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The Summernats sideshow

By Beth Doherty - posted Thursday, 14 January 2010

In this year’s “family friendly” Summernats, Canberra car festival patrons have been given as part of their promotional showbag copies of Ralph, FHM and Zoo magazines. Why don’t they just hand out Playboy as well and be done with it - after all, this quality literature has so much to do with cars, right?

Can someone please explain to me why magazines, which actually have very little to do with the automotive industry, are being handed out to men, women and even children alike at an event which is apparently going to great lengths to prove its family friendly credentials? What is this teaching to young people?

While this year, advertising campaigns and media are focusing on family days and alcohol free days at the Summernats, the Canberra car festival each year has gained the reputation as being not necessarily a place to appreciate fine automobiles and people’s passion for their hobby. Rather, what it becomes as evening falls, as a result of a few male patrons, is a drunken porn fest where women become decorations and objects adorning the trays of souped-up holden utes; where “show us your tits” for four days becomes an acceptable banner to place on a promotional tent; where women who wear white T-shirts shouldn’t complain if they’re sprayed down with a hose; and where women who are sexually assaulted are “asking for it” just by their attendance.


Family members and friends whom I love and respect attend the Summernats every year in Canberra, most of them going along because of a particular interest in cars and how they work. Car owners who exhibit their machines at the Summernats are, for the most part, polite and helpful. The event could be like many other car shows, an opportunity for people with shared interests to come together and exchange ideas.

However, Canberra Times columnist Emily Sherlock, a car enthusiast who fixed up her car with her father, talks about the lewd culture that has invaded the Canberra event. She loves cars, but admits that each year when she attends the Summernats she is hassled. This year, she is avoiding the event.

“It is the 30-something-year-old male patrons, sunburnt and drunk, who think whenever they see a woman they can make lewd and crude comments, and try to grope her behind. It is like they see Summernats as a chance to unleash their inner bogan for the weekend free of any kind of reprimand.”

It is this permissive culture which has become such a huge sideshow of the event which is seriously contrary to what should be available, particularly at an event which has no age limit. No matter how much organisers may argue that this event is a positive economic boost for the nation’s capital, I find it difficult to reconcile this with the objectification of women that follows so insidiously with the car culture.

One of the saddest aspects of this culture is the forced complicity of women in their own objectification. Somewhere in our upbringing, and I would venture to say as a result of media such as the abovementioned magazines and the bizarre appeal of Playboy merchandise, women are being taught that their worth is in how many lewd comments they get when they flash their bikini clad nipples to drunken sunburnt louts. If it makes them feel attractive and gives them an innate sense of their human dignity, well, all power to them. But, as if! My guess is that later on, as they are fondled by men who don’t appreciate that they are more than just a body, they might think again, and indeed feel a sense of violation and hurt.

As Emily Sherlock says “The cars are a mere backdrop to the boozing and breast-watching. Any woman at Summernats surely couldn't be there because she likes cars, she must have a burning desire to rip her shirt off. All we have to do is hound her and humiliate her enough.”


Behaviour which today would be unacceptable in any workplace, school or institution is practiced and indeed encouraged by organisers who hand out magazines such as Ralph, FHM and Zoo. While they could argue that they were provided the magazines free as some type of “corporate sponsorship” the message these magazines carry are that women should be sex objects, openly available and with as little clothing as possible. Articles such as the “Diary of a porn star”; “Sophie’s sexiest secrets” and “Babes behaving badly” might be the interest of a niche market of men, yet are ridiculously offensive; and at this event given to all paying patrons. In this era of knowledge about sexual abuse, and what is and isn’t appropriate, the Summernats gets an unequivocal fail.

So, it looks like lucky Miss Summernats 2010 has an exciting year ahead. Featured in Sunday papers wearing a short black T-shirt dress displaying sponsor Jack Daniels’ label, she perhaps is unaware of the walls she will adorn as a decoration in young men’s bedrooms. Over the coming year, she will be featured in Street Machine Magazine as well as Ralph (a magazine in which you’d be hard pressed to find a fully-clothed woman) as well as presenting awards in the internationally distributed Brute Horsepower video.

Canberra writer and advocate Melinda Tankard Reist’s collection of articles Getting Real - Challenging the Sexualisation of Women and Girls (Spinifex Press) was published in 2009, and contained the research of academics such as Clive Hamilton, Julie Gale, Noni Hazelhurt, Emma Rush, Maggie Hamilton and others who have worked extensively in the area of the early sexualisation of young women. The book looks at a huge range of topics and considers how sexually based advertising, pornography, and violence against women, have become such silently accepted parts of western culture. Her new grassroots organisation “Collective Shout” aims to challenge corporations and media who use sexually based advertising to sell products.

A good place for them to start would be to challenge Summernats organisers to stop using women’s bodies as free fodder to advertise their car event.

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About the Author

Beth Doherty is Communications Officer of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

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