i feel for Robyn Meredith, the New York Times reporter assigned to break that minivan story on the day after Mother's Day. What were her editors thinking? Minivan sales are slumping, they brooded. But why? What are these mothers (the backbone of the minivan market) telling us about the vehicular Zeitgeist? Meredith! Get up to Detroit and grab some trend-story dirt!
Next thing you know, Meredith's up in Detroit, extrapolating cultural shifts and consumer profiles from auto industry sales receipts and interviews with wacked-out mothers in search of an identity. The result, splashed across three columns of the front page, just below a picture of the pope riding through the streets of Beirut in a customized Mercedes pickup, was not flattering to mothers. Evidently, moms have a hard time distinguishing themselves from their cars. What's more, they desperately want to pretend that they are not really moms chauffeuring kids every which way.
We read of minivan driver Barbara J. Byer, who said she didn't "want to be a dull mom driving a dull car." With her recent purchase of a Ford Expedition, a so-called sports utility vehicle, she has chosen instead to be a dull mom driving a ridiculous car. There on the front page of the New York Times, Byer is living proof that the minivan is done for.
Meredith cited market researchers, auto executives and housewives who collectively pointed to the oppressive image that minivans project. Said one researcher, "The minivan sort of labels you as a suburban parent. Some people want to be more than that." In an alliterative frenzy, Meredith chants, "Blazers and Jeeps are more Wyoming than White Plains, more Montana than Massapequa."
But here's the problem. Unfortunately for the article's tidy premise, many of us are perfectly happy driving our minivans -- and we are beginning to wonder about the psychological stability of our motoring peers. Do these women really believe that they are what they drive? And if they are truly concerned with bourgeois enslavement, why draw the line at their cars? Why don't they leave their families altogether in order to round up Longhorn cattle in the Panhandle, spearfish in the Bermuda triangle, rally the proletariat in San Salvador? At the very least they could quit driving carpool.
St. Louis mother Andrea Kallaus (white Quest) finds the anti-minivan movement hard to understand. "I love my life," she says. "I love who I am. There isn't anything I object to about my car. Besides, the car I drive has no bearing on who I am anyway. It's a car, and I buy it for its function. Now we have enough room to do the things I want to do."
Joyce Rutter (white panelled Caravan), another St. Louisan, says of her minivan, "There's absolutely nothing about it that says who I am. If it were tied up with who I am I wouldn't be driving the one with the fake wood on the side."
Moreover, not everyone who drives a minivan with ilan is a mother. Charlie Dee of Milwaukee bought his Caravan six years ago after summarily dismissing sports utility vehicles as spurious badges of rugged adventurousness.
"My macho credentials are in order," says Dee. "And I find sports utility vehicles totally impractical. I've come to the conclusion that they represent what people would like to be rather than what they are. I'm convinced that 99 percent of them never go into four-wheel drive." Dee's trips may involve piling two or three canoes on the roof and jamming five fellow paddlers inside, along with their camping and white-water equipment. "In a sports utility vehicle all of that space is taken up by the giant wheels," he says scornfully.
Women with minivan anxiety remind me of 4-year-old boys who wield plastic swords and homemade capes in order to feel more secure and potent in a big, frightening world. With their trusty weaponry, no harm can befall them. Or so they believe -- we all know that it's really mom who keeps the cape from tangling up in the car door.
After staring at the leveling minivan sales graph, we can conclude one of two things. Either most mothers are blaming their cars for the wrong choices they have made in their lives -- in which case mothers are in far worse mental shape than we had thought -- or there is some mysterious other reason that minivan sales are in a slump.
At the very end of the Times article we learn that Barbara Byer "loves her new Expedition." Just the day before, she had embarked on an expedition to the grocery store. With pleasure one pictures the mythic quasi-Western scene. Braving the potentially slick terrain of the parking lot, she manages to slide her large, identity-enhancing vehicle into a safe haven beside six identical, wimpy mommymobile minivans. Like an unfettered falcon surveying a bunch of cooped hens, she ponders the pathetic domestication of the poor trapped saps who drive those Dodge Caravans. "I'm glad I'm not driving it," she grunts to the Times, then glides through the automatic door to snatch a loaf of bread and a few boxes of Frosted Miniwheats. Watching her intrepid journey of self-discovery, Times editors nod approvingly to each other: Another trend well covered.