The most interesting gender conversation in sports is happening in Formula 1
Grid girls are as much a part of Formula 1 as carbon fiber and champagne baths. Europe’s answer to the Cowboys cheerleaders, grid girls have been a fixture in the F1 pits for decades, repping sponsors, revving metaphorical engines, and adding some much-needed glitter to the grease-monkey grit. But on Wednesday, the age of the grid girl officially came to an end, when F1—in a move that absolutely screams “THIS IS 2018 AND WE ARE ALL MAKING THIS UP AS WE GO”— announced they would be eliminating their second most-famous curves for the upcoming season.
"While the practice of employing grid girls has been a staple of Formula 1 Grands Prix for decades,” Sean Bratches, Managing Director of Commercial Operations at Formula 1, said in the brand’s official statement, “we feel this custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms. We don’t believe the practice is appropriate or relevant to Formula 1 and its fans, old and new, across the world.”
On the surface, this seems like, ethically, the right call, and, for F1, the smart one. Era after era, issue after issue, F1, while perpetually in motion, has found itself lagging behind. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, drivers had to accept—as F1 legend Jackie Stewart once dubbed it—“the probability of death,” as safety regulations scrambled to catch up. In the new millennium, the conversation turned to the environment and the real-world cost of a rich man's recreation. Today, in the slipstream of electric racing circuits like Formula-E and all-ethanol NASCAR, petroleum-dependent F1 has become motorsports’ crackpot climate truther.
Desperate not to get caught on the wrong side of a yet another societal sea-change, F1 decided to get a headstart on the simmering gender-politics-in-sports debate, sending the grid girls and their checkered-flag jumpsuits packing. Organizationally, you can’t fault the initiative. In a world where Sam Ponder has gone toe-to-toe with Bartstool Sports’ calculated chauvinism and Serena Williams with John McEnroe’s blithe sexism, the decision looks like an easy one on paper. Reasonably noble, relatively safe, and with no bearing on the on-track product, it seemed like a no-brainer...that is, until the the grid girls themselves spoke up.
To hell with PC culture, they said, we want our jobs back.
From the perspective of F1’s now-former grid girls—and probably plenty of other women—there was nothing salacious or malicious or degrading about what they did. It was a vocation, and—as the blowback has made abundantly clear—one they’re still damn proud of. What percentage of women on earth have what it takes to step onto rumbling, grumbling, searing-hot pavement surrounded by 22,000 horsepower and 150 men who turn wrenches for a living and put their looks and livelihood on the line? Our guess is in the single digits, and, according to the grid girls themselves, that—not some thinkpiece on the homepage of a website run by women for women telling other women how to act and what to do—is real-life, real-world female empowerment (or whatever Twitter bio label you want to stick on it this week). But please, don’t take out word for it. Listen to them:
If this isn’t a hold-the-phone moment for sports and gender, it should be. We have been conditioned to view cheerleaders, halftime dancers, sports journalists who happen to be attractive, and, now, grid girls as captives in a “man’s world”—misogynist checks in the corporate sex-appeal box designed to put asses in seats and jaws on the floor. But as the grid girls have highlighted, maybe they choose to have these jobs because they’re damn good at them. Maybe they keep them because they actually enjoy them. Maybe what they find demeaning is a boardroom full of men telling them what the hell they can/can’t/should/shouldn’t do for a living.
As you can tell from the liberal use of "maybe," the question raised in this debate has no clear answer, but that doesn't mean it's not still worth asking: Has the effort to “rescue women” from purportedly chauvinist career paths by defining chauvinism without consulting them and eliminating their jobs without asking them become more insidious than the poms poms ever were?