Monday, May 30, 2005

Gender at the Indy 500

If there was ever any doubt that feminism is totally and completely dead, that illusion had to have been dispelled by this weekend’s coverage of the Indianapolis 500. Ok. Danica Patrick is a woman. I get it. And she’s good looking. But the hype that the press heaped up around her was all about her being a pretty young girl playing with “the boys.” It can all be summed up by a typically redneck statement, something like: “boy, thet purdy little girl sure drives fast.”

Most amusing, and offensive, was the sports columnist Jim Armstrong, of the Denver Post, whose piece was called “Racing Phenom Shows Her Talent Equals Her Looks.” Armstrong accurately chronicled all the Danica hype, but did so in a completely patronizing and sexist manner: “Not a minute or a mile went by during the Indianapolis 500 when ABC's in-car camera wasn't on the talented and lovely Ms. Patrick…. Patrick, after finishing fourth at the Old Brickyard, is the new face of Indy car racing. Good thing. She's as easy on the eyes as a Christmas bonus. Not only that, she has a name most of us can pronounce, no small feat in open-wheel racing.” He then shows his stars and stripes prejudice by listing several supposedly “unpronounceable” names of current open wheel drivers: “Did you catch some of the other names in the Indy field? Matsuura, Junqueira, Giaffone, Castroneves. I'm sure they're all good guys and top-notch drivers, but how many Americans know who they are? Most are bigger names in Brazil than they are in the good ol' USA.”—echoing A.J. Foyts rants xenophobic rants from the late sixties about “Foreigners” in American racing. The picture accompanying the article even had the lovely miss Patrick kissing her fiancé before the race, not only reminding us that she’s an attractive young girl but sexualizing her to boot.

Scrape through all the ugly American sexist redneck caterwhalling and Armstrong’s column is actually really good, and makes some really good points. Ratings for the Indy 500 have plummeted since I was kid back in the seventies, and Patrick can only be good for Indy Car racing. He cites some hard numbers that are pretty revealing: a 16.4 rating in 1974 compared to a 4.1 rating last year. A 75% drop in rating should sound the death knell for any T.V. programming. He calls Indy Racing a “niche sport.” But he misses the point entirely. Every sport (even all mighty football, I’m sorry to say) is a niche sport in a postmodern world. Armstrong himself sums it up nicely:

These days, we've got Arenaball and beach volleyball and poker. We've got NASCAR, MLB, the NFL, the PGA, the NCAA, the LPGA and every other A. We've got bass fishing, walleye fishing and salt-water fishing. And if that isn't slimy enough for you, there's always boxing.

Man! He left out his hated soccer, which like golf has its own cable channel, all those X-sports (which mostly seem to be about standing on a moving plank of wood), Ultimate Fighting, kickboxing, any type of motorsport you can imagine, rugby, lacrosse, bull riding, and endless hours of poker. The other day I actually saw professional collegiate wrestling on FSN (now *there’s* an interesting concept). Yet another master narrative that postmodernism has broken down is sport. We are no longer a nation of baseball watchers. Like everything else, sports today is all about niche marketing—which cable and the internet facilitate.

Which might be a bad thing for the Indy 500, and even for the big boys in basketball, baseball and football (hockey is already irrelevant, and probably never deserved to be called a “major sport” anyway). More and more people are turning to more and more varied sports both to watch and to play, and there’s nothing wrong with that—no matter how loudly and inanely rednecks like Armstrong rant about soccer. If he has taken the time last week to watch Liverpool come back from 3 down in the second half to AC Milan, only to win the Champion’s cup on penalty kicks, 3-2, he would have seen more excitement and more passion then anything else until, well, until Danica Patrick pulled out in front to lead at Indy, which was the best thing I saw last week—until Jimmy Johnson passed Bobby Labonte in the last turn of the Coca-Cola 600 to win by a nose last night. That was the most passionate thing I saw all weekend, well, except sitting between a crowd of drunken Yankee fans and a crowd of drunken Red Sox Fans at Yankee Stadium on Saturday as the Yanks were being crushed 17 to 1. That was pretty intense.

But no, I take it back: the NASCAR race was the best of all.

Good sports weekend, got to say, but it just proves my point: no sport rules the roost anymore. There is no longer any such thing as an “American” sport (just look at the rosters of the Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Huston Rockets if you don’t believe me. Sports is global and niche in a postmodern world. And 4.1 ain’t so bad if everybody being reached is willing to buy what the sponsors are pushing. That is, after all, the whole point in modern sport. Wait till some boxer actually gets “” actually tattooed onto his back instead of just drawn there to see what I mean, or when a basketball player gets a Nike “swoosh” tattoo. It’s all about reaching your target audience nowadays-not the biggest possible audience, but just those who might buy the newest bass boat, or be more inclined to go to Pizza Hut because Michael Waltrip pitches for them. So if there is a niche of people into fast cars who were watching Indy and not Charlotte (and obviously I watched them both), then Advertisers knew right where to find them on Sunday afternoon.

Anyway, back to the race. I don’t know if Danica Patrick considers herself to be a feminist or not, but she is one in the same way that Amelia Erhardt was, and marginalizing her by confining her to sexist stereotypes, even joking about how she breaks them, diminishes her role, and Armstrong’s story is just plain offensive. Unfortunately, no real progress will be made until Danica’s gender is not the story, but we’ve a long way to go before we get there.

Armstrong’s column can be found here:

For a great article on corporate tattoos, check out this webpage:


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