Gender Inequality

How activists are bringing gender equality to the Formula 1 racetrack

Formula One grid girls wait to enter the pit lane after the third practice session for the first Indian F1 Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi October 29, 2011.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai (INDIA - Tags: SPORT MOTOR RACING) - LM2E7AT1D7701

Protesters, most of them male, demand the return of Formula 1 ‘grid girls’ Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Anna Tippett
Lecturer in Criminology and Sociology, University of Hertfordshire
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Gender Inequality

The Dutch politician Roy van Aalst has spoken out against the removal of grid girls from Formula 1 motor racing, arguing that it is a way of patronising women. He boasted that the right-wing nationalist political party to which he belongs, Party for Freedom (PVV), will ensure that the grid girls are reinstated at the Zandvoort grand prix in 2020.

“Only a huge idiot can see a beautiful woman as a problem,” he said. “The rest of the people love it. It is part of motorsport and the PVV wants us to ensure that next year this beautiful tradition will be restored to its former glory.”

The replacement of grid girls with grid kids in 2018 marked a shift in Formula 1 to a more family-friendly atmosphere. But van Aalst’s comments echo the backlash against this transition – which included some grid girls arguing that they were being denied the right to work by “feminists”. Grid girl Lauren-Jade Pope took to Twitter to object:

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Remarkably, the “feminists” so often mentioned in the debate were actually the Formula 1 bosses themselves. They made the decision to stop using grid girls because they no longer resonated with their brand values – with Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations at Formula 1, stating that the inclusion of grid girls was “at odds with modern day societal norms”.

Employment opportunity?

One of the main criticisms of the scrapping of grid girls was that women would be out of work. Such criticism drew attention to the earnings that would be lost by the women as well as the idea that the decision was denying them their “right to choose” to use their bodies for aesthetic purposes and financial gain. The role of the grid girls was to carry out promotional tasks, most of which included bearing the names of sponsors to the public and cheering on the all-male racing drivers.

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Prominent figures, including World Champion Lewis Hamilton, have called for the return of the grid girls. Hamilton’s rationale that “women are the most beautiful thing in the world”, alongside Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel stating he “likes women” because “they look beautiful”, serve to emphasise the deep-rooted sexism still entrenched in the motor sporting world. There is still a long way to go to eliminate these outdated views, particularly in sports such as motor racing which are traditionally categorised as male.

Testimonials from former grid girls have indicated that their earnings were around £300 per day, bearing in mind the work was intermittent. Household names such as Kelly Brook, Melinda Messenger and Jodie Marsh all began their “careers” as grid girls, later crossing over to glamour modelling in lads’ mags and the like.

During the backlash to the decision in 2018, grid girl testimonies sought to label feminists as bigoted, with headlines “hitting back” at “middle-class feminists who are forcing other women out of work”.

No equality, no empowerment

Unequal representation in Formula 1 promotional modelling was itself enough to refute arguments of unfair treatment regarding employment being lost. The lack of promotional models from BME groups alongside the complete omission of men from this role highlighted a clear lack of equal opportunity (if you can call sexual objectification that). Promotional modelling also carries a rigid time limit, with “careers” in this field usually having to end by women’s mid-to-late 20s.

The message sent, particularly to young girls, was that motor racing is a male sport and – if you’re keen to be involved in it – you should aspire to be beautiful, sexualise yourself, and be prepared to drape yourself over cars and male racing drivers like an accessory.

This is a stark departure from the message being sent today, where excited grid kids – male and female – now walk on the grid with ambitions of becoming racing drivers themselves. Formula 1 must hold onto this message and not revert back to one that degrades, demoralises and dehumanises its female supporters.

That said, although Formula 1 has made progress, promotional modelling is still a feature across other sporting events, including walk-on girls (darts and cycling), ring girls (wrestling and boxing) and cheerleaders (football and basketball). Although darts walk-on girls were also axed in 2018, they made a recent “one off” return at the German Darts Grand Prix, supposedly due to prior sponsorship agreements.

There are also the “Crystals”, the all-female cheerleaders of Crystal Palace FC, who appear wearing bikinis in a promotional video for the club. Not so inspiring for any budding female footballers.

Full speed ahead

Formula 1’s move away from grid girls has indeed made it a more inclusive sport and it is time for other industries to follow its lead. Until women are given equal opportunities in sport, they will continue to be underpaid, undervalued and underrated.

Roy van Aalst’s assumption that only “huge idiots” can find beautiful women a problem emphasises the crude ignorance inherent in the many debates over the sexualisation of popular culture. Of course “beautiful women” are not a problem – nor are beautiful men, or beautiful people in general. But when you display only one sex as “beautiful” – although I think “sexualised’” would be a more fitting word for the grid girls – you serve to diminish half of society.

They are to be gazed upon and are never themselves given the authority to be the “gazers”. This is how you alienate women from aspiring to be sporting champions and instead relegate them to the sidelines, encouraging them to only ever be the cheerleaders.

If upholding the stance that favours gender equality makes me a “huge idiot”, then I am confidently and proudly one. I’m sure my daughter will thank me for it.

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Gender InequalityFuture of WorkEducation
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