Monday, April 21, 2008

Danica wins

Maggie says:
I don't know much at all about cars, and I know even less about racing them. I know that in the U.S. there's Indy racing and Nascar racing, and that men in my family are Nascar fans and I am not, and that I really don't get it. I know that Indy racing is more like European Formula 1 racing, where drivers are the equivalent of playboy demigods and where races sometimes go through tiny Italian towns and cars can end up looking like that wrecked Bond car from this weekend. But that's about it.

Yet I do know about Danica Patrick, because she's the first woman to become a real competitor in either... league? (Are they called leagues? I have no idea.) And this weekend, Danica Patrick won for the first time. Hearing that, and watching the clip this weekend, I found myself incredibly excited at this accomplishment, and thrilled for her. Who knew racing could do that to me?

Danica represents so much of what's tricky about the intersection of sports and gender. I want her to be treated just like a man, and to perform on par with them through nothing but her own talent. Surely her win on Saturday was exactly that, and I do like the way racing is clean competition in that more body mass or strength doesn't seem to be advantageous. As I said, I'm thrilled for her. But...

On the road to Saturday, we've spent years watching Danica sex it up in marketing campaign after marketing campaign. She has shiny dark hair and sparkly lip gloss and great legs... but so do lots of women. Yet how many of us can do what she just did? The need for sports marketing to point out that she can compete, and she's hot, is so pervasive. I wish Danica didn't have to "go there," to be the pinup who can drive like the boys, but I wonder what another road would have looked like for her. If she wasn't willing to sex it up for ads and endorsement deals, could she be a "star" in the same way, have made enough of a living to stay in the game until she won? I have no idea, but I know that the inherent messaging of that kind of marketing is that her presence in the sport is more valuable because of what she looks like, that as women we are all what we look like. That's troubling, obviously, but what's the line? Female athletes (and no, I'm not going there with the 'is-racing-a-sport?' debate, just broadening here) have an impossible line to balance with their appearance: they're either lesbians or sex kittens. And to be fair, I'd want to look great in advertisements if I was an athlete, too... yet I definitely wouldn't appear in the 2008 IndyCar Series media guide in a bikini like Danica did. What's a girl(racer) to do?

I think back to something like the famous tennis Battle of the Sexes and I pine, in a way, for the simplicity of it. I love how pure Billie Jean King's win was, how awful Bobby Riggs was, and how King set out to win for women everywhere. And she did. Without wearing a Billie Jean King-branded sports bra and tennis skirt combo.

Is honesty easier in women-only sports? I think of the juxtaposition of the women playing golf today, where there is an enormous cross-section of women, just like in the real world. When stepping out of that role, what kind of pressure is put upon them to "represent," and what does that say about men and women regarding how we receive them? Is it fair that I love smirking at Anna Kournikova for not being great at playing tennis even though she was famous for looking great in a tennis skirt, when I know that means I also don't give Maria Sharapova enough credit as an athlete, simply because the marketing of Maria as the new Anna annoys me? That's me being unfair. It also occurs to me that maybe more than a win for women everywhere, Danica's win is a win to shut up her male critics and the men who follow the sport. And that's plenty valuable for all the other women trying to be racers right now, and for those to come.

Here's what I want to know: Now that Danica's kicked male ass and proven her skill, will we see more, say, motor oil ads with her name on them and less bikinis? Only time will tell. But Danica: you go, girl. Seriously.