycle as a symbol of freedom. The commercials reflect bikers as citizens who are like everyone else, but who want freedom from everyday tasks. Some commercials target a wide range of males, from businessmen riding motorcycles to work, to others riding bikes as a community of friends and in retrospect, family.

Photo © BACA
In recent years, motorcycle clubs have formed such as the Bikers Against Animal Cruelty. (B.A.A.C.) Groups such as these are helping improve the biker image.  B.A.A.C. promotes responsible pet ownership and also helps pay veterinarians during animal cruelty raids.  In addition, other motorcycle groups have flourished like Bikers Against Child Abuse. (B.A.C.A.)  This group was established "with the intent to create a safer environment for abused children... [and] to empower children to not feel afraid of the world in which they live." (BACA, n.d.) This promotes the not only the protection of children but equally helps change the negative stereotypes associated with the motorcycle community at large.

The Motorcycle as Art

Photo © Guggenheim
Moreover, museums like the Guggenheim, have been a great help in illustrating the true essence of motorcycle culture. These exhibits illustrate how the general public is indeed interested in motorcycle culture. The museum illustrated the motorcycles as more than mere machines, but rather part of something more. Motorcycle culture was shown as part of the very best aspects of society has to offer. The motorcycles presented in the museum were illustrated as aesthetic objects that are part of art. (Coffey & Packer, 2007)  The art of motorcycles ties into the present image that is depicted. This also reflects the changes in society and how they define art. Furthermore, the motorcycle is perceived as an ethnographic object. (Coffey & Packer, 2007)  It is an object that creates a sub-culture within an existing one.  People like to band together and to feel as though they are part of a culture.  The sense of belonging has always been part of human nature.  For example, people tattoo themselves in order to show their belonging to a group just like people ride motorcycles to show their belonging to a group.

Photo © Guggenheim
Some may argue that museums are governmental apparatuses in order to convey a culture that they agree with. (Coffey & Packer, 2007)  Though I do see some truth to this, inevitably I do not agree entirely. Museums are not always associated with the government, as independent museums do exist. Furthermore, museums often portray information that is against one government or another. For example, they sometimes talk about the history of politics, but they do not favour one party or leader. I find that it is mostly the media that tends to favour these political views. Companies, like Harley-Davidson, are taking the situation into their own hands as illustrated by their recent advertising campaign. They recently published a marketing prototype that includes women also riding motorcycles. (Hurwitz, 2014)

The Sanitized Motorcyclist

Photo © BkeEXIF
This newly sanitized image of the motorcycle culture has definitely diminished the negative stereotypes associated with it. In recent years, it has become more common to view someone riding a bike that would not have been associated to the motorcycle community before. The image makeover has illustrated to many that the motorcycling community does not conform with more traditional stereotypical images of motorcyclists such as groups like the Hells Angels.  The latter are in fact subgroups and independent of the wider motorcycle community. The new image has emphasized the distinction of the two types of bikers. Moreover, I think that the sanitized image has opened the door to many bikers that previously would not have joined.  I know a few people who ride motorcycles, but do not correspond to the old stereotype of motorcycle riders.  They do not look like, nor have the same personality as, the old stereotypes used to.  I believe that people like this are the ones that people see now as the stereotype.  The ones that just want to feel free and take a long ride.

I believe that the new sanitized version of the motorcycle culture reduces negative stereotypes, but it does not necessarily reduce the stiffness of motorcycle regulations in Quebec, Canada. Unfortunately, this renewal of the image has not left the Quebec government with a change of heart.  The laws and regulations to ride a motorcycle in Quebec are very strict.  People wishing to ride a motorcycle must first complete a theory exam and then they will obtain a license that is only valid for driving during the course. (SAAQ, 2014)

Photo © Huffington Post
Then after the completion of a practical circuit test, they can then have a learner’s permit, while being accompanied by another motorcycle license holder. (SAAQ, 2014) After eleven months, they can then apply for a probationary license after the completion of another practical (road) test. (SAAQ, 2014) Perhaps this could partially be associated to the Hells Angels who used to be very visible in the province and hence acts as a deterrent for those desiring a motorcycle license. Their views of the motorcycle being a dangerous recreational tool does not take into account the practicalities of motorcycles and their use by every day citizens around the globe.

Carpe Diem!
Photo @ The Bike Shed
Thus, the image of the motorcycle and its associated culture has been "cleaned up", so to speak in recent years due to the efforts of not-for-profit groups like B.A.A.C and B.A.C.A.; museums, like the Guggenheim and ads and PR campaigns like those by Harley-Davidson. A new target audience has emerged in recent years, from young males to young females.  As for the Quebec government, they have not acknowledged an increase in “good” behaviour for bikers.  They continue to rely on previous assumptions and stereotypes. I believe that there will be an increase in motorcycle riders that would not have been considered typical bikers a few years ago.


About The Author

Cordell Drew is presently studying at Champlain College Lennoxville located in Quebec, Canada. The Motorcycle as a Cultural Icon was written as part of an assignment for Rage Against The Machine: Consumerism, Leisure and Popular Culture in the Department of Humanities.

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