F1 has axed grid girls. I can’t pretend to be unhappy. The routine framing of women as sex objects in motorsport has grated my carrot for years. I find it no end of annoying that I find an average of 10% of actual women in motorsport – that 10% is mostly women drivers, with the occasional engineer or mechanic; Britta Roeske is more often a caption, rather than in the frame of pictures – when I search Google Images for “women in motorsport”. Although, to be fair, I find fewer pictures of grid girls than radio controlled cars for that search term.
What took me by surprise was misogynists on the internet blaming feminists for F1 management’s move. Sure, we’ve been banging this drum for years, but it’s not like anyone has ever taken us seriously. The people who make the decisions on these things have no philosophical problems with using oestrogen-based humans as objects d’art. While it would probably give us street cred among people who don’t know better to claim this victory as the result of feminist activism, it would be wildly inaccurate.
Chase Carey worked as Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man for decades, and hasn’t said anything to indicate a change of political stance since taking over F1. Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, the network who are currently defending Donald Trump, a known serial sex offender, to the extent that “post-truth” has now become a thing. If birds of a feather flock together, I’d put money on him not being a feminist. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s not even an “I’m not a feminist or anything but…” Neither of the two other members of F1’s Committee of Ultimate Veto have said anything that could be construed as overtly feminist. If anything, Brawn’s interview lines read as defensively conservative. I can find nothing that signals Bratches’ political leanings, other than an apparently wholehearted buy-in to traditional capitalism. Note: I do not think Chase Carey, Ross Brawn, and Sean Bratches are morally equivalent to Trump, but there’s a lot of real estate between being morally equivalent to Trump and being a woke, informed, intersectional feminist.
F1 removing grid girls has little, if anything, to do with feminism. It may have something to do with F1 finally realising that they can’t keep treating their fanbase as homogeneously male and heterosexual. It may have something to do with F1 realising that they’re haemorrhaging fans, and getting women aged 14-22 on board with the sport is central to them regaining market share. It may have something to do with ex-Teen Vogue maverick, Elaine Welteroth, shaking up the teen girl culture scene and making a social conscience the modern woman’s must-have beauty accessory. Those things are all feminist, for sure, but it wasn’t feminists who had their finger on the button when grid girls were axed.
There are several issues raised in the Twitter storm that are slightly stickier than “the feminists are ruining the world”.
Let’s start with an easy one. Calling people “feminazis” is offensive to both feminists and nazis. Nazis believe that not enough straight, white men are in power positions, and that we need to fight for that as an outcome, up to and including the commission of genocide. Feminists believe that straight, white men have had their turn at world domination – eight to ten thousand years, featuring more varieties of violence against non-male, non-white/non-wealthy, and non-straight people than I have time and space to enumerate here – and now it’s time for a more equal society. The two groups believe totally opposite things. If your objection to the removal of grid girls includes the word “feminazi,” you automatically lose.
Moving onto the thread about how feminists are depriving grid girls of their right to work. See above for “it wasn’t actually the feminists”. Nobody is depriving anybody of the right to work. F1 has chosen to do away with one job in a myriad of roles available to people of all genders. They’re not refusing to hire women. Women are able to apply for jobs in other areas of the sport. Some teams are actually doing better than the British national average for women in engineering. Women who want to make a living out of being pretty can still work as grid girls in other series, or as models for fashion magazines.
(Actually, a job isn’t considered a basic human right; the human right in question is the freedom to do legal and legitimate business without undue impediment. Women, for the last 8,000-10,000 years, have been excluded from doing legitimate business by law, social custom, and other forms of discrimination. Technically, being a grid girl counts as doing legal and legitimate business, because time is exchanged for money – the basis of the capitalist economy – and grid girls have some contractual rights to rest breaks and fair treatment. Although 1) apparently they don’t have the right to stop people taking up-skirt shots or there wouldn’t be so goddamn many on t’internet, and 2) being objectified for money is inherently discriminatory, so not exactly a step forward for women. But point aside.)
This brings us to two points not raised by the pro-GG crowd on Twitter. They’re both points originally made by men. I’m hoping that counts for something with the anti-feminist trolls.
Firstly, Vishen Lakhiani, founder of Mindvalley and several other companies, has spoken several times about businesses (and, for that matter, entrepreneurs, founders, managers, etc.) basically being either “humanity plus” or “humanity minus”. Lakhiani’s aim in his businesses is to be “humanity plus” – he accepts that the decisions he makes as CEO of his companies are essentially moral ones. His decisions have an impact on his employees, his customers, society at large, and the planet.
Are grid girls “humanity plus”? Does it measurably improve society to use women as decorations, or does it have negative side-effects? Does “women as décor accessories” improve the world more or less than having women in functional roles? Does perpetuating the dominant narrative of white, thin, and pretty as what is desirable have a positive or negative effect on society?
Are we, in our feminist ardour to get rid of problematic elements in our world, being “humanity plus” about this? Are we being compassionate (or at least civil) towards people on Twitter? Are we firmly on the moral high ground, or have we slipped into calling people idiots for disagreeing with us? I struggle to remain polite when people say things that I can only interpret as wilful ignorance, but it is a point we need to address, if we’re talking about being “humanity plus”.
Secondly, Ariely and Loewenstein in their (hilariously brilliant) paper “The Heat of the Moment: the effects of sexual arousal on sexual decision making” found that men who were aroused were more likely to make morally questionable judgements. The study participants were significantly more likely to lie to get sex, make their partner too drunk to legally consent to sex in order to overpower them, etc. in the “aroused” control than in the “unaroused” controls. This urge to get off once aroused is evolutionary – potentially furthering the species – but it is still a cognitive bias that has problematic real-world applications.
They mentioned “sex sells” marketing strategies as a potential contributor to the problem of rape culture and street harassment, because advertisers are constantly over-stimulating men’s arousal responses and making them subject to this cognitive bias. Men in the motorsport fandom report viewing their fellow spectators who happen to be women as “grid girls we can talk to”. Women who work in paddocks around the world report that men feel entitled to engage in inappropriate behaviour towards them in the workplace. Yes, putting a woman next to your car makes straight men want to look at it more, but is it “humanity plus”?
Further to “sex sells”…women make over 70% of household purchasing decisions, including purchase of cars. Most women, according to recent studies, are more likely to feel negative emotions – and therefore be less likely to buy the product – when they see a woman they perceive as more attractive than them. (And given that pretty much every woman I’ve spoken to about this thinks that people calling them beautiful are lying to get something, most women think that models are more attractive than them.) So, while the grid girl stereotype may appeal to straight men in the audience, they leave the vast majority of women (who make over 70% of household purchasing decisions, including car purchases) colder and drier than the Death Valleys of Antarctica.
So, therefore, should roles for grid girls, models, etc. exist at all? They don’t leverage creativity, empathy, and/or fine-motor dexterity, which are the three advantages humans have over artificially intelligent entities. If they don’t lose to “feminist kill-joys” now, they’ll eventually lose to the robot revolution. Small business owners are now more likely to choose non-professional models to display their apparel and accessories, or simply post a selfie of them wearing the item/s. Those who can’t afford a non-professional model to cover their aversion to selfies can do simple tricks with a mannequin and PhotoShop. Futurists are far more worried about the wellbeing of (predominantly male) truck drivers who’ll be out of a gig when autonomous vehicles hit the mainstream than the wellbeing of (predominantly female) models, even though neither role is safe from the robot revolution. I don’t see a re-training and re-employment project happening for either sector, but at least people are talking about re-training truck drivers before rolling out autonomous vehicles.
There is a philosophical difference between intent and impact. We are usually judged on impact, rather than intent. Case and point: do you know of anyone who got off a murder charge with "I just meant to rough him up; I didn't mean to kill him" as their defense? I doubt that women who work as grid girls intend to make life difficult for other women around the paddock by normalising the image of women as decorative non-participants, but that is the impact. I doubt they intend to participate in the over-stimulation of the male arousal response that leads to morally questionable behaviour towards other women in the sport, but that is the impact. Likewise, I doubt Carey and company even considered the financial wellbeing of grid girls, but the impact is that now they need to find other forms of income.
Ending the grid girl tradition isn’t a feminist act, it’s a capitalist one. They aren’t “pandering to a PC-mad minority” as one grid girl said on Twitter. They’re pandering to their shareholders. The world has changed since the 1960s, when grid girls were introduced, and they’re doing what they hope will be historically correct going forward. This may just be an attempt to buy our loyalty so we’re less likely to have a Harvey Weinstein moment of our own and out the sexual predators lurking in our paddocks. To construe this news headline as “feminism” is to fundamentally misunderstand feminism. But it is likely to help feminism's goals by showing young girls they can contribute more than just looking pretty, holding a flag, and applauding a man's success. For that, I'm happy.