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Below the Beltway

I'm watching a TV commercial on YouTube. Three men from Johannesburg are in a car. The driver declares himself "The King of Reverse," and boasts that he could drive to Cape Town entirely in "R." A $50 wager is made, and they set off.

Head over his shoulder, the King drives backward at breakneck speed. Hours pass. Day turns into night, then day again. The passengers heckle, kibitz, sleep, feed the driver a sandwich, etc. Finally, triumphantly, the bleary-eyed, bestubbled trio makes it to Cape Town, where, amid their wild cheering, the car plummets backward off an overpass and they all, presumably, die.

It turns out this is a commercial for a South African company that, in an odd wrinkle on apartheid, offers car insurance only to women. The video was forwarded to me gleefully by my friend Gina Barreca, the feminist scholar. Gina, please tell the people what you contend this commercial proves.

Gina: That women are better drivers than men.

Gene: Safer, maybe. Not better. If anything, it establishes -- and I derive no joy from saying this -- that men remain the visionaries. The doers. The darers. Men don't just admire Everest, they climb it. Do you know my first reaction to this commercial?

Gina: Yes. I do.

Gene: You do?

Gina: Yes, because I know my brother's first reaction to it. He said, "I wonder if I could make it to Montreal."

Gene: Well, he lives in New York. Being from D.C., I was thinking Philadelphia.

Gina: This is exactly why women are better drivers.

Gene: You mean, like your mother?

Gina: You leave my mother out of this!

Gene: I wish I could, but it is information you have shared, and it is germane to this conversation, which you initiated.


Gene: Are you going to tell the people about her, or shall I?

Gina: My mother drove all her life without making left turns. She was uncomfortable insinuating herself into potential oncoming traffic. To make a left turn, she'd make three right turns.


Gina: This was not bad driving. This was cautious and pragmatic driving -- accommodating her insecurities without inconveniencing others. Very womanly. I, for example, am a skillful driver even though I never back up.

Gene: Excuse me?

Gina: I never drive in reverse. I do not know how. My husband built a spur into our driveway, so that after I leave the garage, I can turn the car around and drive out forward. Stop smirking.

Gene: We are talking on the phone.

Gina: I can feel the smirk. You are too invested in the patriarchal status quo. If women ran the world, driving backward wouldn't be necessary, even to park. You could nose into any space because all spaces, by federal law, would be humongous.

Gene: This column is over. You are roadkill.

Gina: I am not. We haven't discussed the Darwin Awards. You know them?

Gene: Yes. They are given posthumously to people who have mercifully taken themselves out of the gene pool in spectacularly idiotic ways. You are going to observe that most of the Darwin laureates are men.

Gina: Yes, like the guy who got crushed by a vending machine he was rocking to shake loose a free Coke. Or the one who responded to an escalating series of drunken macho dares by picking up a chain saw, saying, "Watch this!" and cutting off his own head. My point is that the men die ugly.

Gene: And the women?

Gina: One of the most recent ones fell off a cliff while reaching out to grab a beautiful feather.

Gene: That's pretty

Gina: Exactly.

Gene: stupid.

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