Sunday 16 December 2018

Innocence of the 'grid girls' makes them an easy target

Men no longer control what women do with their own bodies. Feminists do it instead and call it progress, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

TOO RACY: Grid girls line up for the pit lane walk ahead of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last September
TOO RACY: Grid girls line up for the pit lane walk ahead of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last September

Eilis O'Hanlon

It was one of the biggest hits of last year. Now Camila Cabello, the singer behind Havana, has released her debut solo album, on the cover of which the former member of girl group Fifth Harmony poses, eyes gazing seductively, long, bronzed legs akimbo, with just a strip of dress protecting her modesty.

Nothing wrong with that, right? It's her body, she can do what she wants with it. This is just a young woman assertively expressing her sexuality.

So what about the scantily clad dolly birds who totter about on high heels at certain sporting events? Don't they have the right to express their sexuality too? Apparently not.

That's horrible misogynistic exploitation and must be stopped, insist the exact same people who defend the overt sexualisation of women in other areas of popular culture. They've now got their wish. The new owners of Formula One have concluded that the practice of having so-called 'grid girls' at races is "at odds with modern day norms" and will be ended forthwith. Pretty young women in tight T-shirts and shorts will also no longer accompany players onto the podium before darts matches.

It's the end of an era, and arguably not before time. Personally, I can't say I'm going to miss them much. Former Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone has mourned the change, insisting that the young women were "part of the spectacle", but traditions can change. Give it a few years, and no one will even remember the way things used to be, and they won't enjoy the spectacle any less as a result.

The same goes for the grid girls and walk-on girls who have publicly hit back at feminists for depriving them of a livelihood.

There is a certain irony in those who demand more opportunities for women actively taking away one of the opportunities to make comparatively easy money that not especially well-educated but attractive women already had, but times do move on, and not all jobs can be saved when they do.

Blacksmiths didn't like the advent of the motor car either. Sorry, girls, but sometimes history's just not on your side.

But while I have no intention of mounting the barricades to fight for the rights of top totty to totter about in their undies so that men with short attention spans have somewhere for their eyes to rest in between the sporting action, one puzzle remains: What are the rules of this new game? If disapproval of the way some women earn their money means that they should be deprived of an income as a result, why can't another group of self-righteous preachers also tell female starlets like Camila Cabello to cover themselves up and be more demure? What's the difference? Aren't they objectifying women too by reducing themselves to sex objects?

The difference, so the argument goes, is that the grid girls are simply there to flatter male egos and please male appetites. The pop stars, on the other hand, are choosing to flaunt their sexuality for their own satisfaction.

But how true is that in this post Harvey Weinstein, post #MeToo age? Surely if we've learnt one thing, it's that choices which appear on the outside to be free are anything but. Who's to say that these young women will not, in a few decades time, come forward to detail how they were exploited too, and how they felt pressurised by nasty men into baring more flesh to sell records, to stay relevant?

In a world in which women's bodies are commodified, it's absurd to think that you can combat that domination with some bland slogans about "being in control", or argue that the objectification of women is nullified if the women are objectifying themselves. No one is so much in control that they can neutralise the all-pervasive effect of a culture in which sexual availability has become a pathway to fame and fortune.

Contemporary feminists keep trying to find heroines who can buck the trend.

For Caitlin Moran, author of the best-selling How to Be a Woman, it was Lady Gaga, whose physical strangeness seemed to Moran to subvert male expectations of sexiness. For Ireland's Una Mullally, it's Beyonce, whose adoption of a few scraps of feminist rhetoric is supposed to help her transcend the genre cliches of her glitzy world, just because, well, Beyonce says it does.

Lady Gaga and Beyonce are as much 'in control' of their sexual image as Madonna was decades ago when she peddled the same hoary tropes.

Either that, or it's a total coincidence that the sexuality which they're selling matches to a tee a sexual fantasy which male moguls and producers and consumers have desired since time immemorial. That's the thing about the 'male gaze'. It doesn't matter if you think you're slyly subverting it, the male gaze still wins.

It's a simple beast. Flouncing about in your knickers will do the trick, whatever messages you delude yourself into believing are encoded in the image. Try dressing like Mother Teresa and see how far that gets you. Let's see then how much in 'control' of your careers you really are.

Some female artists can make a good living that way, but the culturally significant figures all conform to the same erotica-by-numbers template. It's not a coincidence.

So should Camila Cabello and Beyonce and Katy Perry and the rest immediately cover up those curves to avoid complicity in their own oppression? Of course not. That's still their decision to make, albeit that free will itself is an illusion. Telling women what to wear and how to behave is a dangerous road, which, unchecked, would invariably lead to a centralised control of women's bodies.

But isn't that what's happening anyway, by increments? It's just that we don't notice it happening because it's being done under a falsely progressive flag. Instead of being told what to do with their own bodies by priests and patriarchs, women are being dictated to by other women.

And not just any women, but feminists, supposedly the best kind of women, who have all the clever arguments to convince the gullible that it's for their own good. First they came for the dolly birds...

At least with the grid girls and walk-on girls, there's no pretence. It is what it is. They're pretty; they're there to impart some glamour to slightly grotty events; they're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes by suggesting there's some grand manifesto behind what they do. Their innocence is what makes them such an easy target.

If they really want to challenge the relentless objectification of women, feminists should go after powerful women cynically turning themselves into living sex dolls in pursuit of ever more money, not young women picking up small change for a bit of harmless promotional work.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice