The theory of the double bind was introduced by Gregory Bateson in the 1950s. The concept is pretty straightforward: in it, a person or group is subjected to two conflicting messages. Both messages negate one another, but both result in an unpleasant outcome. In 1983, Marilyn Frye applied the concept of the double bind to the experience of being a woman. To put it into an effective example, a woman can neither have sex or abstain from sex. If she has sex, she’s called a slut; she’s easy and loose. If she abstains, then she’s frigid, she might even be a man-hater or a lesbian. In both cases, she endures an uncomfortable, negative outcome.
Women who agree with F1’s removal of grid girls are facing a similar situation. We’ve been accused of putting women out of work, of thinking “we know best”. We’ve heard that we’re ruining tradition, that we’re blowing things out of proportion, that we don’t see women as people, and that somehow we’re the ones objectifying them. We’ve heard that we’re ugly, that we just don’t like looking at women more attractive than us. We’ve heard that we’re jealous, bitter killjoys. We stand in the face of criticism and objection and disapproval.
But all of that is a welcome change from what would happen if we advocated for the continued use of grid girls.
Before we start, it’s important to note that this is not about hating the specific women who hold the grid girl position. No one is posting photos of girls holding signs on the grid captioned “fuck these women in particular”. Instead, this is about the concept that grid girls represent. I’ve discussed before the importance of positive representation of women in motorsport with the specific intention of drawing more female drivers in the recent past.
Representation is crucial. In “Television and the Self”, Michael Johnson Jr. asserts that, in popular culture, the majority is celebrated while the minority is merely tolerated, that ‘tolerance’ “simply acknowledges that the minority exists and that claims acknowledgement as an act of generosity”. Think of the “token black/gay/Latino” characters you see in movies, who have one line and that’s it. Think of J.K. Rowling claiming that Dumbledore is gay without ever including it in canonical texts. In essence, people who aren’t straight, white men are not the focal point of popular culture, but everyone is supposed to be happy with whatever roles they do get without asking for more.
How does this tie in with grid girls? Geena Davis uses the phrase “if she can see it, she can be it” to refer to her quest to bring more prominent female characters to cinema. From a young age, children are taught what their projected path in life should be. Boys play with trucks and have adventures and wear blue, girls play with dolls and stay at home and wear pink. When they see TV shows where the husband works and the wife stays at home, where men are CEOs and women are secretaries, where men have fun and women play the tangential love interest role, they pick up on that and they imitate it.
A similar concept applies to grid girls. In a sport where morphological differences between men and women are unimportant, only a handful of women have ever even attempted to take part in a Formula One race, and a handful of others have been test drivers, sim drivers, or I-suppose-we’ll-send-you-out-on-a-Friday-practice drivers. It is genuinely very rare to see a woman in a firesuit pulling on her helmet on race day. Instead, you’re far more likely to see a silent, smiling woman holding a sign in front of a driver’s spot on the grid as cameras pan over the pre-race chaos and as journalists weave through the crowd conducting interviews. That’s what the women, the young girls, the teenagers watching at home are going to see. And if they don’t see a single woman performing a task beyond Eye Candy, it’s hard to imagine herself in that role. But women are still supposed to be happy, because, hey – women are being gainfully employed, right? They’re still kind of sort of a part of F1, right? That’s all that matters, right?
I ask the men reading to think about it. Just put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment. Men, you see yourselves everywhere in motorsport. You’re engineers, mechanics, drivers, designers – you name it. Imagine that the roles are flipped. Imagine how you’d feel watching, say, a fashion show, or if you chose to be a nurse instead of a doctor. Imagine how you felt when there were grid boys in Monaco, where there were still clear differences in the ways the grid boys were dressed compared to grid girls. If you wrinkle your nose and feel uncomfortable – that’s the point.
Grid girls reinforce the beauty standards that have been in place for decades. Women are valued when they’re conventionally beautiful, when they smile for cameras, when they take pictures with men, when they’re objects to be consumed instead of people to interact with. This is the only role women have held in a mixed-gender series because of the sheer level of opposition and resistance that one runs into on the ladder up.
Grid girls reinforce that “ugly” girls don’t have value. They reinforce that women are not seen as equals. They reinforce that young women on the ladder to F1 need to be objectified to be sponsored. They reinforce the system that means women are photoshopped smaller on magazine covers, that women need makeup to leave the house, that women have to be skinny. They reinforce the same marketable insecurities that encourage young women to develop eating disorders, that have 40% of 7- to-10 year olds feeling shame about their bodies, that make 97% of women have moments in their life where they think nothing but “I hate my body”.
This is not about the jealousy of ugly women. This is not about shaming scantily-clad models or sex workers. This is about requesting that women be valued according to the same skillsets as their male contemporaries in mixed-gender sports. This is about assigning value to women that does not have to do with their looks. This is about questioning if it’s really actually appropriate to only use women as props. This is about sending a message to half of the world’s population that you are unwelcome if you don’t look like a grid girl, if you don’t agree with the utilization of grid girls, or if your ambitions are not to become a grid girl.
This is about creating a hostile atmosphere for female fans, another topic I’ve written about before. I have had my picture taken and distributed without my consent. I’ve been touched and kissed in the grandstands without my consent. I’ve been harassed by men who work in certain racing series to the point where I don’t feel comfortable walking through that paddock alone anymore. I shouldn’t have to consider swapping a pair of shorts for a pair of jeans so that I feel a little bit safer when I go to a race in Dallas in the middle of summer. I shouldn’t forego attending a MotoGP race because I just don’t feel safe going by myself. I shouldn’t be standing on a grid before the race, working, and have to watch cameramen pan over womens’ breasts. I shouldn’t have to worry about my own picture ending up in compiled galleries of sexy women. And while not every woman will have these same experiences, the fact that it can happen to me and that it can happen to other women I know and love is a sign that it’s time to change. Many women aren’t aware that what they face is a form of harassment (re: the women, including myself, who never knew that their experiences were sexual harassment until the #MeToo movement came to light). The fact that similar issues have happened to women like Kayla or Katie or Kelly Brouillet and countless others should be enough evidence.
Not every woman has the support system that Leena Gade mentions. Around age 11, girls’ interest in STEM fields begins to fade and rapidly declines by age 15. This is due to a perception of gender roles and feeling as though something traditionally ‘male-dominated’ is an undesirable field to aspire toward. This is because there are not enough visible women in these roles for a young woman to say “I can make it”. And while it’s important that there are women like Leena Gade or Janet Guthrie who smash through those boundaries to pave the way for other women, the fact of the matter is that it is necessary to have them in those roles for even more women to follow their path, and that we start removing the obstacles that might trip them up.
Which means it’s also necessary to remove grid girls.
Grid girls will be okay. We’ll be okay. The grid girls’ agencies will rebook their weekend, and they’ll bring home the paycheck that funds their careers and passions. We simply won’t see a beautiful woman holding a pole on a spot of asphalt. Formula One will still be glamorous and luxurious. No angry radical feminist made that decision – it was a group of conservative men who thought that hiring grid girls may just not be in their best interests anymore. And, really – are pretty ladies what anyone is watching Formula One for, anyway?
A lack of grid girls is not going to solve every gender inequality in Formula One – not even close. But it is a perceptible, tangible step in the right direction. It’s an opportunity to highlight the women in the paddock who work as equals with their male counterparts instead of enabling the perception that only beautiful women are welcome. It’s one less obstacle for a young girl to see and become disheartened by.
And that is a crucial first step to make.