If you’re at a party and there’s a lull in conversation just mention Donald Trump or Formula One ‘grid girls’. That’ll liven things up.
Much like the sport itself, the promotional models that flank the cars, drivers and podium of the racetrack polarise opinion.
They’re either viewed as a much-loved part of motorsport or as a sexist anachronism.
At the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide earlier this month, it emerged the South Australian government is planning to scrap taxpayer funding of promotional models at the V8 Supercars event it owns.
“I think it’s not a good spend of taxpayers’ money when we’re putting money in one area of government to help young women (with body image problems) and in another area we’re paying for other young women to dress up in skimpy outfits,” Tourism Minister Leon Bignell said.
The issue is not a sartorial one.
It’s not about the cut, shape or quality of the fabric.
The Formula One ‘grid girls’ will be stepping out in a demure, crisp green and white outfit this year – more flight attendant than exotic dancer.
The problem lies with the underlying message.
You don’t need a double degree in feminist theory to draw a link between women being treated as garnish and the reinforcement of a sense of entitlement among men.
Promotional models at sporting events are there to serve men.
Cycling, boxing and rugby league all have a version of this and all of it looks and feels hopelessly outdated.
It’s as though they’ve wandered in off the set of Mad Men.
And the head of the Formula One Grand Prix, Andrew Westacott, knows this.
In announcing a new partnership with White Ribbon Australia, which encourages men to speak out “to end men’s violence against women and girls, promote gender equality, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity”, Westacott conceded ‘grid girls’ were outdated.
White Ribbon is the perfect fit for the Grand Prix.
Of the sport’s target audience, 80 per cent are men.
I look forward to hearing White Ribbon use its voice to promote gender equality in Formula One because, at the moment, the strong message is it’s for men only.
As a nation we’re finally beginning to understand the damaging effects of sexist attitudes.
New research shows young people are struggling to work out what healthy, respectful relationships look like.
A 2015 survey of over 3000 young men and women commissioned by Our Watch found one in six 12-24 year olds believe ‘women should know their place’.
These are the kinds of attitudes that give rise to discrimination and violence.
Against this backdrop, it seems incongruous that women are paraded at sporting events as decorative pieces.
The way I see it there are two options.
They either start getting men to accessorise women’s sport or do away with the practice altogether.
I’m not wagging my finger at the women who do this – they have a choice, and an opportunity to work, and they enjoy the work.
But I would argue women and men are socially conditioned to perform certain roles.
The World Endurance Championship scrapped the ‘grid girl’ concept altogether at the start of the 2015 season, its CEO Gerard Neveu saying: “For me, that is the past. The condition of women is a little bit different now.”
I’m all for traditions and customs – I had the local Greek priest drop by and bless my new house with prayers and sprinklings of holy water and, being a fan of The Exorcist, I found the whole thing oddly reassuring.
But I’m not for traditions and customs that reinforce gender stereotypes.
F1 needs to move with the times.
Who knows, after the initial grumbling dies down, they may attract more people to their sport.