Wednesday 7 February 2018

No more grid girls in Formula 1: Sport needs women to compete and not just act as accessories

The problem with the concept of ‘grid/ring/walk-on girls’ is not with independent women choosing their occupation, but with the blatant objectification, writes Zenia D'Cunha in Scroll. Read on: 

“This custom… is clearly at odds with modern day societal norms,” read the statement by Formula 1 announcing the end of the long-standing practice of grid girls during races.

Lewis Hamilton sprays champagne at a grid girl as he celebrates his victory on the podium after the Chinese GP in 2015. | Carlos Barria / Reuters
The move to remove grid girls from the 2018 season, as most things do, met with extremely polarising views on social media. While many credited Liberty Media for taking the progressive step, some, including several grid girls themselves, have slammed it as “political correctness to please a minority”, “fake feminism” and even as “taking independence and employment opportunities away from women.”

While it would have been naïve to imagine that such a move would be universally accepted, the intensity and bitterness in criticism of the move and the feminist movement is baffling, and a little annoying given it is 2018.

But let’s keep that emotion aside for moment and say it straight: The problem with the concept of “grid/podium/ring/walk-on girls” is not with independent women choosing their occupation, but with the blatant objectification and even sexualisation, of women in the job.

Using women as “decorative” items in sport, a field where gender imbalance is a daily concern on several levels, is problematic and sets a wrong precedent for those participating and watching.
On most days, the grid girls are only required to hold driver names, position boards or umbrellas on track, dressed with clothes that have either sponsor names or native to the country. But their duties also include lining up the way to the podium, and often being part of the presentation ceremony and have champagne sprayed on you by the winners. In certain cycling races, it goes on further, such as kissing the winners cheeks or posing with them for suggestive photos.

‘Good-looking’, a job description
Among those criticising the move to abolish grid girls is Ex-Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, to very little surprise.

“The country at the moment is getting a bit prudish. I can’t see how a good-looking girl standing with a driver and a number in front of a Formula One car can be offensive to anybody. They are all nicely dressed I would think people like Rolex and Heineken wouldn’t have girls there who weren’t presentable,” he was quoted as saying by The Sun.

Unwittingly, Ecclestone has answered the question himself in his statement, with the emphasis being on good-looking and then the comparison to luxury brands.

Are the drivers racing in those fancy, expensive cars or the engineers fixing them expected to look good or presentable? But here the job description itself included being “good-looking”, reducing the worth of the person to merely a physical attribute.

A practise across sports
This practise is, sadly, seen is different ways across different sports. Many international-level competitions have women dressed in a certain way doing odd-jobs that have little bearing on the actual outcome of the result.

In combat sport events, there are ring girls who hold the placard announcing which round is going on, in some cycling races, they are there at the trophy presentation, and in darts, to accompany a player to their spot.

In fact, at most sporting events, it is not uncommon to see women as hosts, on-field announcers, tray bearers at prize distribution, etc, who are more often than not adhering the conventional standards of beauty and fashion, dressed and paraded

Recently, the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), after talks with broadcasters, ended the long-standing practice of walk-on girls. This was met by backlash from certain quarters, and prompted a widely-received online petition to reinstate the walk-on girls, getting support from players themselves.

The recent draw ceremony of the ATP Next Gen Finals involved the players choosing females models to reveal their group. What was the purpose? To spice up the show, and use women as bowls to draw out names. That is textbook objectification.

Why are women being used as accessories in male sport? And why do are they almost always scantily clad and doing something mundane? More importantly, why is it still so widely accepted as tradition?

Some would say that grid girls are essentially cheerleaders, which are the norm in most sports and even have organised events and teams. Needless to say, majority of the cheerleaders are women. However, it should be noted but being a cheerleader requires the person to do something –a dance routine, a coordinated move. But the main job of a grid girl is to carry name cards and such to the field – essentially a decorative accessory, something nice to look at.

Much-needed move
With growing gender awareness and representation in the world we live today, using women to entertain the crowd and onlookers is plain ridiculous. Whether this comes in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement or is a product of a more sensitive world, fact is that this is a much-needed move.

This thought was best summed up by Women’s Sports Test – a London-based charity which works towards “raising the visibility and increasing the impact of women’s sport” – Women in the sporting environment should be judged by their sports appeal and not sex appeal.

A thought echoed by former Indian F1 driver Karun Chandok as well, who saw this is an opportunity to invest into getting more female drivers into the sport.

Coming to the argument of freedom of choice, yes, these women are at a liberty to be whoever they want and yes, it is a form of employment. Many of them are models and will have many other avenues to continue in this line of work. But it won’t be on TV and the grounds, where thousands of fans of all ages are watching how the athletes behave.

Sport, and its organisations, have to be more than a commercial venture. A part of people’s culture, they are accountable to the society.

And as much as this is about the image of women, this is also about sport, that is played, followed, managed by both genders.

Sport is enthralling and entertaining, even without the theatrics and fancily dressed woman. The thrill of a dangerous overtake on the first corner won’t be diminished by the absence of a girl carrying a driver name, nor will an action-packed fight be any lesser if a lady didn’t parade the number of the round on a placard.

Sport doesn’t need grid or podium or walk-on girls to be more watchable. But sports definitely need more focus and balance for the watching female audience, the segment promoters often forget.

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