If you've driven anywhere in 30-odd years, you've likely seen the chromed silhouette of a large-bosomed reclining woman affixed to the mudflaps of big rigs. She's known as Mudflap Girl, but Ed Allen has another name for her: Mom.
Allen, a fashion designer in Washington, D.C., claims the image was designed by his father Stewart, a long-haul trucker who always decorated his rig with an image of his wife, Rachel Ann. Now, Ed Allen is paying homage to Mudflap Girl, er, mom, with a line of shirts bearing her voluptuous profile, for which he now owns the trademark.
"She's one of the few really hot women that your wife will still let you wear, because we all remember her," Allen said.
Before we could page Dr. Freud, Allen let us know the original image was quite innocent, a simple vacation photo of mom in a bathing suit. It was nothing the whole family hadn't seen countless times before.
Dad kept the photo in the cab of his truck, which always bore his wife's name on the hood. When a new corporate owner forbade Stewart from decorating a company-owned vehicle, Stewart put his wife's silhouette on his trailer's mudflaps so his boss couldn't see her when the truck was backed up to a loading dock.
In 1967, Ed Allen said that a local truck accessories manufacturer named Bill Zinda saw the design. He liked it and, with dad's permission, started selling it. No one ever trademarked the image, and Mudflap Girl got around a lot during the freewheeling '70s.
The back story is, of course, just that - a story. But it's a compelling one.
"Regardless of the precise truth of the narrative, the important issue here is: why is this image so ubiquitous?" asked Heather Joseph-Witham. She's a folklorist who teaches at Otis College of Art and Design and who has also debunked urban legends for Mythbusters. To her, the Mudflap Girl is quintessentially American. "Why do so many people feel the need to display it? What does it say about us?"
Allen assures us the story is true, but you'd expect him to do that. His father died in 2006, his mother now suffers from Alzheimer's and we couldn't find any trace of Bill Zinda. The first trademark of Mudflap Girl's likeness is held by Ed Allen.
According to Joseph-Witham, the story has the hallmarks of an urban legend: anonymous origins, told in the first person as a true story dealing with contemporary culture, backed up with circumstantial evidence. Add that plenty of online accounts claim the real Mudflap Girl, who is said to have been everything from a naughty nurse to a sexy stripper. Still, Allen's story is enjoyable enough that even if it isn't true, it oughtta be.
"The image is of a man who doesn't want to stay in one place, who wants to see the country but bring money home for his family," said Joseph-Witham. "He's free, but responsible."
That image sure fits with how Allen described his father and the trucker lifestyle of the late '60s and early '70s. "It was one of those times that was all about individuality," he said. "It was all about not being part of the establishment. Especially back in the '70s, truckers were seen like modern cowboys." That's why she caught on. "As a blank image, as a projection, originally, everybody liked that rebelliousness."
As for the girl herself, though some may see her as purely a sexual image, Joseph-Witham likes to think she symbolizes a driver's relationship with the open road and all it entails. "Trucker and truck are united as a symbiotic and inseparable duo, with the trucker in charge and on top," she said. Okay, so it's a little sexual.
While the trucker-as-cowboy ethos still appeals to many, since the '70s Mudflap Girl has also been re-appropriated with an ironic twist. She's flipping the bird as the symbol of the blog Feministing and holding a book in decals and T-shirts extolling the virtues of reading. Allen says his mother would've loved the new interpretations of her image.
"Rachel is a pretty strong woman," he said. "Everyone thinks about the girl and, you want to go right into the truck stops. Actually, it's really a much more sophisticated audience."
Photo: Brandon Doran/Flickr
This story originally appeared on Wired.com's Autopia on April 29, 2011, and was republished with permission.
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