February 20 2013
Driving through the glass ceiling? Not so fast.
When Danica Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500 this past weekend, she became the first female driver to be the fastest qualifier in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup division—the top level of the series. The Daytona 500 is the biggest, most watched NASCAR race of the year, and with Patrick’s accomplishment and the subsequent press it’s been getting, I would not be surprised if this Daytona 500 gets more viewers than ever before.
But I’ll be honest: I’m not really a Danica fan. And the reason for that is she seems complicit in playing up her sexuality in order to gain more attention from fans, the media, and sponsors.
OK, truthfully: how many of you know Patrick not because of her racing career, but because she’s appeared in several suggestive commercials for web hosting company Go Daddy? For instance, she appeared in Go Daddy’s Super Bowl XLIII ad, taking a shower with another woman. Go Daddy has been Patrick’s primary sponsor for a number of years now, so I have no problem with her appearing in their ads. But why do both she and Go Daddy feel the need to portray her in such risqué ways?
Two words: sex sells. Patrick understands that she is a good-looking woman, and I think she’s making a strategic decision to appear in not only edgy Go Daddy ads, but in several men’s magazines as well. (A Google image search at this point might result in some slightly NSFW pics.) But while this has perhaps increased her name recognition outside the NASCAR community, I can’t imagine that it results in more respect for her driving talent in the garage area or among most NASCAR fans (true, some will become fans of hers specifically because of these ads, but they’re not really interested in her driving abilities…).
On top of that, even though NASCAR’s drivers are predominantly male, the sport’s fan base is a different story. In fact, about 40 percent of NASCAR fans are female; Patrick could truly be a role model to many of them, especially girls who are getting into the sport because they see her as an example.
Although Patrick is certainly not the first female NASCAR driver in history, she is the most famous one thus far, and therefore the ways in which she chooses to show and market herself could set an important precedent. And so far, the message she’s sending is that to get attention in a male-dominated sport, a woman needs to show an overtly sexual side of herself.
But there is a big difference between attention and respect. In an office setting, a woman may get attention for wearing a low-cut blouse, but she won’t get any respect for that. Instead, respect comes to people of either gender when they do a good job and act in a professional manner. NASCAR is no different.
Patrick, who’s been racing since she was 10 years old, knows what it’s like to be a woman trying to gain respect in a man’s world. Clearly, as her performance this past weekend showed, she’s an extremely talented driver, regardless of her gender. Additionally, she has handled past sexist comments made against her with grace. She is already a formidable competitor and has the potential for gaining greater success.
As fellow driver Jeff Burton said after Patrick won the pole this weekend, “there’s no reason why a female can’t be competitive in this series. There’s just not.” That’s one way in which NASCAR racing is unique. Unlike most sports, NASCAR enables both men and women to compete together. As a result, when she wins a pole or wins a race, she’s beating men at their own game. That’s really something for young women to look up to.
But as long as she’s known for posing in swimsuits as much as being fast on the racetrack, she’s destined to be thought of as a female NASCAR driver before just a NASCAR driver. Like it or not, that means that people will think that she’s using her sex—rather than her talent--to get more opportunities than equally qualified male drivers. I think, unfortunately, that that means she won’t get the respect she deserves as a driver. Until we can call Patrick a great driver without adding the “female” qualifier to it, the glass ceiling really hasn’t been broken, has it?
Jennifer Marsico is a senior research associate at AEI. She blogs at theletterjen.blogspot.com. All opinions within her blog are her own.