Sunday, 4 February 2018

The uncomfortable truths about grid girls


It doesn't really matter if you are outraged that Formula One and the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) in the UK will no longer use attractive young women in decorative roles or whether you are outraged that such a job existed in the first place - there are plenty of circles you might want to square in your mind before you vent on your social media outlet of choice.

But it's probably too late because there has already been a predictable flurry on Twitter and Facebook, regardless of where you sit with this particular argument.

There has been hypocrisy across the board. The people who claim to mostly be concerned about saving these young women's jobs are not necessarily the same people who have spoken out about pay and working conditions for countless other jobs in the hospitality industry, where countless young women are exploited, harassed, underpaid and undervalued if they are seen mostly as decorative - or dismissed as decorative even if they are serving customers, pulling pints, waiting on tables or cleaning the toilets.

If you are only concerned about the economic status of these young women but have never said a word about other women in hospitality, you are being selective in your outrage.

For those who are celebrating the decision made by Formula One and PDC, it is uncomfortable to acknowledge that plenty of women are happy to be "grid girls" or "walk-on girls", even if the very job title is infantilising. Plenty have spoken out to say they do not feel exploited, they enjoy the work and it pays better than many other hospitality jobs. Some of these women are genuine sports fans who enjoy the opportunity to get paid to go to events that come with a high ticket price.

When I used to cast models for fashion shoots for a women's magazine, it was rare that anyone I hired was making a full-time career out of it. Most were students earning extra cash, there were a few bored housewives who did it for a bit of a lark, some were trying to make it as actresses or TV presenters. In the case of the women hired for Formula One and PDC events, this is often the case as well, but there are some who do earn good money doing this sort of work all year round, with their agencies sending them all over the world.

If the women who make a living out of this sort of work lose the Formula One and the PDC jobs, it will certainly make a dent in their annual earnings but, as any freelancer in any field knows, you can't rely on all sources of work to be there for all time.

The pictures at the top of this page indicate that it's not just Formula One hiring attractive young women at races. While there may well be not more young women holding flags and helpfully standing with signs on the grid so the drivers can find their cars, it is unclear whether the sponsors got the memo or even have to comply with Formula One's decision to send grid girls the way of the dodo.

While the days of Formula One organisers kitting out women in what are essentially tight-fitting office dresses are over, other companies may still be hiring, albeit in outfits that the Daily Mail would deem more "daring". Perhaps these women will be the next target for a ban. I don't know - I have been to motorsport events as a journalist and as a spectator and I am largely oblivious to the women hired as eye candy. However, if the photos above are any sign, there is still work to be had at motorsports events in a beer company crop top and mini skirt, a boiler suit rendered useless by amputated arms for a major financial institution, or a space-age silver boob sling on behalf of a manufacturer of electrical goods. 

Or perhaps this is the start of a subtle move towards encouraging women to take a more active part in other aspects of motorsport - as engineers, drivers, marshals, team bosses - after all, there is only one Claire Williams at the moment - she is the only woman who is a deputy team principal of a Formula One team.

Indeed, I noticed a distinct shift in the role of women when I was at the Dubai International Motor Show at the end of last year. While previous motor shows, in the Middle East and elsewhere, have become well-known for their "booth professionals", the glamorous women who are paid to pose all day long, usually in short dresses and uncomfortable shoes at the stands of different car manufacturers, last year's Dubai show was a bit different.

And it certainly wasn't about stereotypical Middle Eastern prudery - for the last 12 years, I've been to plenty of events in the region, motoring-related and otherwise, where women are paid to stand around looking pretty and, trust me, none of them are wearing hijabs or abayas. But a lot of them were looking really bored. This time around, at the Dubai motor show, there was a distinct lack of bored models. The women I encountered on the stands - and there were plenty of them - were knowledgeable about the cars they were promoting and they were not standing statue-still all day with ankles wobbling in high heels. Good.

Like most things, it all comes back to economics.

Formula 1 and the PDC darts competition are both big business. While it's all too easy for the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail to declare that they are snowflakes who have bowed to political correctness gone maaaaaaaaad. But neither sporting organisation would have made the decision to ditch the girls if they thought it was going to have a serious impact on their bottom lines. And it probably hasn't - where are the outraged motor sport and darts fans tearing up their tickets?

Will there be a mass boycott of Formula One and PDC by furious spectators? Probably not. Will both sports continue to make money? Probably.

Photography by ph-stop/Flickr

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