Sexism and motorcycling: a frustratingly cosy pair


Above is a picture from Victory's UK Facebook page, taken at a motorcycle show in 2014. Can you identify what's wrong here? If not, let me phrase the question differently: How many women do you see in this photo?

I see two: the eye candy. Everyone else in the photo appears to be male. Now, take into consideration the fact that statistics show more and more women are buying motorcycles and ask yourself again: What's wrong with this picture?

I have long felt frustration toward the latent sexism in motorcycling. In fact, I tend to list that among the myriad reasons I spent so many years not riding after I earned my license at age 18. Sure, I dated a girl who rode a Kawasaki Ninja, but overwhelmingly the riders I encountered were male (and white, and usually 20 years older than me), and much of their world seemed to objectify and demean women. 

Remember that I grew up in the American Midwest, the same region in which you will find Sturgis, South Dakota. If you disagree with my suggestion that the motorcycling culture of that region is demeaning to women, I dare you to type the words "Sturgis women" into an image search and view the results at work.

Even as a young man I couldn't see how that world would attract the sort of girl I was inclined to chase after.

Older and living in another country, I now accept that the Midwestern BS is only one facet of motorcycle culture. Additionally, I am mature enough to not see the world in absolutes; just because I share certain interests with people doesn't mean I have to adhere to all their beliefs and ideologies. But even so, I am made uncomfortable by the general level of sexism I see in motorcycling.

Too many manufacturers and motorcycle racing organisations treat women as motorcycle accessories -- as if the whole point of being a female is to accentuate chrome. I understand the idea that sex sells, but I feel that this kind of selling actually damages the companies who use it, as well as motorcycling overall.


Don't get me wrong; I like what I see. I'm not a prude and I am highly appreciative of the female form. But I am equally appreciative and respectful of the female mind, and it seems to me that such an intense focus on the former is an insult to the latter.

I've found myself thinking about this a lot lately, ever since I visited the Victory display area of Motorcycle Live, where I wanted to strangle the company's marketing guys for their boneheaded strategy. The area had a handful of underfed girls in inappropriate clothing (it is never warm enough in Britain to prance around in nothing but Lycra, but that is especially true in late November) who were there for nothing more than idle titillation. 

If you wanted, I suppose you could have gotten your picture taken with them, then showed it to all your buddies to falsely present yourself as a lady's main, a la Cool Hand Luke. But had you tried to ask them questions about the product whose name was stretched across their chests, you would have gotten blank stares. At one point there was a demonstration of Victory bikes and I saw a guy teaching one of the girls how to start a motorcycle. THE GIRL SHILLING MOTORCYCLES DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HOW TO TURN ONE ON!

And when I see crap like that, I can't help but think of how my wife would respond. Imagine if I wanted to buy a Victory motorcycle (which, actually, I do -- despite their poor marketing). 

It makes sense that I would want my wife's input; I love her and care about her opinion. Plus, her support of my buying decisions help prevent domestic arguments. This is one of the reasons I am so particularly fond of Triumphs. My wife loves them, and that means she won't necessarily see my owning one as frivolous or wasteful.

So imagine that I take Jenn to some sort of Victory event, so she can see the bikes in person -- perhaps even go on a test ride with me. And when she gets to said event she sees these Lycra-wrapped anorexics and a bunch of men muttering crass things about them. What she doesn't see is anything that necessarily appeals to her as a female. And subtly, therefore, the message is communicated to her that she is effectively pointless. Her role is to serve as accoutrement.

I cringe to think of the sort of whithering sarcasm I'd face if I were to thereafter suggest a desire to meet Victory's asking price on a new model. Not to mention how much an experience like that would put her off motorcycling in general. How would I be able to convince her to take up riding herself if that were her impression of the motorcycling world? Who wants to be part of something that devalues you?

An exception: Alicia Elfving runs the popular Moto Lady website.
I have no doubt many women feel similarly. And I have no doubt that many women over the years have simply turned their back on motorcycling as a result. There's no way you can say that doesn't damage motorcycling. Because you're not just pushing away women, but also the men who value and respect those women.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. There always have been. Some of the most inspiring riders in history have been female: Bessie Stringfield, Vivian Bales and Elspeth Beard immediately come to mind. Stephanie Jeavons is a modern inspiration who is currently travelling around the world solo. And, of course, don't forget Alicia Elfving or the Miss-Fires.

My frustration is that these women are too often an exception; they exist despite the marketing and mentalities that demean them. In some cases, they exist in deliberate rebellion of those things. But not everyone wants to be an inspirational trailblazer. Motorcycling needs to be more open and more accepting of everyday women. 

A few intelligent motorcycling companies (actually, I can only think of one: Harley-Davidson) have recognised that money from a female is just as good as that from a male, and that by welcoming and encouraging women into motorcycling they increase its overall appeal.

Statistics show more and more women are taking up motorcycling and I'd like to see that accelerated and expanded. Motorcycle manufacturers can help this happen (and, in turn, help themselves) by acknowledging that women have a worth beyond using their physical attributes. If nothing else, that's just good business sense.

I mean, imagine again the scenario of visiting a Victory sales event. And instead of being confronted with the assertion that she is nothing but boobs and butt for a bike, my wife is encouraged to consider the freedom, independence and sense of individuality that can come from riding a motorcycle. Rather than ruining a sale, they might earn themselves two new customers

Elspeth Beard rode her BMW R60 around the world.

Comments

  1. Even more tiring is that the use of eye candy girls has become part of the cookie-cutter recipe for motorcycle shows, auto shows, boat shows, gun shows, etc. In fact, it goes back to over a thousand years ago when scantily clad girls were used at suit of armor shows.

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    1. And how many people are buying suits of armor these days? Proof that it's a bad marketing technique!

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  2. Chris, a few years back I would have been upset and through the roof about women prostituting themselves selling products, but today am no more than mildly amused about the female eye candy, because come on, women are a part of it.
    They are not forced to do it. They are being paid for, and it is one, likely well paid way to make money ;-)

    And if some backward thinking men are under the false impression that they are getting these babes with buying one of the marketed products, well, let them be. At one point realisation will kick in... ;-)

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    1. Yeah, I certainly have no issue with the women who serve as eye candy. As you say, they are paid and probably paid well. My problem is that I fear this kind of marketing –– and especially the thinking behind it, which seems to assume it is the correct way to market motorcycles –– is damaging to motorcycling.

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  3. There is a bit of chicken and egg stuff going on here. Are the men who buy motorcycles a result of the sex-sells mindset, or do they drive it? And this is not only a problem with motorcycles. It's as bad, if not worse, with photography gear, workshops, etc. And tools, cars, the works.

    There is an element of Junior High School in this -- I didn't like it then and it's no better now.

    Wish I had an idea of how it might change...

    Steve Williams
    Scooter in the Sticks

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  4. Chris - as a real woman rider, I appreciate your insight on this topic. I feel there are a couple themes weaved through your post as it relates to women motorcyclists.

    There are several motorcycle manufacturers who are turning a blind eye to the fastest growing population of riders... women. There are no women included in their advertising campaigns and if women are included, we are either being positioned as 'backrests' or seen riding the smallest motorcycle model.

    And don't get me started on the half-naked women draped over motorcycles. As you proved, some don't even know how to start, let alone ride, the motorcycles their 'selling'. Honestly, they aren't there to 'sell' the motorcycle, just make it look good. Unfortunately, some (not all) manufacturers are stuck in a marketing era when men were the only buyers. There's a broader market now, isn't it time to market differently? Don't alienate 25 to 40% of your potential buyers!

    I've been riding motorcycles for over 17 years and am an MSF Rider Coach. I enjoy teaching men and women how to ride a motorcycle and equally welcome them to 'the ride'. I've also worked for a vendor at both Daytona BikeWeek and several Sturgis Motorcycle Rallies. Even though I wasn't a direct employee of the vendor, I was still proud to be able to answer questions and 'sell' the motorcycle, parts, and products. I was able to competently respond because I was a rider. Many of the front line sales team for this vendor were real women who rode motorcycles. We comfortably dressed in jeans and shop shirts. Knowing the stigma of sales girls at rallies and shows, we jokingly commented that we had brains and boobs.

    I've taken my place in this long staggered line of women motorcyclists and am proud to say I'll be promoting the sport by riding from NY to San Fran in June 2015... 100 years after the first women did it. It's called The Inspired Tour and you can learn more about it at www.TheInspiredTour.com.

    Thanks for allowing me to share my opinion.

    Lisa ~ Full Throttle Living

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  5. As a woman rider I find this whole thing very frustrating and devaluing. I have visited several Harley Davidson and Indian dealerships lately only to be ask if I am a passenger. Either that or I am totally ignored until the men enter the room. The only dealership that I have not experienced this is at San Diego Indian/ Victory. However this dealership is owned by a woman, so that may be why. I have a very good job and I am in the market to upgrade my ride. At a local Harley Davidson Dealership, I was looking at a Streetglide or an Ultra Classic. (If a woman is looking at a Sportster they will talk to you). The salesman refused to even look at me. He instead spoke to my spouse. Joe tried to redirect the conversation to me, but the guy refused to even look at me. Very poor sales practices in my opinion and they are missing out on a lot of dollars.

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  6. Unfortunately this is a widespread issue and the motor industry has a long way to go. As part of a car loving family I was frequently shunned buying parts from scrapyards and motor factors, the staff speaking to any male with me or speaking down to me. More recently as a rider I went to buy a new helmet and the salesman spoke to my partner about the helmet I was trying on, explaining the features to him. My partner directed the conversation back to me but it was useless. For all the salesman knew my partner may not have ridden. I was the one with the money and needless to say I went elsewhere to buy a new lid, which wasn't pink, another thing I hate about being a female rider! The company I learned to ride with are very pro women riding and they've received many referrals from me because of it. Companies need to learn that their snobbery is costing them money, more female riders = more customers overall. A lot of female riders may not have grown up with bikes though, as a lot of males won't have, and there needs to be a welcoming culture or many would be riders will continue to shy away and who benefits from that?

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