Why aren’t grid girls being celebrated as empowered feminist icons?

The recent news that  F1 Grand-Prix events would no longer be using “grid girls” is being widely hailed as a win for women. But why should a woman’s choice to make money as a sexy sideshow be inconsistent with gender equality?

Much of the grid girls controversy relates to the idea that sexually objectifying women at public events is problematic for the status of women. Or that it sends negative messages to girls about the role of women in sporting culture and in public life more generally.

But the term “grid girls” is a tad misleading, because we’re actually talking about adult women. And, if that’s the case, why not leave them to their own choices? If women can choose to be CEOs, or stay at home mums, or casual workers with no job security, why can’t they choose to be grid girls?

Surely grid girls should be seen as symbolic icons of liberal feminism. They are capitalizing on their potential sex appeal to men as a form of employment. In a sex sells culture, it seems rather odd to be telling women they can’t use their own bodies as commodities to get ahead and be empowered in the world.

And some women love the job. Just read the testimonies from grid girls who rave about the joys of “glamming up,” despite crippling high-heels, bleeding feet and rampant sexual harassment. Any woman who has a problem with this scenario is probably just old and jealous of all the male attention that grid girls receive.

This is what we usually hear when feminists criticize women’s “choices” about sexual objectification and exploitation. So why is this different?

Maybe you think that whether or not individual women are reportedly happy to be remunerated for hanging around racetracks in impractical lycra outfits is irrelevant considering the whole notion of grid girls plays into outdated and harmful gender stereotypes.

Maybe you’ve noticed all the reporting and research that links gender stereotyping, gender inequality, and violence against women, and perhaps you think that progress in this area is more important than upholding a mind-numbingly stupid, sexist tradition.

And maybe you’ve even seen through the flimsy arguments that we must let the tradition continue, lest feminists be seen as robbing grid girls of gainful employment.

If you’ve managed to get this far in questioning the patriarchal propaganda about the benefits of getting women to dress up in over-sexualized, super-skimpy clothing and calling them “girls,” good for you.

This is an important step, and the pressure to remove grid girls shows shifting corporate and social attitudes to the acceptability of using women as pornified props. No doubt we can thank the rising visibility of feminist activism and movements like #metoo, for highlighting sexual harassment and hurrying this shift along. But there is a startling hypocrisy at the heart of mainstream criticism of the grid girl, and the cheering that has greeted her demise.

Take the Melbourne Grand Prix in Australia. It’s held in the “pimp state” of Victoria, which has one of the most established systems of legalized brothel prostitution anywhere in the world. Indeed, the Grand Prix is frequently reported to be one of the busiest times of year for licensed brothels. It is therefore completely duplicitous for MPs, in this context, to decry the sexual objectification of women in motorsports, whilst continuing to normalize an industry that requires the sexual objectification of women in order to function.

This hypocrisy has been mirrored elsewhere. Some prominent feminist commentators hailing the end of grid girls as a victory for women and girls are the very same people who champion individual women’s choices when it comes to “sex work.” Some who go so far as to claim it is unfeminist to critique stripping, are now saying that women standing around and looking pretty is a passé notion.

They are are so close to joining the dots, and yet, so far.

The reality is, if you can’t extend the logic of grid-girls-as-harmful to prostitution-as-harmful, then you must believe that there is a particular group of women who are somehow different, who thrive under conditions of inequality, enjoy sexual harassment, or deserve abuse.

Those who condemn grid girls, but stay silent on the harms of “sex work,” should stop pretending they care about women’s liberation; all they are really celebrating with this change is the ability of a car race to protect its “family friendly” brand.

Meagan Tyler

Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and is the public officer of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. Meagan is the author of "Selling Sex Short: The sexological and pornographic construction of women’s sexuality in the West" and co-editor of "Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism."