Glamorous Assistants

Should we ban walk-on girls from professional sport?

What type of Ring Girl do you want to see?

The last month’s been pretty good for feminism. The #MeToo campaign generated a lot of much-needed attention for issues that affect many women, yet have been dismissed for decades. First it was sexual harassment and assault, but now we’re talking about more nuanced feminist issues, and people seem to actually be listening. Hurrah, no more yelling into the void!

One notable case is that of the Professional Darts Association’s decision to drop walk-on girls from their tournaments. Unsurprisingly, this has been met with opposition and the Dickhead Dog-Whistle of “Political Correctness Gone Mad.” In spite of such “reasoned criticism,” other organisations have decided to follow suit, with Formula One being the next sporting body to end the use of female decoration to promote their sport. Other sports, riding the populist wave, have gone against the grain and pledged to keep their scantily-clad woman-accessories. MMA and boxing have hinted that ring girls are here to stay.

Whatever your opinion on the matter, it’s clear that the times are changing. But like so many openly debated topics, there is a split into two opposing camps. You’re either for, or against, apparently. But is that actually reflective of most people’s opinions, or is it just a convenient shorthand for a vastly complex problem? You might think it’s a simple question: do we want half-naked women used to promote sports events mostly played by men, or don’t we? Maybe it’s not actually that easy. Somebody who has asked that question is retired Everton & Wales International footballer Neville Southall:

Actually a Really Deep Question, Based on the Twitter Responses

In recent years, Neville Southall has become a wise old Twitter philosopher, as well as working with disadvantaged children and standing up for human rights. Wisdom can be found in many places. His seemingly blunt question generated a respectful and varied conversation. Click on the link below the image to see the rest of the chat. As well asking as the initial question, Neville also responded that he had asked that question because he wanted to know what women think—and he’s not looking for a simple answer, nor did he get one. There are many facets to the problem, and all responses are valid.

The most interesting answers that I saw were from women in support of keeping walk-on girls. They discuss things like whether we should be telling women that this is not a suitable aspiration or vocation to pursue; if this is making life more difficult for working-class women; and if this is an attack on working-class pastimes. And these are legitimate questions, equal in merit to those being asked by mainstream feminism. If we want to make society more pro-woman, we need to recognise and respect the diversity of thought and experience that comes with 21st Century womanhood.

Let’s look at those arguments first. Many walk-on girls have said that this change harms them. Not exactly a surprise, but they’re not just talking about themselves personally. They’ve said that this is harmful to working-class girls specifically; is there any merit to this argument? Again, the answer isn’t a clear yes or no. It is mostly working-class girls that do this sort of work, and it’s the kind of role that doesn’t need any formal qualifications. But it’s really only open to working-class girls who also happen to be tall, thin, and pretty; so it’s not a guaranteed route to social mobility. It may seem empowering to them, but it comes at the price of degrading women as a whole. Good for them in winning the genetic lottery, but they could at least acknowledge that they’re pulling the ladder up behind them. It’s a nice idea, if you’re looking for a reason to excuse your line of work as beneficial to society, but it’s obvious that the walk-on girls are protecting their own interests and not standing up for the many working-class women unable to access such lucrative careers.

It’s certainly a common working-class aspiration; so what of those who do aspire to it, whether they make it or not? If this is your highest ideal, you’re probably limiting yourself. There’s a small number of roles available, and it is a bit of a lottery as to whether you’ll fulfil the requirements. It’s not something that one can work their way towards, or study for. It’s unrealistic for most, and it’s not even that glamorous. Even if you did make it as a walk-on girl, it’s probably best to have a backup plan. It’s nice to have dreams, but you’ve got to be realistic. As well as the fantasy the role provides outwardly, doing the job is part of a fantasy world that only lasts for a fleeting period. When you’re the wrong side of 30, you’ll need another career option to fall back on. Yes, it’s an exciting role for some, but most of us will need to mould our aspirations for roles that need our skills as well as our beauty. If you want to be a walk-on girl, but you don’t have what it takes, you’re selling yourself short—not because of the nature of the role, but because there’s so much else you could have chosen to do instead.

Hello, Boys (and Girls)

Well, they seem happy enough.  Image credit: Ryan Schembri (CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Is it wrong to aspire to be a walk-on girl? To me, it seems a bit of an odd aspiration, but I do think it’s kinda cool. It’s easy to say that it’s a low bar to have set oneself, but there's something about these sorts of job that makes one feel a bit special. All eyes are on you, after all. I’m something of an exhibitionist. But my beauty definitely does not fall into the same category as that of your average walk-on girls. I’m pushing 40, tattooed, scarred, and wrinkled. But on a night out, I’ll happily show off my unconventional body. I’m in charge of how I look, and sometimes I do want to be noticed for it. It’s my choice, and I’m sure that’s an argument that many of the walk-on girls would understand. But when I go to a nightclub, I’m not expecting to be held up as the ideal of feminine beauty, or to define the role of women in 21st Century Britain. I’m just one person, doing what I want and having a good time. No-one is judging me as if I were in a beauty contest, and my body isn’t being used to sell a product. Sex sells, but it seems to work in a way that portrays women as submissive and vacuous, whereas men are rugged and in control. Perhaps sex isn’t the problem, but sexism is.

Women on camera are expected to conform to a standard that sends a very different message to the corresponding one for men. Sure, it’s glamorous, but for everyone except models and walk-on girls, it’s a standard that works against us. So much of advertising and the media sets us up to fail by presenting us with an ideal that we’ll never reach—but they’ll sell us a product so that we can try. We’ll never reach our goal, but we’ll waste time, effort and money attempting it. And there’s far more we could have been concentrating on in the meantime.

It’s also a little insulting to assume that all that working-class girls can do in their careers is to strut around in skimpy clothing. This is not a job that requires high intellectual ability. And really, that just plays into the stereotype that it’s brains or beauty, never both. And, like me, plenty of working-class women do think about these issues and not all would agree that it’s harmless fun or that it’s a good thing to want to be. But if we are going to mention class, we should note that those in the media opposing this are not the ones on stage in bikinis, and they are not working-class, no matter how they try to spin it. With a polarised set of views on the matter, it’s impossible to speak for everyone.

Many activities that we once considered to be working-class pleasures are dying out. In part, it’s due to changes in fashion. But restrictions on the types of activities that can operate have hit some establishments hard. For example, many attribute the decline in British pubs to supermarket alcohol pricing, and the smoking ban. Sure, walk-on girls accompany many working-class associated events. But do we consider them a working-class phenomenon in themselves? If so, then it’s definitely an external factor forcing their decline. Or are they an inherent part of something else, acting as a promotional aid? I suppose it depends on personal preference to a degree, but it seems unlikely that many would attend the darts or boxing just to see the walk-on girls. They are part of the whole package, however, and the cumulative effect of change, and time, has put paid to many traditional pastimes. People lose interest, things fall out of style, new pleasures are found. It’s never any single thing that kills a pastime—except for an outright ban, like in the case of fox hunting (although that doesn’t stop everyone)—but the fact that time doesn’t stand still. And that’s something that Formula One were keen to emphasise.

Grid Girls No More

By ph-stop from Canada (5 LG girls) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The F1 Authority are keen to modernise their image. As well as some interests going out of fashion due to the world moving on around them; there are others that keep pace with a dynamic world and newer audiences by adapting their strategy. F1 have stated that "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." This seems reasonable, given the conversations society is having about the treatment of women. Will this diminish interest in F1? Hardly likely. They’re in a lucrative business that’s heavily oversubscribed. F1’s been around a long time because it’s held our interest. It’s needed to undergo many changes over the years, on matters ranging from safety, to engineering specifications, to advertising. These changes have received support and opposition, but F1 has lived to tell the tale. There’s always going to be a sense of loss when an institution disappears, but that’s the way of the world. It’s not unique to working-class tastes; it’s just one of those things. We don’t know for sure the future of darts, or anything else, really. This move could be the modernisation it needs.

It’s relevant to all of us to consider the social impact of our media and entertainment. But that’s not the reason companies and sports bodies bring in changes like this. It’s all down to money. Remember the “No More Page 3” campaign? It had been running, low-key, for a number of years but it really took off in 2014. And it appeared to succeed. The Sun published their last ever topless Page 3 photoshoot in January 2015. A victory for feminist campaigners? Yes, but only by coincidence. The Sun knew that it was getting a bit tired and behind the times, and irrelevance breeds obscurity and poor sales figures. So they scrapped it, and both the Sun and the campaigners took the credit for a bold social justice move—all the while knowing the real reasons behind it. Darts and F1 have pulled the eye candy to attract & retain modern audiences, whereas MMA and boxing have pledged the opposite for the benefit of their audiences—all of them knowing that the manufactured rivalry will be enough of a spectacle to keep their punters interested and paying.

There are other industries in which there has been plenty of pushback against women used as decoration—and for good reason. Within the technology sector, there is a tradition for “booth babes” at tech expos. They’re there as a sales prop—not to consult on the available products or developments in the industry, but to look attractive and be an accessory. Last year Fujifilm were criticised after a photographer revealed details of an event attended by an all-male audience, where a topless woman was provided for the attendees to try out their latest camera on. It may be that wider society accepts that men will attend functions that have female performers for them to ogle, but in a work context this causes huge problems. These women are used to sell a product to men, and not to women. Their presence alienates a large portion of their customer base, and those customers have jobs of their own, in which they are told that they are not welcome. This is a man’s world, and women trying to get along in it are going to have a difficult time.

Engineering and technology have a very skewed gender ratio, and this persists in spite of numerous initiatives to improve it. Having tried to make my way in engineering, I can tell you it’s all about attitudes. Women just aren’t respected. There is an assumption that women are less trustworthy, competent, and ambitious. Our career trajectories are slower and less well-paid than men’s, often in spite of superior qualifications and training. There are spaces in which we’re just not welcome, and more subtle ways of excluding us, such as deals made on the golf course and socials held in strip clubs (yes, these still happen). The problem is two-fold: there’s a visible signal that these spaces are not for us, given as they are to pleasing the male gaze. But, insidiously, it instils a belief that women are second-class beings; good for looking at and fucking, but unworthy of more intellectual matters. They are also expected to be placid and obedient, traits that keep an employee firmly in their place. The first office that I worked in had naked calendars everywhere. While they’ve been taken down, the attitudes that permitted them still remain.

I’m more familiar personally with the tech sector, but another industry with a large gender gap is professional sport. Not in unequal participation, but in unequal visibility and pay. Women’s sports aren’t given the same coverage, and they’re not as highly-regarded as men’s. Combining this with the way women are used as visual props, and the lad culture that goes with following professional sports; we have a two-tier industry, with an elite (male) class, and a secondary, less worthy (female) class. The typical response is that “there’s just not that much interest in women’s sports,” ignoring the under-investment and virtually non-existent promotion of women’s sports compared to men’s.

Did you know that the USA won the last football World Cup?

USA International Soccer Team By joshjdss [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This notion of women in sport being there for men to look at also extends to professional sportswomen themselves. Female athletes’ bodies come under a type of scrutiny that men’s do not. While it would make sense to focus on the performance of an athlete’s body, noting things like their strength and agility, female athletes’ bodies are judged in terms of their weight and conventional attractiveness. It’s just another thing that marks women out as bystanders rather than participants. And it does have effects beyond the sport itself—it reinforces attitudes in general about women being second-rate.

The evidence seems pretty damning. A relic of the past, and damaging to women’s status in society and the workplace. But I’m sure we all know that. The naysayers, who want to keep walk-on girls, know it too, but it doesn’t fit their argument to admit it. By the same token, many feminists may enjoy the presence of women in objectifying roles, but they know that to publicly say so would harm their argument.

We are complex beings, and each one of us is a horrible mass of contradictions. If we want social change, or to prevent it, nuance is sacrificed in favour of slogans and simplifications. Issues like this one are presented as dichotomies, when they’re not. There are plenty of things we enjoy that have social consequences, ranging from porn, to walk-on girls, to sexist movies. But the current battle we’re fighting is as much with ourselves as it is with gender inequality. Because we are so often given a binary choice, we focus solely on the arguments that support the side we most closely align with. But with more freedom to discuss and consider our options, we might come to a collective conclusion that is sympathetic to more viewpoints. At present, we are torn between prohibition and excessive female objectification. But there are other questions we could be tackling, that might move us forward in the way our culture handles gender issues.

As with so many social justice problems, the present trend is for everyone to be labelled as a “saint” or a “sinner,” and if you’re found to be masquerading as one of the wrong “side,” you’re to be outed as a traitor and a hypocrite. Maybe there’s something in your past, or perhaps your views don’t line up exactly with the message.  in the past, this would have been considered normal, but now it’s a problem. These purity tests prevent people from fully engaging with the issues, and make people reluctant to support movements for change. So many people support gender equality, but are afraid to call themselves feminists, for example. We know that there’s a vast diversity of viewpoints within the feminist movement, yet the public face of that (in the popular press and social media) is one of conformity and judgement. If, instead of “all-or-nothing,” we were afforded space to make mistakes, consider different ways of resolving issues, and to admit that we frequently do like things that have a harmful effect on society, then we’d make more progress. Simply adopting the view that “this is how things are going to be” and refusing any deviation from that will just alienate people.  F. Scott Fitzgerald said that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function," so let’s make our movements more intelligent. We’re broadly working for the same ends, so let’s be open about our differences. There’s no threat to the integrity of a movement by disagreements; they can even strengthen it.

The overall problem is that of an unequal and sexist society. You may feel that we cannot change that if we still permit antiquated rituals such as walk-ons with scantily clad models. But the thing that fuels their existence is sexism itself. They are a symptom of the problem, and not the cause. The things that we’re told we shouldn’t like are often the things that we do, and yet we may partake in them and still be aware of the consequences. Maybe we could focus on when it’s appropriate to see men and women objectified, and why. If you think it’s never appropriate, then I challenge you to review your own feelings of sexual attraction for another person. We all objectify others, yet we can also be respectful towards them—that is another hurdle for our society to get over. We seem to conflate sexism with sex, possibly stemming from our culture’s prudishness.

We secretly enjoy sex, although we think we shouldn’t—so we perceive sex itself to be the enemy. Can we ever have a society that respects women, and allows them to partake in objectifying work if they choose so? Probably—other European nations seem to manage. But those nations thrive by being progressive, and adapting themselves to meet new challenges and possibilities. In Britain, we seem more concerned with upholding tradition. Perhaps the walk-on girls will be relegated to history after all.

Now Reading
Glamorous Assistants
Read Next
Not a Word