The continued sexualisation of women in motor racing

Originally published 07/06/2015.

High-level international motor racing suffers with a culture of sexualising of female attendees, be they competitors, brand employees or members of the media. Sexualisation of women in motor sport has existed for decades, recorded since the sport’s earliest days to the modern era. The objectification of women as promotional “grid girls” stretches back decades, and is one that serves only to further strengthen the pro-male bias within the patriarchal motor racing community. On top of this, female competitors face stiff opposition in the form of the media’s attempt to objectify them to satisfy supposed urges for the perceived male-dominated community that contributes the bulk of motor racing viewership. Issues regarding sexualisation and objectification of women within motor racing don’t stop with women employed as eye-candy, either; even female journalists within motor-racing have admitted it hasn’t always been a quick process to enter into the fraternity, with the established powers often preferring male employees. This essay will use a variety of sources as well as anecdotal evidence to confirm the bias within the motor racing world and its media, focusing on Formula One and IndyCars in particular. For selected cases we will also look at how some competitions have already attempted to remedy the inequality. This essay does not stand to condemn the actions of those who continue the archaic practice of female objectification within motor racing, actions which may have been ingrained since their earliest contact with the sport, but hopes to highlight the issue constructively and lay the ground for the development of a less sexualised, pro-male culture within motor racing.

Before any investigation into the impacts of the objectification and sexualisation of women in professional motor racing can be begun, it is important to understand that motor racing drivers are predominantly male, and motor racing series organisations are predominantly male-run. In the history of motor racing, only one higher-level series dedicated to luring women to competition has existed. This competition, known as “Formula Woman”, ran from 2004 until 2007 when it was cancelled (presumably due to failing popularity). Though females compete in motor racing across the world (often in IndyCars and the World Endurance Championship for high-level competitions), men have historically dominated by some margin the numbers game. But while male competitors saturate motor racing, “women sometimes constitute up to 40 per cent of race spectators” (Baldwin, 2015); this is just one reason that it is important to push the need for a recognised equality of genders within high-level European and North American motor racing series, be it in competition or for media purposes.

The history of promotional girls, or ‘grid girls’, in motor racing is patchy at best. With few sources documenting the first instance of females being used for media promotion, it’s hard to ascertain the exact point at which glamorising females and handing them a flag or umbrella to hold became an acceptable standard. According to Holt, “Grid girls – also known as paddock girls or brolly dollies – – have been part of motorsport’s glamorous panoply for the last 40 years” (Hold, 2013). Their arrival in Formula One was following the “advent of sponsorship and advertising in the 1960s and soon became a popular promotional asset for the sport” (ibid). Holt continues to explain that the girls must at all times maintain a “do not speak unless you are spoken to” mantra while working, and that they must “not interact with race car drivers” (ibid). But while the superior-subordinate relationship clearly exists between the grid girl and the athlete (wherein the grid girl is there to provide sex appeal, while the athlete is there to play the dominant masculine role), some of these girls have  been recorded to have claimed they have no issues with being objectified to satisfy the desires of the media. In 2014 organisers of the Clipsal 500, an Australian V8 Supercar race, put together “interviews” with three selected grid girls for publication. The Clipsal 500 girls, “known for their skimpy outfits featuring keyhole cut-outs at the chest, tacky sashes and barely-there skirts” (O’Brien, 2015), remarkably stated how fond they were of the position. In a response that seems plucked from a public relations guide-to-dealing-with-questions-surrounding-negative-practices, one girl, a 25-year-old known only as “Kara”, explained “[g]rid girls are an exciting addition to the racing scene adding glitz and clamour to the Clipsal 500” (Leo, 2014). Another girl, 23-year-old “Jessica”, stated in defense of the practice, “[t]here will always be those few negative people no matter what you do but we are all very proud to represent Clipsal 500 and the event” (ibid). But recently criticisms of archaic practices like grid girls have come under criticism from the media, with many calling for their outright removal from events. Obrien (2015) states “[i]t’s the same old tired story: men do the real work of winning races while women are there merely to look good and watch them. He argues “I think the women are selling themselves short. I have no doubt they’re a bunch of talented, smart, educated and engaging young women who have much more to offer than a pair of long legs and a pretty face” (ibid). Following the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix in which race winner Lewis Hamilton sprayed champagne directly into the face of podium-presentation model Liu Siying (Medland, 2015), criticisms from the public were made vocal. Websites such as Independent.co.uk (Menezes, 2015), Daily Mail Australia (Mullin & Cockroft, 2015), The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media, 2015) and News.com.au (Sky Sports, 2015) all carried the story, condemning Hamilton’s actions and his subjectification of Ms Siying.

Speaking of the incident involving Lewis Hamilton and Liu Siying, The Daily Telegraph columnist, Petra Starke, pointed out Hamilton’s actions were merely on element of an ingrained sexism within motor racing. In her article Sexually objectified, ogled and dehumanised. Just another day on the podium, she commented “Complaining about women being mistreated on the F1 podium is rather missing the bigger issue, which is that women are systematically mistreated as an intrinsic part of motorsport in general, reduced to not much more than sexy props to please the male participants and spectators” (Starke, 2015). “[Y]ou can’t engage in a sport that’s in large part set up to objectify women, and then condemn one of the participants when he does so,” she said (ibid). In an article on the same topic, Smith claimed Formula One was stuck in a previous decade with regards to acceptable actions by drivers and the media. “Why is there a woman fulfilling a purely decorate function on the podium in the first place?” he asked (Smith, 2015). “[B]ecause it’s always 1973 in Formula One” (ibid). Following the event and the subsequent media backlash, Hamilton claimed there was no harm in the incident. “There is a sport that so many people love, for the show of character, fun. Perhaps it reflects just how great the sport is and that’s what I try and do” (Pugmire, 2015). Though he had left the podium, and the champagne-sodden hostess, shortly after the incident, he claimed “it was nice to know that the lady didn’t [take offense at the act]” (ibid).

But despite Formula One seeming hesitant to remove the practice of having grid girls at each event, the mood has changed does appear to be changing slowly; rather than removing the practice altogether, some series – including recently Formula One – have begun to move toward employing men to do the same promotional work. In 2015 the CEO of the World Endurance Championship, Gerard Neveu, announced the championship, which has been around under one name or another for much of the past 62 years, would no longer feature grid girls as part of the show (Dagys, 2015). “The condition of women is a little bit different now [to how it has been in the past],” Neveu is reported to have said (ibid). It’s a move supported by editor of popular F1 website F1fanatic.co.uk, who says the sport should follow WEC’s path (Collantine, 2015). In his article, Collantine states “F1 may not have women dress as provocatively as other categories do but the columns of applauding women who greet the exclusively male drivers at the end of every race sends an unequivocal message about F1’s view of the roles of the two genders” (ibid). The sport had previously tried to introduce “grid boys”, at the European Grand Prix in Valencia in previous years, but the one-off concept “didn’t prove popular with fans” (Walker, 2015). For the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix, the sport brought back grid guys – to mixed reactions. Four-time Formula One World Champion Sebastian Vettel, not unfamiliar to making sexist comments (he has previously driven with a helmet featuring a bikini-clad pin-up girl design (Huffington Post UK, 2013) and has referred to a female team-member as one who “looks after the boys” (FIA, 2013)), opposed the change (Moran, 2015). “What was that?” He asked of having men take the usual place of scantily-clad women on the grid. “You get there and you park behind George or Dave, what’s the point?” (Ibid). Mercedes boss Toto Wolff also admitted he was surprised by the change (ibid). But not all took the change poorly, with former F1 driver (and current WEC driver) Anthony Davidson praising the change. “Surely the world has moved on [from grid girls]?” he asked (Baldwin, 2015); “I think that’s a real nice touch, a modern touch as well . . . [having grid girls is] a bit sexist” (ibid). It would seem the archaic practice of having women in motor racing as physical attractions is slowly dying out and the change by the WEC to completely remove from the grid any flag/number-carrying beauties may well signal to the rest of the motor racing world that it is time for change. Though opinions from within the motor racing fraternity may vary, it would seem the big series are finally responding to public demand for change. No change has yet been decided on, or looks to be decided on in the short term, but with worldwide sport becoming more culturally aware of social change, the WEC move is one in the right direction. But even once grid girls are no longer a factor in objectification within motor racing, the objectification of females in motor racing isn’t over; even competitors within motor racing series have been targeted by media outlets as sex symbols and have many times been used as objects of desire more because of their physical properties than their sporting talent.

Across the Atlantic, in North America, women have more frequently found a place in motor racing than in Formula One. But even in a community seemingly more open to the idea of female racing drivers, Danica Patrick, perhaps the most prolific female racing driver in the world, says she has previously been regarded as inferior to male competitors. In a 2010 interview, Patrick claimed a former team boss had scolded his male drivers for being slower than a woman (Harris, 2010). “It wasn’t okay [for the men] to be slower than me. He would tell his wife to fetch him beers,” Patrick said of an early experience within the series. But Harris states Patrick’s femininity is also a drawing point for the media, who attempt to take advantage of her female form to gain public attention. “When she’s not wearing fire-resistant racing suits, it seems, she is posing in a bikini,” says Harris (ibid). But women aren’t completely innocent, says Sally, Lynn and Cuneen, and have been known – in North America at least – to use their sexuality to further their careers (Sally et al, 2009). “[Danica] Patrick has been successful in capitalising on her expertise and attractiveness to enhance her image and endorse products” (ibid, p. 204), according to their piece in the International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship 2009. The text goes on: “Research has found that attractive and traditionally feminine women athletes gain more media coverage and endorsement opportunities than those who are seen as less attractive and less feminine, regardless of their level of skill” (ibid, p. 207). Patrick has admitted to intentionally using the novelty of being a female racing driver to her advantage: “You use what you have . . . I’m a girl, I can promote products, and I’ll use that to my advantage…” (Inkrott et al, 2002, p. 38). Here we see a situation with Patrick in which, rather than opposing objectification, she actively engages with it to sell her own brand. It’s a choice Bassett (1998) would probably argue does more harm to the image of female racing drivers than good. In his piece “Sport, Triumph Displays and Masculinity” he explained “in representing the female athlete’s body as an object to be sexually appraised (by men) this significantly reproduces other gender inequalities in areas such as the workforce and the home,” and “images of sportswomen tend to be eroticised and framed in terms of the male gaze” (ibid). American culture remains conducive to this objectification of female athletes, according to Fairchild, who says “[m]any of the sports most highly valued by Americans continue to privilege males over females, structurally and ideologically” (Fairchild, 1994. p. 370).

Patrick isn’t the only woman racing driver in North America to have been objectified for media benefit in recent history. Retired racing driver Sarah Fisher, who raced in the IndyCar series from 1999 to 2010, was also an object of increased media attention and objectification because of being a woman. Cuneen says “equitable portrayals of the genders began to make a turn in 2005 with Fisher’s sexually suggestive Tag Heuer advertisement. While her previous advertising portrayals had been strong and athletic . . . her Tag Heuer watch advertisement appeared to be the change agent ushering in a new era for portrayal of women drivers” (Cuneen et al, 2007). The advert “featured Fisher standing in front of her car, dressed in her racing gear, legs bent, helmet on her lap, with an alluring facial expression” (Ross et al, 2009. P. 209). One might even argue that the focus on female sexuality provides female athletes with a boost to further develop their careers; the increased spotlight provides further income and exposure, potentially influencing future employers to sign them up. But despite employment benefits, according to Liang, female athletes who allow themselves to be sexualised by the media aren’t doing themselves or all women any favours. In her 2011 feature article The Media’s Sexualization of Female Athletes: A Bad Call for the Modern Game, she writes “Depicting female athletes in suggestive poses and clothing, or even nude, magazines and commercials basically project a ‘women first, athlete second’ attitude that challenges athletes’ achievements and self-esteem” and “[b]y sexualising female athletes and encouraging them to prioritise sex appeal over strength, the media not only degrade the athletes’ accomplishments and self-esteem, but also alienate viewers and impede the feminist movement” (Liang, 2011). Former racing driver Janet Guthrie, who raced professionally during the 1960s and 70s, condemned Patrick and other female drivers for resorting to using their bodies to gain interest and investment. In 2010 she said she has “not been happy with [Patrick’s] provocative photos that will be floating around on the web forever” and that “[i]t’s sort of been the gestalt forever and ever that women have nothing to sell but their bodies” (Stein, 2010).

According to St. James, Sarah Fisher’s feminine novelty in motor racing and her ability to be objectified by the media was ultimately her downfall in North American professional motor racing. Fisher, who contested 83 IndyCar races and failed to win any of them, became a victim of her own publicity value. “Women aren’t usually given the opportunity on the grass-roots level to make it and become a veteran. But because they’re attractive and the right age, they’re pushed through too soon,” said Lyn St. James, who contested five IndyCar races between 1996 and 2001 (Rieter, 2007).

It would seem that removing the incentive for women to allow themselves to be subjected to media sexualisation is key to removing the practice of objectifying female competitors within motor racing. In this instance the drivers who allow themselves to be made into objects are not in any way helping their gender’s push for equality, and are only risking damaging any progress that has been made so far. It’s important to for these competitors to understand that by allowing themselves to be taken advantage of for media benefit they are only mildly increasing their chances of career progression and are putting their own image and reputation, and the reputations of an entire gender, at risk. Allowing themselves to be objectified for media benefit may seem an easy payday or an easy way to gain exposure, but the positives are far outweighed by the negatives with regards to attaining gender equality within motor racing. By continuing to allow themselves to be objectified they are only ensuring the continuation of the archaic male-over-female ideology that is ingrained in motor racing psychology.

Contrary to the seemingly clear way in which females involved in the racing community are sexualised by the media, long-time motor racing commentator Louise Goodman said in 2004 that Formula One is not sexist. Though Formula One is in theory a unisex series, it has been since its creation a predominantly male community. In its 62 years in existence to 2012, 822 men had entered at least a single Grand Prix event; in the same period, only three women have ever managed to qualify for a race (Formula1-Dictionary, 2015). But the series is not devoid of women all together. In administration roles, Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and Williams team deputy team principal Claire Williams (Benson, 2014) are two females in high-profile positions on the grid, defying the stereotype that women have a place in the series as little more than eye candy. Susie Wolff, wife of Mercedes boss Toto, has had a number of experiences in an F1 car during official race weekends (ibid). Louise Goodman, who was a regular journalist within the Formula One paddock between 1988 and 2008 (LouiseGoodman.com, 2015) said she “would not have lasted 15 minutes . . . if I’d had to put up with sexist attitudes or behaviour” (Goodman, 2004). In an article Goodman claimed men and women in European motor racing are treated no differently and that it is the value of their work which is honestly assessed. “The only sexism I encountered was . . . [w]hen Ian Phillips, the managing director of Leyton House [racing team], was told that his new press officer was a woman, he didn’t want to know about it. Suffice to say, within one race Phillips was only too happy to admit he had been wrong” (ibid). With regards to well-publicised sexually-active former racing driver Eddie Irvine, she stated “I would like to believe he respected me for the job I was doing” (ibid). Though Goodman defended the supposed incorrect sexualisation of women members of the media within motorsport, or more accurately within Formula One, she admitted the use of grid girls for show was a point she wasn’t entirely happy with. “I’m not a great fan of the scantily clad promotional girls . . . but then I’m not a fan of Page Three either,” she said. “I wouldn’t necessarily choose to make a living that way, but I don’t suppose anyone forced them to do it” (ibid). “[Formula One] thrives on its sexy image, but that doesn’t mean it is sexist. Sometimes people mistake one for the other. That’s a reflection on our society, not on F1” (ibid).

But Goodman conveniently left out a number of glaring flaws in her assessment of Formula One and its sexist culture. Prior to the 2000 Malaysian Grand Prix, then-race driver Johnny Herbert fondled one of her breasts on camera during a farewell (Youtube, 2013) – a move that was seemingly condemned by the umbrella-holding grid girl standing next to the pair and Louise herself (even if she did appear to laugh it off at the time). One year after her article was published, during an interview following qualifying for the 2005 Canadian Grand Prix, then-race driver David Coulthard, talking about using the speed-limiting button on his car, replied to Goodman’s question if he had been practicing using it, “I have; I’ve just been imagining it’s your nipples so I’m being a bit more gentle with it when I take my finger off of it at the end of the pit-lane” (Youtube, 2012). This comment was met with laughter from Goodman’s male colleagues in the next shot (ibid). Still on Coulthard, drawing toward the end of his career in Formula One he regarded his “biggest regret” was “two Argentinean twins at the [19]95 Grand Prix that I walked away from, and I wish I’d taken that opportunity” (Wilson, 2008). It’s clear that, despite Gooman’s defence of the series, there were or are still pockets of gender inequality within Formula One during the mid-2000s which may continue to the present day.

More than 100 years since the invention of the motor car, motor racing has evolved from participants being garage-run operations to them being multi-billion dollar corporations. Though racing cars are gerally far from as fragile as they once were, and can now travel at much higher speeds, one thing that has struggled to change has been the position of women within the competition. To have women as showpieces to complement the male show displays an archaic attitude toward the role of women in events historically seen as being “masculine”. By placing promotional models in front of spectators as objects to be ogled at, and that which – until very recently – must be female, a standard is created in which men are the actors and women are the prize, valued only for their physical qualities. The World Endurance Championship’s recent move to outlaw grid-people all together is one that finally signals progress for gender equality within motor sport. But it doesn’t stop there; female motor racing drivers need to be considered equal to men in all regards, not just on the racing track. Objectifying women for media gain, or promoting them to a more visible level of motor racing for them to be used as a marketing gimmick, is not in line with modern values of equality. Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, Claire Williams, to name a few, are all very accomplished drivers who’ve displayed an ability to show themselves as equal to most of their male counterparts. If male racing drivers are so rarely idolised for their physical beauty, what defence does the media have, then, for allowing the ongoing objectification of female athletes? The answer is that they have none. For true equality to be reached in the sport of motor racing, a transformation of media and cultural values is needed. Though Louise Goodman will attest to Formula One’s “sexy not sexist” persona, it’s important to recognise that for the most part she was caught up in the sport and accepted its sexualisation as a natural thing. Certainly, the incident with racing driver Johnny Herbert in which he publically touched one of her breasts during a hug shows the ingrained sexualisation of women within motor racing at least in the late 1990s. Motor racing is overwhelmingly popular across the world, but it is far from perfect especially in regards to gender equality. A comprehensive improvement with regards to assuring gender equality in motor racing series’ across the world is imperative to finding further equality between the sexes in motor racing.

 

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