is the ban on f1 grid girls a good thing?

Self-empowered or not, the sports world’s longstanding tradition of walk-on girls still contributes to a system that upholds men’s pleasure at the expense of women’s objectification. But scrapping them means putting women out of work. Is that really fair?

by Amelia Abraham
02 February 2018, 5:05pm

Image via Wikipedia.

Over the last week, a renewed debate has exploded over the objectification of women in sport. Not women actually playing sport, because we rarely hear about that. But the women on the sidelines who are there to spice things up a bit, like walk-on girls, a longstanding tradition in the world of darts. For anyone who’s not an avid viewer, they escort players on stage, usually dressed in glamorous short dresses and heels, sometimes wearing a sash, then they walk off again. However, on Saturday, it was announced that the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) will be scrapping the role from the sport, and with it, dozen of women’s jobs, after talks with broadcasters about how the tradition is outmoded and sexist.

Since news broke, the backlash has been mounting: Dutch and German darts fans and organisations have dubbed the decision PC gone mad, adamant that they will uphold the jobs of walk-on girls in Europe. A petition was started by former world darts champion Raymond van Barneveld, calling to reinstate the role for women... a petition which has now accumulated around 40,000 signatures and counting. And British model Kelly Brook jumped to walk-on girls’ defence on UK daytime TV; a former Formula 1 grid girl, Kelly said it was “one of the best jobs she’d ever had”. But then, just a few days later, it was announced that the role of grid girls would be scrapped too.

In the world of F1, grid girls are the ones who give out trophies, wave big flags, and entertain viewers while the car is on the far side of the track. Ultimately, they serve no integral purpose to the sport of Formula 1 racing itself, but since the 1960s, have simply become tradition. "While the practice of employing grid girls has been a staple of Formula 1 grands prix for decades,” said Sean Bratches, who is the managing director of commercial operations at F1, “we feel this custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms.” His statement added that “we don't believe the practice is appropriate or relevant to Formula 1 and its fans, old and new, across the world".

While some people applauded the decision, others complained that it seems to go against a majority view; in a survey conducted in December, BBC Sport found that 60% of F1 fans said the women should be a part of the sport. The debate around walk-on girls is much the same: while many darts viewers find the women’s presence harmless, critics believe that it is degrading to involve women in men’s darts purely for their own objectification. A tweet from the The Women's Sport Trust read: "We applaud the Professional Darts Corporation moving with the times and deciding to no longer use walk-on-girls. Motor racing, boxing and cycling... your move.”

It’s predictable that “feminists” clash with “anti-feminists” over the matter, but perhaps the most significant reaction to these bans is that walk-on girls and grid girls themselves are beginning to step out and make complaints. Walk-on girl Charlotte Wood told BBC Radio 5 live: "Everybody chooses to do a job, and I feel like if I'm being told I can't do this job, then my rights are being taken away. I go to work, I put on a nice dress and I escort darts players onto the stage. I smile and that is it. I don't honestly see what the problem is.” Likewise, grid girl Charlotte Gash told the BBC: "It's upsetting and I'm rather disgusted that F1 have given in to the minority to be politically correct. I'm one of the lucky ones that I don't rely on this as a main source of income, but there are girls out there who do.”

So, is it right to tell women what job they can and can’t do, and put them out of work in the process? At the end of the day, their livelihood depends on their ability to work. Scrapping grid girls essentially means depriving a large portion of hardworking women’s wages.

It seems to me that the question speaks to a much broader feminist debate, one that crops up whenever Page 3 comes under review (although it should be distinguished that women on Page 3 are topless, walk-on and grid girls are clothed). On the one hand, you could argue that sex positivity or self empowerment should give women the agency to choose whether to put themselves in front of the male gaze. On the other, you could argue that grid girls and walk-on girls -- unbeknownst to them or not -- are contributing to a system that upholds men’s pleasure at the expense of women’s objectification. That the very concept is bolstering the idea of woman as accessory or spectacle, something we should be aiming to combat, particularly in the wake of #metoo.

Personally, I can see both sides of the argument, and find them hard to reconcile. I’m particularly wary of the class politics that come into the debate -- judging other women’s decisions often without consideration for these women’s circumstances, or perhaps more importantly, their autonomy. I find it patronising to suggest that certain women are so enslaved under the patriarchy that they can’t even see that their job is objectifying. I think they can see it, and they really don’t mind. They just want to get paid (and these jobs reportedly pay well). As a friend who serves in a strip club put it: it’s Robin Hood theory -- while the patriarchy exists, I’ll take from it.

However -- and there is a big however -- darts and F1 are watched by millions of people, and the message these roles for women puts out is unequivocally clear: men do the hard graft while women stand around looking pretty. I find this problematic because, in reality, there are female darts champions, and there are female F1 racing drivers. They are just in a minority and get little exposure in a male dominated sports industry. In 2017, there was one woman on the list of the world’s 100 top paid athletes, and it was Serena Williams, who is paid £50 million lower than Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's top earning sportsman. I hope that phasing out walk-on girls and grid girls might shift our focus to this issue. I also hope it’s the first move towards a more inclusive ethos in these sports more generally, given that a darts fan blacked up as MP Diane Abbott at the end of last year and Lewis Hamilton has repeatedly experienced racism from fans in F1.

When the Pirelli Calendar -- Pirelli being the exclusive tyre supplier to F1 -- decided to shift the content of their calendars away from deifying hot women, they instead chose to celebrate diversity with an all black cast of models in 2018’s take on Alice in Wonderland. This is progress. One hundred years on from women’s partial suffrage -- an anniversary coincidentally being celebrated next week -- we’re sadly not even close to equality between the sexes, so although it might cause a stir, and it might not be the most urgent issue in the fight for gender parity, perhaps taking away the role of walk-on girls and grid girls is unfortunately a necessary and incremental step towards equality.

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