Bodies of Excess: Aintree Races

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Updated to add Grand National stereotype fight back after unfair headlines mentioning Plasticdollheads

I was happy when I saw this Scouse Bird Versus the Daily Mail because it at least starts to address how the Daily Mail and other right wing press frame the women who attend. Scouse Bird gives a ‘scouse over’ here. Now I don’t attend the races on the issue of animal cruelty but I defend women wearing what they want, having a drink and fun and not being lambasted in the press for doing so. If you think there is no issue here compare the Daily Mail coverage of Aintree Ladies’ Day and that of Cheltenham or Ascot. One lot of stories are of ‘fashionable fillies’, the other of supposedly tacky, vulgar, grotesque trashy ‘chavs’.

There is a flickr account dedicated to mocking race goers here, just check out the titles.

I was meant to be giving a paper on the very issue of Aintree Races back in September and am currently working on a written piece. It is a great accessible example of how the media promotes hegemonic ideas, and the class/gender/race intersections of this. In a guest lecture I gave to a final year Race module just last month, we examined the case study of Aintree Races Ladies’ Day.

The Daily Mail in particular uses the races as an annual mocking event. They search for the most ‘hideous’ photographs that will fulfil their readership’s desire. This year’s festival saw the opening day ridiculed here: ‘Fillies in fake tan, fascinators and flashy frocks! Coleen Rooney and Princess Anne lead the charge as Liverpool’s finest descend on Aintree for the first day of racing action’.

Within an hour the title had changed to: “Falling at the final hurdle! Liverpool’s colourfully dressed ladies appear a little the worse for wear as a day of racing and revelry takes its toll at Aintree”. Typical aligning of the women and drunkenness.

Gems of comments underneath the article include the predictable:

“Bet every Primark in the north is bare today”

“State of them….. Girls don’t seem to have class anymore. What happened to dignity”

“Good god! Where has all that good old British elegance gone???”

“Most of them look like very bad female impersonators”

“Do they have special magical mirrors up north??”

“Well, that’s a sight for sore eyes!!! So many obese people in England now! And as others have said, do they have no mirrors? No friends to suggest they wear clothes that suit them? Or at the very least, fit? And why so many bare pasty legs on show? Tights are far classier when your legs aren’t slim, toned and lightly tanned”

“This is what happens when poor working class tries to mix with upper class…. bad diets, legs full of cellulite, no knowledge in acting like ladies, faces ravaged by too much smoking and alcohol, they really don’t have a clue. These people are your English roses. Wow”

“Save platform shoes for dancing around a pole”

The ladies are then juxtaposed with Claire Balding and Princess Anne.

As usual, the day started with one article which was edited throughout the day to add ‘worse’ photos and nastier captions. Ladies’ Day this year was reported upon with overt racial slurs of the ‘not quite white’ racial defectiveness of the ‘chav’ women My Big Fat Gypsy Ladies Day! Reality stars give a master class in outlandish style as they join the colourful parade at Aintree. Because this isn’t just about gender or class, it is also about race. The middle class whiteness that goes unspoken is heralded as the hegemonic norm by the Daily Mail, and all those who dissent are a breed apart. The article has been updated to be framed with photos of the travelling community.

The photos, as they do every year, focused on women spilling out from their clothes, spilling out onto the floor, women drinking, making them look rowdy, out-of-control, deviant, dangerous, yobbish. Another Daily Mail obsession is women eating, especially ‘chav’ food, another symbol of ‘unladylike’ and uncouth behaviour. The captions regulate women’s bodies and hemlines, whilst simultaneously printing photographs of underwear exposed and cleavage.

Photo captions from the Ladies’ Day article include:

“Not so good! A woman grimaces after possibly losing a bet or drinking too much WKD”

“Flashing the flesh: This racegoer (left) has chosen a beautiful crimson colour but is flashing a little too much cleavage, as is this lady in a cream dress”

“And they’re off! A pair of scantily clad racegoers flash a little too much cleavage as they cheer on their chosen horses to victory at Aintree”

“That’s not very ladylike! A pair of tipsy racegoers take inspiration from Miley Cyrus after having a few too many drinks during Ladies Day at Aintree”

“Ooops! One racegoer’s skirt proved a tiny bit too short when she took to the dance floor”

Professor Bev Skeggs hits the nail on the head when she argues that the ‘chav’ woman provides media porn, ” “The excessive immoral woman is also a useful figure… providing the soft porn grotesque for titillation and disapprobation” (2005, p.968). These women might be deemed ‘awful’, but the photographs of their bodies are good enough to sell newspapers and provide titillation.

At the end of the day, the title changed to ‘And they’re off…the heels that is! A day of revelry takes its toll on the ladies (and gents) at Aintree as the course is strewn with rubbish, ambulances are called and the racegoers don’t seem to be able to keep their outlandish outfits on any longer!’.

Aligning the bodies of women with rubbish and decay; lots of pictures of rubbish and women lying or sitting on the ground.

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“The days ends in chaos as the course is covered in rubbish and guests need medical attention”

The Daily Mail’s foot and shoe fetish continues with dozens of photos of women walking barefoot or highlighting their platform heels.

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“This racegoer had to remove her heels, while another wobbled in her skyhigh platform shoes as she made her way out of Aintree at the end of the day’s racing”

“Looking happy: Many of the women took off their shoes after a day walking around the Aintree racecourse. Behind is the sea of litter surrounding the track”

“The shoes come off as one woman is seen leaving the racecourse, heels in hand”

“Stay classy! While some women ended up having problems with their shoes, others decided to flash the flesh in other ways with one mooning at photographers”

“The heels are off! The My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding stars swap their skyscraper heels for comfortable flip flops as they make their way out”

“A day of partying at Aintree finally took its toll on many of those that attended as some racegoers collapsed and most of the ladies could no longer bear to walk in their very high heels”

This was a viral photo from the 2012 races:

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Under Daily Mail articles on Aintree Ladies’ Day, one can expect to see the following slurs: ‘gross, dangerous spectacle’, ‘unladylike’, ‘shameful’, ‘trailer trash’, ‘ghastly’, ‘common’, ‘council estate’, ‘tacky’, ‘pantomime queens’….

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Professor Bev Skeggs asserted that “…white working-class women in particular are being marked as the national constitutive limit to propriety- an act which repeats moments of crisis in authority condensed and symbolically figured through the excess of the grotesque, weeping, leaking, excreting bodies of working class women” (Skeggs, 2005, p.968).

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This isn’t just about a few dodgy pictures of luminous outfits or runny fake tans. This is about constructing the chav, portraying the women as deviant, stupid, lacking, hyper-visible, hyper-sexual, defective, vulgar. This is about policing and regulating appropriate forms of femininity. Zara Phillips at Ascot? Appropriately performed femininity, she is ‘elegant’ with a ‘gaggle of girlfriends’. A young woman in her playsuit, Kurt Geigered up with huge lashes and hair? Not only considered ‘bad taste’ but a short-cut to all that the right wing press believe about Liverpool anyway. Female bodies here are constructed as sites of decay, as all that is wrong with ‘modern Britain’.

Women swigging from Lambrini bottles tottering on 7 inch heels? A disgrace. Women literally seeping out, of their outfits, onto the streets, the fluids of runny fake tan in the rain and of vomit in the street. They create and compound strong reactions of disgust.

The Daily Mail in particular acts as a tool of surveillance; working class women thus receive the glare of a surveillance gaze on their bodies, and moral panics regarding ‘improper’ sexual behaviour and body maintenance. They are deemed too tanned, their make up too heavy, their heels too high, their dresses too short/low/tight, their hair looks too fake.

Even the articles on famous women attending the races such as Coleen Rooney slip multiple snide remarks into the photo captions; typically commenting on excess. The not-quite-getting-it-right smug air. Colleen might have money but she doesn’t possess Bourdieu’s taste. In fact her very obvious consumption is used to directly vilify her; she cannot consume properly.

Matt Wray argues that boundary markers such as white trash and chav offer us “cognitive short cuts…quick understanding without having to expend much thought” (Wray, 2006, p.8).
It is little wonder then that every other comment under the DM pieces labels the women chavs. Labels and stigmatypes are powerful, they compound and legitimise punitive treatment of a group. Just as Benefits Street and the ‘scrounger’ rhetoric legitimises benefit sanctions; these attacks on the women have a much deeper consequence. Why look at the all the ‘chavvy’ poor people and how stupid they are. We definitely have the right government in power and the right policies. Look at the feckless, drunk, hyper-consuming underclass.

In her must-read book Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain Dr Imogen Tyler asserts: “… A figure through which ideological beliefs (the underclass), economic interests (the erosion of the welfare state) and a series of governmental technologies (media, politics, policy, law) converge to mystify neoliberal governmentality by naturalizing poverty in ways that legitimate the social abjection of the most socially and economically disadvantaged citizens within the state” (2013, pp.170-171).

Mockery is a powerful tool to vilify and marginalise.

The media treatment of the women at Ladies Day is there to regulate all of us. It is there to put us in our places and mock us. I see the female space of Ladies’ Day as a positive thing. Newsflash: the women aren’t dressing for men they are dressing for other women and for themselves. They might not all be a size 8 with a 36 inch inside leg but if they want to wear a playsuit or a skater dress or a maxi dress, good for them. I am glad they aren’t all “dressing for their bodytype”. They are sticking two fingers up to the media that deride them each and every year. They wouldn’t be seen dead in what Zara Phillips or K Middy wear. They have no intention of emulating the demure white middle-class hedge fund wife. They want to be loud, and bold, and walk arm-in-arm with their crowd of friends in a rainbow assortment of dresses. They might fall over tipsy off too much fizz, but it doesn’t mean they are immoral, bad mothers, a disgrace: it is 2014 and women can drink alcohol.

So here’s to all the women who wear whatever the heck they like, and have a group of close girlfriends they like to have fun with. Be bolder and brighter every year and always dissent from the media’s idea of a perfect wallflower. And for the Daily Mail, I have a new idea: why don’t you start vilifying the men and women at Ascot? You could even open it out for a public discussion on race/class/gender?

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I have written on similar issues here:

Snog Marry Avoid: The Moral Economies of Whiteness

Chav Barbie Tulisa: Down With the Doll

Crackers Chavs and White Trash

Mean Girls and Slut Shaming

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