A woman’s place in motorcycle racing

Indy Supercross podium

A woman’s role in motorcycle racing is to be on the podium… holding a can. KTM photo by Cudby S.

The World Endurance Championship car racing series, best known for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, announced in a Tweet that it has decided to eliminate “grid girls” this year. Not surprisingly, the debate on social media has been lively, to put it kindly.

Some say “about time” and some say “this sucks,” but now that one racing organization has addressed the issue, you can bet that others will start to take a look at this “tradition” that feels more uncomfortable every year.

Of course motorcycle racing has its own “grid girl” issue, though they’re called “umbrella girls,” because while car racing’s “grid girls” perform no useful role, making them clearly nothing more than an adornment, “umbrella girls” at least superficially perform the useful task of shading the riders from the sun on a baking hot grid. Of course you don’t have to be wearing high heels and a bikini, or some leather miniskirt outfit, to perform that function, so the “performing a useful task” excuse has always been a pretty thin veneer.

Personally, I think the worst example of this phenomenon in motorcycle racing, and thus the place it most needs to change, is the Monster Energy Supercross Series and the ubiquitous “Monster Energy girls.” In their boots, leather-like miniskirts, cleavage producing bikini tops and heavy makeup, they hand out freebies in the paddock before the race, hold the 30-second board before the start and pose with ever-present smiles beside the winners on the podium.

The origin is easy to understand. It’s based on the idea that only men go to motorcycle races, so why not give them something to ogle while waiting for the gate to drop? That old rationale is less true in motorsports today, and especially in Supercross. Look at the crowd at any Supercross race. Sure, lots of men. More than a few women. Lots of kids.

“Daddy, why is she dressed like that?”

If you take your 10-year-old daughter to a Supercross race, what lessons will she learn, in the way that kids soak up absolutely everything? Amid the excitement of the fireworks and laser show, the competition, the bikes soaring through the air, she’ll learn that her role in all this fun stuff is to show a lot of skin (even on a 48-degree night in Anaheim), smile constantly and maybe blow a kiss to a TV camera. Of course that’s her role only if she grows up to look a certain way, with a body of certain dimensions. And only until she’s 30.

If you take your 10-year-old boy to a Supercross race, what lessons is he learning about women?

But beyond the tacky costumes and the expectation that a woman’s role is to smile, look good and say nothing, the most troublesome aspect of the “Monster Energy girls” is how they define beauty. Because of its European origins and U.S. dominance, motocross has always been less diverse than most series, but at least an African-American boy could look up to James Stewart and several riders from Latin America have made careers in the big show. But it seems there’s no room for that in Monster Energy’s definition of feminine beauty.

The series is regularly touted as an “FIM World Championship,” but have you ever seen an Asian, African-American or Latina woman holding up a 30-second board? Apparently, Monster Energy thinks the full range of female beauty consists of white blondes, white brunettes and maybe an occasional white redhead included for “diversity.” What kind of world view is that for a world championship?

Some of those protesting the WEC’s elimination of “grid girls” are decrying the loss of a tradition, and no doubt some will say the same if similar changes come to motorcycle racing. But pudding-bowl helmets were a tradition, and we don’t make riders wear them today. It was traditional for women not to have the right to vote, too. And before anyone had the right to vote, most humans lived in a monarchy where tradition said the king had the absolute right to execute you on a whim. Human history has far more traditions we’ve decided we no longer want to follow than traditions we keep. Usually, when someone decries the loss of a tradition, it’s a tradition he or she benefited from, probably at someone else’s expense.

I’d be happy if the “Monster Energy girls” was another “tradition” we outgrew.