The World Endurance Championship (WEC) announced that they were doing away with grid girls and this has stirred up a social media storm. As happens every time somebody raises the topic of grid girls, and whoever raises it often draws fire from both sides of the debate. I did a small survey last year to find out what the rest of the fandom thought about the topic, and there were some interesting results (and some people who thought I ‘just hate grid girls because [I’m] jealous of their hotness’).
Of 330 respondents, the two largest groups were ‘for’ (n=130, mostly males aged 12-30 from the US and Eastern Europe) and ‘against’ (n=133, mostly from Western Europe and Australia, with a good mix of ages and genders), with a small contingent (n=67, mostly Australian men) of people who were ambivalent about whether grid girls should stay, go, or be revised in some way. So, ‘against’ win by a tiny margin, but nobody is in the majority.
Those in favour of grid girls were of two basic types – those who were grid girls and fans of the sport, and those who thought grid girls ‘were pretty’ and ‘added glamour’. There were two minority arguments put forward in favour of grid girls that counts as a modern feminist position:
1. Complaining on the internet about how grid girls dress is policing women’s bodies
For those who haven’t read much feminist theory, ‘policing women’s bodies’ is deciding what women should or shouldn’t wear, or deciding how women should or shouldn’t express their femininity. So, yes, if grid girls are happy to dress in the outfits provided, who are we to decide they should have their Woman Club membership cards revoked?
2. Grid girls are fans too, and do it because they love the sport
Not all grid girls fit the bimbo model stereotype who view their time on the grid simply as a paying job (or, as one respondent suggested, ‘to hit on racing drivers’). Some of them model to pay for education; some model to support their families; models need regular work too. Agreed.
The ambivalent minority generally turned their TVs/streams on just before race coverage started, and turned it off once they knew the final result. They viewed themselves as racing purists, and seemed to think the fanfare on either side of the main event was extraneous. Given how low-key build-up and post-race coverage is for Formula E and WEC – which both attract a decent audience and social media participation – they may have a point.
The ‘against’ crowd made, on average, far more varied and articulate arguments in the free comments than the ‘for’ crowd. (I’ll leave you to guess which camp were better at knowing when to use your/you’re and there/their/they’re.) For those who are confused and angry by WEC’s move, allow me to explain where the rest of the community is coming from.
1. Why does the job exist?
This was sub-divided into two objections: girls on the grid (a), and girls in the post-race celebrations (b).
a. Can world-class drivers not find their grid boxes on their own? They’re intelligent people; they probably could if they tried. They also have engineers and mechanics on the grid to direct them to the correct spot, if necessary. Do spectators not know where ‘their driver’ is on the grid? For sure, some of us miss quali sometimes, but the internet provides that data shortly after the close of the session. One race purist – whose other responses put him in the ‘ambivalent’ opinion camp – pointed out that grid marker pylons are convenient while watching the race from trackside, because they’re visible above the crowd.
b. Do we need to decorate buildings with women? This crowd of objectors specifically mentioned the bevies of women standing above and beside the podium, and lining the corridor to the podium. Nobody, it seems, knows the official name for the group of women applauding in the corridor; the most polite term used to describe it was the ‘corridor of cleavage,’ but no doubt most fans have seen the group described.
2. Race organisers’ fashion choices
The unfortunate dilemma of race organisers is how to dress their grid girls. The two most commonly used adjectives used to describe grid girl dress code were ‘sleazy’ (the more revealing outfits) and ‘frumpy’ (the outfits worn by grid girls in countries with a Muslim majority). Credit to the F1 Malaysian GP organisers, they hit the sweet spot this year with conservative-but-pretty dresses. But it’s a hard balance to find, and the objectors think there are more misses than hits in this department.
3. What subliminal messages do we send to young boys with this tradition?
a. The ‘conquering hero’ trope. We’ve all watched/read stories with this basic outline: man wins great battle; man gets pretty girl. It’s an inaccurate portrayal of real life – how many times have you won a big fight, and no girls showed up to adore you? In literary circles, it’s considered an outdated cliché and no writer worth their salt uses it any more (JK Rowling, if you remember, gave it a new twist by assigning the girl to the hero’s best friend).
b. That boys need to do something to be worthy of the pretty girl. This is an extension of the ‘conquering hero’ trope, but a harmful one nonetheless. According to feminist theory, it paints women as unattainable, and increases the anxiety guys have about approaching women, damaging their confidence and therefore their success with women (yes, we feminists do like men, but we like them to be respectful most of the time).
c. That it’s normal for women to show off everything they’ve got. There is a rule of female dress code, which states that it’s not classy to show one’s breasts and one’s legs simultaneously. By teaching young boys that women’s bodies should be on display for their viewing pleasure 24/7, we create an unrealistic expectation of life.
4. What subliminal messages do we send to young girls with this tradition?
a. That they can only be part of racing in extraneous roles. If we assume that 40% of any given sporting audience is female, 40% of children watching the race with their families will be female too. By drowning the coverage in grid girls, we’re taking screen time away from women who work as racers or engineers, who are held up to young fans as role models because of their skill-sets rather than their looks.
b. That they’re only worth something if they’re pretty. Women get told this from every angle – including family members – all the time. If you’re a man and you don’t believe me, have a quick watch of this interview Dustin Hoffman gave about making Tootsie. Can we not have racing that’s just about racing, and if we see women, we see them in actively contributing roles?
If you are one of the people offended and upset by WEC’s move, I would like to extend my sincere sympathies.
Unfortunately, the world is changing, and if things continue as they are already, your viewpoint will eventually be out-voted. We may wait until Bernie’s retirement before any change happens to Formula 1’s grid girls, but expect it to come eventually. As food for thought, I’ll leave you with some alternatives to the grid girl tradition that were suggested in the survey:
- Child mascots (with parental chaperones for safety) like at football matches
- Fans who won a competition to hold a grid place or fanboost pylon
- Sponsors’ VIPs
- Models promoting charities that the race organisers support
- Drivers’ friends/family members