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12th February 2018

Feminism and the F1 grid girls

On one hand is a symbolic step forward, on the other is many women left without jobs
Feminism and the F1 grid girls
Photo: ph-stop @ Wikimedia Commons

The discontinuing of ‘grid girls’ from Formula 1 racing events has sparked a surprising backlash, with concerns being raised about the economic impact on those women who have now lost their livelihoods, and according to some, their occupational autonomy.

Whilst there is absolutely space for criticism of any simplistic eradication of jobs for lacking foresight and for those who feel financially victimised, this is still progress. It is progress towards a world where women’s contributions to sport are as legitimate as those of men, and just as estranged from their outfits. More broadly, it is progress towards a world where beauty is not the seen as the pinnacle of female achievement.

Given the recent spotlight on workplace sexual harassment and pay inequality, everyone should be applauding an institution as male-dominated and traditionally macho as F1 for virtually independently deciding to move with the times. Any labour market which is solely based on the sexualisation of young women is inherently misogynistic and, especially in the midst of the ‘Me Too’ movement, completely unacceptable.

In fact, it’s quite distressing that this ‘tradition’ has survived this long. It would be easy, therefore, to claim this as a victory and move on with our chins a little higher. However, the retaliation from numerous ex-grid girls shouldn’t be dismissed for it signifies the fracturing of modern social equality campaigns at a time when they should be more unified than ever.

It is now evident that criticism of the grid girls phenomenon ignored the individual experiences of the women and failed to account for what the loss of their positions would mean for them. Like many attempts at liberation, it has been top-down and led by a group of outraged outsiders.

No matter how legitimate or well-meaning such indignation can be, this change within F1 required support from the women it would affect as well as wider society. This is something which the ‘Me Too’ campaign should be breaking down by distilling broad movements into personal experiences and encouraging all women to engage with feminism.

It is important, though, to look at where the criticism is coming from. There is a legitimate stage for the newly unemployed women to contest their position, but when the first responses in a Google search on the subject are articles by Daily Mail contributor Rachel Johnson claiming this has taken the “glitz and glam” out of the sport, it’s hard to have as much sympathy.

Adding to this is criticism by Naomi Campbell who feels the career of being a ‘grid girl’ offers an opportunity for young women to boost their self-confidence. Perhaps it did make these women feel beautiful and appreciated, but shouldn’t that be a point for reflection, if not anger itself? That the source of female empowerment is the attention of thousands of spectators who deem your physical appearance to be of a certain calibre.

Those who have said abolishing models in sports celebrations is taking away women’s rights to choose their own career paths need to be reminded of the disparity in employment opportunities across the board that restrict women’s values to their physical appearances.

Perhaps when equity within employment opportunities is complete elsewhere it won’t seem such a kick in the teeth to have scantily clad models parading around a victorious man in response to his sporting achievement. As yet, however, it highlights how our culture still assigns value according to a gender status quo surrounding masculine brute strength and feminine submissiveness.

These critics want to turn this into a battle between feminists and models, targeting wholesome fun because of some fabricated jealousy. Engaging with this would poison an otherwise positive event. Rather than regretting the criticism, it should be seen as a tale of caution for future equal rights campaigns to be more sensitive to the individual experiences of oppression.

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