Grid Girls and Puritans

Grid Girls and Puritans

Kirio Birks
Kirio Birks

Objectification, we are told, is degrading. Why? Because any job that requires employees to be sexually attractive and gazed upon for that reason necessarily dehumanises them. It encourages others to treat them as pretty ‘things’ rather than as autonomous people with their own lives, passions, thoughts, and desires. Or so the thinking goes. ‘Grid Girls’ – models employed by Formula One for promotional purposes – have just discovered that their role is to be discontinued. As Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations explained: “While the practice of employing grid girls has been a staple of Formula 1 Grands Prix for decades, we feel this custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms.”

But in their hurry to spare Grid Girls the indignity of the male gaze, nobody making this argument seems to have stopped to wonder whether Grid Girls might have an interest in defending what they do. Instead, a collective of ostensibly progressive voices leapt to their defence without bothering to ask the girls themselves if they needed defending at all. In response, Formula One abandoned its Grid Girls so that it can be seen to be moving with the times and hip to contemporary mores. In doing so, Formula One’s executives have implicitly conceded that they have spent too long objectifying women instead of empowering them. They would like it to known that they’d rather see women driving the cars, or as members of the engineering teams, or just about anywhere other than track-side holding a driver’s name-board and looking beautiful.

What baffles me is that a move supposed to empower women came at the expense of other women, and only because a minority of outsiders found Grid Girls inappropriate, problematic, and otherwise an offence against good taste. But even if Grid Girls are being objectified, then – contra the explanation offered above – it’s not at all clear that objectification is wrong in and of itself. It is acceptable to use people as a means to an end – that’s called employment. Grid Girls obviously know that they will be objectified and they make an autonomous, informed decision to take the job anyway. They are not harmed, they are paid for their time and their work, and many of them have come forward to say, with understandable indignation, that they enjoy what they do. Needless to say, this has not impressed those feminists who applauded their redundancies. But surely a woman has a right to be the object of somebody else’s desire if she wants and surely it doesn’t matter if she is being paid for it?

Opponents may suggest that Grid Girls have internalised their own oppression in a society shaped by patriarchal values, but not without making two claims: (1) that Grid Girls are unable to adequately think for themselves because of the society they live in and (2) that thinking for yourself is only evidenced by acknowledging the existence of a patriarchal status quo and resisting it.

Of course, protecting women from their own decisions in the name of their own interests isn’t new. Feminism’s drive for female empowerment has long co-existed with a strain of authoritarian puritanism. Women have the right to be as sexy and promiscuous as they wish, but only if they do so in a manner sanctioned by the self-appointed theorists-in-chief. Women may sleep around, pose naked, and become a sex symbol if it’s for ‘the cause.’ But woe betide women who would do so because they feel like it or – worse – to make money, because then their treacherous behaviour reinforces a patriarchal status-quo. It’s fine to #FreeTheNipple on social media but it’s most certainly not fine to expose your nipples in a ‘Lads Mag,’ because that would be tawdry and exploitative and undermine the notion that nipples aren’t always sexual. I thought the intended message was that nipples don’t have to be sexual, not that they must never be sexual.

You can be a proud slut, but you can’t commercialise sex. You can dress as provocatively as you like, but you must not be paid to do so. You can sleep with whoever you want, but you can’t be paid to do that either and having a sexual preference is possibly prejudicial. For every liberal sex positive movement in feminism, there’s a reactionary counter-movement which tries to define the precise terms under which a woman’s sexual liberation is acceptable. You’re free to be whoever you want to be, provided you benefit the cause.

Women are expected to sacrifice their individuality at the altar of a higher calling: the promise of a vaguely imagined hinterland of ’empowerment’ and transcendence beyond oppressive hierarchies. At its core, this is a quasi-religious claim to a better life after this one. Heretics who cannot or will not conform are to be shunned and excommunicated. Freedom of speech, thought, and choice are contingent upon the extent to which they make you an ally and an adherent of collectivist ideology. Under these rules, there is no inalienable right to freedom for the individual, because the smallest unit of analysis is now the group.

The puritans’ methods can be summarised as follows:

If they don’t say what we say, punish them.
If they don’t think what we think, punish them.
If they don’t act as we act, punish them.

There can be no platform for the unorthodox. They must not be allowed on TV or university campuses, or into lecture halls. They mustn’t even be allowed their preferred choice of employment. If a career – sex worker, porn star, glamour or promotional model – doesn’t advance the cause then that’s just too bad. Those misguided women will simply have to be cast aside; collateral damage in the relentless pursuit of an egalitarian utopia.

People should have the right to decide for themselves when, where, with whom, and why they will or won’t have sex or be sexual. In the 1950s and 1960s, liberal women fought against prevailing social conservatism for the right to precisely these sexual liberties. But a maternalistic and puritanical counter-counter-cultural feminism has long fought to reverse those gains in the name of protecting its daughters’ innocence. This is a chastened feminism reminiscent of the Social Purity Movement of the early 20th century and the paranoid sex-negativity of Dworkin, MacKinnon, et al. in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

There’s nothing wrong with a woman allowing herself to be objectified in a professional setting. If she doesn’t like the experience of being a Grid Girl, Ring Girl, or whatever else, then she will find that out for herself and quit (as some do). Learning from one’s mistakes is a part of life and a part of the kind of understanding and growth that comes from experience. Yes, we can learn much from the mistakes of others, some mistakes must be ours to make. Others who find they enjoy such work should be allowed to continue, irrespective of the disapproval of those who don’t.

When people venture into new territory, they cultivate a habitable order so they can ensure it is safe for those who follow, especially if they are supported in doing so. Prohibition has never been a stable solution to any problem. Prohibition only leads to unregulated chaos. As of yet, we are hard-pressed to find a black market of models, but we do have a significantly more chaotic and treacherous world of modelling in social media (Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, etc.). Inexperienced or unsupported models open themselves up to a host of new dangers and ways to be exploited.

Rather than sending Grid Girls off into the wilds of unemployment, or providing one less place for would-be models, a far better solution would have been to make sure that they’re unionised, properly paid, and protected. If they are, then they have empowered other women to take up work they might otherwise have avoided, in a safer way. People can’t be coddled into competence and resilience. In a free society, we should let them have the courage to make use of their own experience and understanding.

 

Kirio Birks is a postgraduate student with B.A. in Philosophy and is studying for a Master of Heatlh Sciences endorsed in Bioethics. You can follow him on Twitter @kiriobirks

Art and CultureFeminism