The announcement in the last fortnight that Formula 1 will be following the example of darts in removing scantily-clad women from purely ceremonial jobs has been met with backlash from both fans of the sport and the wider modelling community.
Consequently, Saturday 10th February saw a protest march in the Bullring in Birmingham, attended by fewer than one hundred people. Despite 249 stating on the event’s Facebook page that they would be attending the protest and two thousand showing an interest, a quick headcount during the final part of the march showed that fewer than thirty stayed until the end. Despite the lack of numbers, the chant of ‘hashtag grid girls, save our grid girls’ stayed strong for the duration of the march from the Bullring to Temple Row. The protest was peaceful throughout, with a limited police and security presence needed to maintain order within the crowd.
The event was primarily promoted on a Facebook event page by Racewars GBR. The West Midlands-based motorsport company expressed anger at ‘the extremists ruining a perfectly harmless industry’ and told their two thousand ‘interested’ followers ‘IF WE DONT [sic] NIP IT IN THE BUD IT WILL SPREAD LIKE WILDFIRE!’ In the run-up to the event, the movement piqued the interest of both local and national news outlets, with the Birmingham Mail and the Metro running stories on the protest.
Speaking to Redbrick, protest organiser Shane Lloyd said his aims are ‘to stop the spread of nonsense stopping the girls working in the promo industry’ but says he would be happy to see men working alongside women if they get ‘reinstated in their grid jobs’.
The controversy in the media has caused a divide in public opinion for those in favour of and against the ‘grid girls’ and ‘walk-on girls’. The University of Birmingham’s Women and Non-Binary Association issued a statement to Redbrick outlining their stance within the debate; ‘We believe that women should have the right to choose the line of work which they go into, and this includes choosing to work as a ‘grid girl’ or ‘walk-on girl’. We totally condemn the people online and in the press who have been slut-shaming these women, and criticising the work that they do. Women totally have the right to reclaim their bodies and sexuality, and this is not something that should be berated; in fact, it should be celebrated.’
With regards to the objectifying nature of the work, the Association argue that ‘there are ways of questioning the systems of oppression surrounding the objectification of women that don’t result in the literal unemployment of women’, pointing out that the women are exercising their choice in picking these roles and ‘claim to love their jobs’. The Association’s statement does echo some of the sentiments from Saturday’s protesters in allowing female models to retain their jobs, although the rather male-dominated nature of the protest may undermine this aim, with few models voicing their concerns at the Bullring. As Shane Lloyd would accept male models working alongside women on the grid, the Association is in line with his perspective in the possibility of removing the objectifying nature of the work while maintaining the tradition and keeping the ‘grid girls’ in employment.
Internationally, F1’s ‘grid girls’ and professional darts’ ‘walk-on girls’ have faced a lot of criticism. Some have accused them of promoting the objectification of women, although key names in both sports have voiced their displeasure at being forced to replace what they view as a traditional staple of the events (‘grid girls’ first appeared in F1 in the 1960s). The Chairman of the Professional Darts Association, Barry Hearn, accused the ‘PC brigade’ of bringing around excessive changes, and claimed ‘it’s probably going to get worse’. Meanwhile, the outspoken ex-chief executive of F1, Bernie Ecclestone, told Sky News that ‘these girls did nothing harmful to anybody. They were smartly dressed. We might as well say we don’t want people to go to a fashion show because, basically, that’s what happened’.
With regards to Liberty Media’s ownership of the motorsport, Shane Lloyd is ‘totally against’ their changes and ‘would like to know who is really making these decisions’. The models themselves are, understandably, more concerned about their modelling careers following the decision. Former grid girl Charlotte Gash has pointed out that for some women, the role is their major source of income which has been severed almost overnight.
Of course, there are arguments to the contrary which ultimately the pushed the decisions through in both sports. A vital argument against grid girls in Formula 1 came from Managing Director Ross Brawn, who said in an interview with 5 Live that ‘this custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms’ – it is no longer ‘appropriate’. Similarly, World Number 1 in darts, Michael van Gerwen, believes that darts is ‘just a sport’ and said ‘[the custom] does not interest me’. Such arguments have led to the reforms, with Formula 1 introducing ‘grid kids’ for the 2018 season, which will see twenty young go-karting enthusiasts and next-generation driver hopefuls being given to opportunity to stand on the grid alongside their heroes, a move which has been welcomed by the likes of Brawn but resented by some.
Based on the low turnout and lack of national media coverage after the protest, it seems unlikely that Racewars will be turning heads in the worlds of Formula 1 and Darts with their efforts. Despite the fallout from the decisions made by both the Darts Association and Formula 1, plans are currently still in place to have ‘grid kids’ appear at the first Grand Prix of the season in Melbourne on March 25th.