Harley Davidson Motorcycles prides itself on being the chosen bike of the All American Road Warrior. The fearless man who rides like a fallen God through the wind. He goes wherever the road takes him, whether the destination is a seedy strip joint or an endless journey down Route 66, his Harley will pronounce his manhood for all eyes to see. The words Harley Davidson on shiny chrome, the flames bursting from the symbol, the matching leather jacket and pants that he had to buy to complete the persona – this is the image which makes a Harley Davidson one of the most expensive motorcycles money can buy, and a brand unmistakable for its perpetuation of the ideals of toxic masculinity.
I have chosen to deconstruct this particular Ad, released by Harley Davidson in 2007, because I believe it fully encapsulates all of the danger’s of Harley Davidson’s branding message with the most subtle simplicity. It promotes violence against cismen, ciswomen, transmen, and transwomen, as well as every member of the LGBTQ+ community.
The ad’s use of an older white man with a grisly beard suggests that the men who ride Harley’s must encapsulate this man’s ideals in order to fit in to the American Bad Boy’s club – the only club who can truly give you your Man Card. This is a beard which does not suggest regular grooming, or an office job. This beard suggests a belonging to the rust belt, a man who works on cars or with his hands, the only real job for real men. This man looks like a lone wolf, he doesn’t listen to any woman’s suggestions of grooming and he sure as hell doesn’t wear anything other than black, grey, and denim (perpetuated by the grainy black and white applied to the image itself). The finishing touch – the simple but extremely violent words, “May wind be the only product in your hair,” is the icing on the garbage cake. These words, set over the image of the beard, just above the infamous Harley Davidson logo, send the message that any self proclaimed “man” who puts a product like gel in his hair is not a man, is lower and worthy of degradation, is the type of man that Harley Davidson and any other self respecting man doesn’t want around.
The original ad sends the message that men who do not participate in and support hyper and toxic masculinity are not real men, and knowing the background of Harley’s connection with shows about biker gangs (and the real life Hell’s Angels), that these men can become targets for violence from the men who choose to identify with Harley’s message. The original ad is not only violent to the men, cis and trans, queer and straight, who do not conform to the traditional ideals of toxic masculinity in their appearance and lives, but to the men who see the ad and cling to it as a symbol of the “good old days.” The fact that the beard on this cover represents a man from the rust belt, or a man who works with his hands in a trade, is extremely harmful to the men who would seek comfort in Harley Davidson’s message with the decline in trade jobs, industry, and the increasing poverty in American families. Harley is selling the warped image of traditional “American” values – the nuclear family, the hardworking dad who pays for his children, the mother who stays home and looks after the family while the dad takes a well deserved trip out on his Harley, and is selling the consumption of extremely expensive brands as the cure for America’s poverty crises. Instead of questioning capitalism and being encouraged to be open to change, take out a loan and buy a Harley, or at least a leather jacket. I wanted to keep the simplicity of the original ad, because I believe that subtlety holds more power, and the original ad itself used this subtlety as a tool to market its ideology of violence and oppression in a way that is palatable. Subtlety in ad’s will not outrightly force viewers to stop and question it’s true intent. It is my hope that the words “May internalized toxic masculinity never be questioned” will cause the ad’s viewers to recognize the underlying misogyny, racism, homophobia, and transphobia, that comes with the symbol of the grisly beard, the logo of Harley Davidson. It is also my hope that following with the “may the” line, the viewer realizes that without this toxic masculinity, Harley Davidson would not have successful ads, and would not be such a well known brand and business. If Internalized toxic masculinity is recognized – Harley Davidson loses all of it’s money, and that’s not something they want. It is supposed to bring Harley out as a brand, not as a community, not as a human friend used for comfort, not as a way to belong to anything. It is selling that feeling, but it can never provide it, because consumption of market goods will never bring long lasting satisfaction. Harley is saying “may you never be awakened to our oppressive flaws” because then they would sell a lot less Harley’s.
By adding the lines “Real Men Have Beards™” and “The Wife, Am I Right?™,” I hope to draw attention to the fact that Harley has turned hyper masculinity and misogyny into an almost trademarked brand. Harley Davidson symbolizes the man’s man, the man who does not listen to the “nagging wife” figure. They have turned the image of what it means to be a man into a marketable commodity symbolizing the freedom that can be achieved by purchasing a Harley. They have made beards and nagging wives into stereotypes that can be used to enforce toxic masculinity, and have thus given them widespread validity. By mixing sarcasm along with the trademark symbol to make a joke about the way that Harley has marketed this socially constructed false image of what it means to be a man and that it takes buying a Harley to subvert the oppressions placed on men by wives and “sissies,” I hope to show that the real oppressor to men is toxic masculinity itself, and brands like Harley Davidson which perpetuate it.
Here are some more classic Harley Davidson Ad’s, if you wish to understand the extremely damaging breadth of Harley’s brand and see some of the less subtle, disgusting ad’s the company had put out.
TW/CW: Misogyny, Rape Culture, Racism, Cultural Appropriation, Violence against Women.