In the build-up to the Australian Grand Prix drivers' press conference, the panel were asked what their wish list was for the new owners of Formula 1. It was a just-for-fun question, since Liberty Group are more likely to listen to their shareholders, and perhaps their staffers, than they are to listen to drivers. Predictably for a question everyone knows is a hypothetical, one driver came up with a comment that has filled our inbox with 'WTF was he thinking' comments.
As usual, context determines meaning, so let's look at the full conversation before judging.
From the 5:48 mark, the exchange goes as follows:
Interviewer: [mumbles name and publication] Good afternoon, everyone. I wish us a good press conference and season, and a robust conversation. This question is for the entire panel. This year we have some new owners in F1; it's now owned by Liberty Media, and they have a big, bold vision for the future of F1. What would be your wishlist, top three wishes for the new owners of F1?
Daniel Ricciardo: Race in Vegas. [laughs]
I: What else?
Sebastian Vettel: Race in Germany. [laughs]
DR: [raises hand] I've said mine.
I: Lewis, your thoughts.
Lewis Hamilton: [to Daniel Ricciardo] Miami race?
DR: It's all pretty cool so far.
LH: Yeah. [smiling at Ricciardo and Vettel (both off-camera)] More ladies in the paddock? [to the interviewer] Yeah, more paddock assets...access to some women. There's too many dudes in the paddock. [laughs] [looks at Ricciardo and Vettel]
LH: V12s. I agree.
I: You agree about that?
I: Fernando, your thoughts?
Fernando Alonso: I agree with...[looks at the rest of the panel]...with everything. [smiles] Equal engines for everyone?
[laughs from around the room]
LH: I don't agree with that one.
DR: But not electric.
DR: Not electric.
[laughs from around the room]
Reuters (well, Ian Ransom, whose opinion may or may not reflect the political stance of Reuters at large) interpreted Hamilton's comment as wanting more equality in the paddock, fighting for the rights of women, etc. If one had read a transcript without laughter, body language, and Hamilton's Freudian slip, it would be quite easy to come to that story angle. However, when the use of humour to include/exclude is taken into account, the story reads quite differently.
Humour is used to include those who are intended to laugh at the joke - in this case, Hamilton's (male) peers - and exclude those who the joke is about - in this case, women. This form of exclusionary joking takes place in motorsport paddocks around the world; it's not new or original. It's taken the shape of racism and homophobia and ableism in other discussions, but in the pre-weekend press conference in Australia, it took the form of sexism.
Let's start from the beginning. He's clearly moving the conversation from discussion of race tracks (a neutral topic) to women (a hotly debated topic). He seems oblivious to the overtones of objectification inherent in comparing race tracks (inanimate objects) and women (human beings), and is clearly looking for encouragement or affirmation from his peers. Hamilton is the only one on-camera at this point, so we're left to assume that Vettel, Ricciardo, or both gave a non-verbal cue for him to continue with his joke.
He turns to the interviewer and repeats his statement, with a Freudian slip, substituting assets for access. It's possible that it wasn't a slip at all, but an intentional working in of a word to win a bet; motorsport folk have been doing it for years. However, we will likely never know that. Either it's betraying an unconscious sexist bias (no more sexist than the societal average, but still requiring a call-in), or he's trying to win a bet with someone who thinks 'assets' is a suitably clean word to squeeze innuendo into the press conference for the lulz.
Moving on to 'more access to some women.' He's not talking about having more women around, doing useful jobs and contributing to the community, despite what Ransom wrote for Reuters. He's talking about having access to them. Access for what? Why do racing drivers need access to women specifically, rather than a heterogeneous mix of engineers and mechanics? Or is this not about the racing, and more about the perks of being a racer that happen behind closed doors?
The way he said 'some women' smacks of objectification, as though the context hadn't already set the stage for women being treated as commodities. Some women. Like he's ordering off a menu. 'A race in Miami, and some women on the side, preferably with a bit of whipped cream and a cherry on top.'
'There are too many dudes.' Have you ever noticed that it's always the straight guys who complain that an event is 'a sausagefest' (or women, when they're tired of being hit on for being the only femme-presenting person at the event)? They are there to pick up women for what Buss and Schmitt (1993)* so delightfully term 'short-term opportunistic copulation,' and the high concentration of other penis-owners puts them off. The interview discussion then moves on to bringing back V12 engines.
This is a classic example of objectification – the practice of treating women as objects, usually for the purposes of sexual gratification. In the course of this little Q&A, women – living, breathing humans with minds and wills independent of the men they come into contact with – have been equated with race tracks and V12s – inanimate objects, capable of being bought and sold and generally treated like commodities.
More concerning than the objectification, everyone laughed at the joke. Sure, the sexist comment didn't draw as much laughter as Alonso's equal engine quip, or Ricciardo's joke about electric engines. But it still drew laughter, and was clearly exclusionary to any women in the room/sport, implying that they were there as playthings, rather than legitimate contributors.
This is a disturbing trend, because while the words came out of Hamilton's mouth, all four drivers laughed. If anyone saw a problem with Hamilton's answer, they didn't speak up and were therefore complicit in the sexism. This is the sort of subtle oppression faced by women in motorsport on a daily basis. Their presence is a sex joke.
Ransom's interpretation of Hamilton's comment as a pro-equality statement - for a news agency as respected as Reuters, no less - is perhaps more damaging still. By mis-quoting Hamilton ('more access for the women' not 'more access to women') and putting a positive spin on what was obviously a negative comment, he is pre-emptively silencing anyone who might have had objections.
This erases the lived experiences of women who face sexual harassment on a near constant basis (#NotAllMen harass women, but enough of them do it that it feels like a constant barrage). It serves to normalise the poor treatment of women in the sport, and convince people who might have otherwise picked up on the sexist comment that the party line is that this kind of behaviour is acceptable, even funny.
If we adopt Trevor Noah's 'racism Richter scale' – the suggestion, based on societal patterns of racism, that a lot of things are racist, but some are more immediately destructive than others – and adapt it to be a 'sexism Richter scale,' these – Hamilton's comment, the audience laughs, and Ransom's article – are all microaggressions. On their own, they're not really that big of a deal. People say and do sexist stuff all the time.
They're damaging because people say and do sexist stuff all the time. A small tremor – maybe a 1 or 1.5 on the scale – on its own won't bring your house down. But if you live on a fault that has a 1 or 1.5 earthquake every day, your house will eventually crush you.
It's the same with sexism (and racism, ableism, and other forms of marginalisation). One oppressive comment that gets a laugh from your peer group (clearly excluding you, making your marginalised identity the butt of the joke) might make you feel bad for a day...but if it happens the next day too, and the day after that, and the day after that, you'll end up having a breakdown of some kind.
What can people do instead?
1. If someone wants to make a point about equality, let's start by taking it seriously. This is a topic that affects people's livelihoods, even their right to life in some instances. It deserves to be treated seriously.
2. Treat women as the subject of their own sentence, not the object of yours. Women are people too. They have minds, ambitions, etc. of their own, and deserve, as a function of basic human decency, to be afforded that respect.
3. While we're treating women as the subjects of their own sentences, let's carry that behaviour over into the bedroom. Women have the right to choose to have or not have sex, just as much as men do. They can write their own romantic/sexual narratives. Making female sexuality the butt of a joke strips them of that agency.
Microaggressions do need to be called in when we experience them. If you're too triggered by the comment/incident to do anything other than yell, take a pause (if possible) or tap a feminist wing-buddy in for them to politely call in the offender. To paraphrase Megan Phelps-Roper (a woman who left Westboro Baptist Church), rightness does not justify rudeness. You are challenging an implicit bias that might be a dearly-held part of someone's worldview when you call them in on their oppressive behaviour. Thus, have compassion, hear their side of why they believe/say/do what they believe/say/do, and only after you have done that have you earned the right to call them in. But please do call them in, for the good of everyone.
* I haven't read Buss and Schmitt; I read Ariely and Loewenstein's paper 'Heat of the moment: the effects of sexual arousal on judgement and decision-making' in which they quote Buss and Schmitt. Find the full text of the Ariely/Loewenstein article for free on Dan Ariely's page here. It's informative and Ariely/Loewenstein have a fantastically dorky sense of humour while pointing out a bias we need to watch out for.