There’s a lot of positive things to be said about the planned introduction of Grid Kids, but little of it will make good the recent impression that F1 is desperate to be liked.
The problem was not so much the grid girls themselves, but the manner in which Formula 1 chose to deal with the so-called difficulty. What should have been a matter for in-house discussion instantly became a lamb led to a slaughter by F1’s virulent opponents.
Liberty Media explained that grid girls did not ‘resonate with brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms’. About five minutes after this rather grand statement had become public, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde went to work with a typically withering subtext when she tweeted an imaginary additional line to the proud pronouncement: "We will however, still race in Bahrain, because those societal norms pay a shitload.”
Even allowing for Hyde's vast stock of snide remarks and an equally well-aired dislike of F1, the popular columnist’s scorn possessed an uncomfortable and undeniable resonance. Sorry, Liberty; you asked for that with such a pious choice of words.
It was the start of an avalanche of comment that gave the impression F1’s owners have since been paying a price for misguidedly trying to do – or be seen to be doing – the ‘right thing’ in the turbulent wake of other infinitely more serious stories concerning the treatment of women.
Never mind the uninformed and gleefully expressed views of F1’s detractors, the opening of this can of worms also drove a wedge through the sport itself.
Having scoured comment columns over the past few days, I’d say it was roughly 60-40 against the withdrawal (as opposed to a ‘ban’) of grid girls. Easier to appreciate is how wide-ranging and complex the debate has become, so much so that the original point has been buried beneath heavy discussion about sexism, suppression and the bland assumption that grid girls propagate the image ‘Men participate; Women decorate’.
One man wrote to a particularly earnest F1 website that he wanted his daughter to watch F1 and aspire to be a driver or engineer, team leader or some such, rather than ‘just standing around looking pretty’. Apart from showing a misunderstanding of the additional roles played by so-called grid girls these days, this patronising remark does actually highlight a major F1 shortcoming.
Agreed, we desperately needed to get rid of the cringe worthy scene as the girls applauded embarrassed looking podium winners on their way to the cool down room. But rather than bringing the world’s attention in a negative way to grid girls, Liberty Media ought to be promoting the significant work done by the female engineers, strategists, fuel analysts and many more behind the scenes.
And while they’re at it, Liberty can explain how the girls on the grid also act as brand ambassadors for sponsors, meet and greet, work bloody hard and do much more than simply hold boards on the starting grid.
Liberty could also point out that the hackneyed view (rather worryingly held by Silverstone in a rash ‘me-too’ support of Liberty) of skimpily dressed women in Lycra has largely been replaced by elegant uniforms and, in some cases, national costumes.
The contradictions go on and on, not least when the correct desire to make women equal is, in this case, removing a woman’s right to work where she choses – as is the case with the majority of gird girls who love what they do.
If having them ‘look pretty’ is a crime, then what does that say for the Goodwood Revival where women wear outfits from the Fifties, deliberately and successfully chosen to make themselves look stunning. There seems to be blurred distinction between a woman feeling good while happily strolling around the paddock and apparently being objectified while standing still on the grid and being paid for it.
Clearly, there are several very important strands to this argument. Perhaps the best and most telling solution would have been for Liberty Media to say nothing in public and quietly withdraw the grid girls this season. How many, busy going about their business on the grid in Melbourne or watching on television, would notice?
Not many is a likely answer to the countless and varied questions created so clumsily.