This week everyone I know, even the non-motorsport-fans, started talking about Lewis Hamilton. It was not lit.
I am a motorsport journalist and therefore, fairly used to having conversations about whether Lewis Hamilton is being a thundering arsehole this week. As a Lewis Hamilton fan, which is the sort of thing it’s not polite to mention if you want anyone else to take your views on motorsport seriously, it’s a minefield — made all the more difficult because I’m a woman so it was hard enough to convince anyone I had views on motorsport in the first place.
Maybe I don’t help myself by swanning around in lovely ballgowns but more on that story later.
About 24 hours ago I became aware more than the usual amount of my Twitter feed were calling Lewis Hamilton a thundering arsehole and indeed, it seemed to have spread beyond Formula 1 fans. Normally I’d be delighted to discover a whole set of people were talking about one of my favourite drivers but it’s 2017 so obviously it was something impossibly grim.
If you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a piece: Lewis loves using Instagram Stories and definitely does it himself, rather than most of the rest of his social media (including his Twitter) which is entirely run by a PR agency. Most of his stories are kinda weird or semi-delightful, a lot of them involve him playing with his godson or his dogs. It’s pretty adorable.
Less adorable: mocking his kid nephew for wanting to wear a princess dress because “boys don’t wear princess dresses.” Oh, Lewis; for fuck’s sake.
Lewis Hamilton is a very famous British Formula 1 driver; he’s famous for a lot of stuff, like having won four World Championships, being prodigiously talented and being the first dark skinned, mixed-race Formula 1 driver. He’s also fashionable and a bit of a celebrity — his friends are popstars and Serena Williams and Neymar, rather than the more insular tendencies of other motorsport people.
Lewis was a bit of a shock to F1 when he arrived; a McLaren junior, he railed against (McLaren team boss) Ron Dennis not letting him grow his hair, he fought with teammate Fernando Alonso to be taken as seriously as the two-time World Champion, he had to endure or ignore a lot of racism. People shit on Lewis for being different, for not fitting the Formula 1 mould, for daring to be talented and successful despite that.
Motorsport is an incredibly staid world, for something theoretically about going fast. The idea of doing anything differently is not really tolerated, the arbiters of change will often announce their own failure — especially in Formula 1. Things used to be better, it is just known.
The level of misogyny and homophobia in F1 is such that when two cars — yes, two inanimate objects that have neither genders nor sexualities — were painted pink, everyone got all funny about it. You might think that would be embarrassing for a kindergarten class, let alone a huge international sporting (sorta) operation but here we are in 2017.
Lewis wears lots of pink, though — his Instagram is full of him at fashion shows, wearing lovely pastel hoodies. I would pretty much wear everything he does and I am extremely femme. He’s the kind of guy who gives his coat to a cold grid girl wearing skimpy lycra because he has the ability to empathise with women, something woefully lacking in a world where feminine bodies are heavily objectified and dissociated from personhood.
To see Lewis mocking a little boy for wanting to wear a dress… is horrible. If it was Nico Hulkenberg (who joked that the real reason he switched teams was to avoid being in a pink car, for he is a real man) then I don’t think there would have been much outcry. Partly because Hulkenberg isn’t as famous but also because everyone knows he’s a pile of reeking toxic masculinity performed in Penthouse t-shirts.
Most drivers are awful in some way about things. Most people are, in fact but Formula 1 drivers are pretty terrible — they’re not employed for their empathetic skills. Sebastian Vettel is a persistent weird flirt at female journalists, Daniel Ricciardo has defended grid girls, Max Verstappen makes sleazy references, I really honestly dread to think what would happen if you moved beyond ‘are physically attractive women people’ to ‘what do you think about LGBTQAI+ rights and representation in the media, especially with regards to the toxic discourse about gender going on currently?’
The last time Lewis really upset people was by rocking up to the annual FIA award-giving in, instead of black tie as the invitation specified, a very lovely glittery bomber jacket. I’ve never had such jacket envy, it was gorgeous — and not what he was supposed to be wearing, pissing off a bunch of other people who’d made the effort. I’m not sure where I stand on that (men’s formal wear is incredibly tedious, after all) but it surely has to stick in the craw that he would then mock anyone for wearing something they’re “not supposed to.”
To tell people they’re not supposed to do something, to be who they are, is horrible harm. To do it on grounds that are so vulnerable and so fractious and so outright dangerous as gender conformity; that is gross. To think it’s funny and Instagrammable to do so is a measure of what you hang out doing; Lewis’ own tiny version of the abominable law that says you can get off a murder charge in some US states if you did it because you discovered the victim was transgender. As though gender is supposed to be that frightening.
Of course, Lewis is part of Formula 1 — of sports masculinity in general — even if he looks like he isn’t sometimes. He drives cars fast, he doesn’t come to the pub for intense discussions about gender with me and my woke friends. I know that really- and it hurt terribly to have that starkly laid out.
Lewis is very emotive, as drivers go — and fairly unable to hide his emotions. It’s got the better of him a few times in his career, either by lashing out at someone (like when he thought teammate Jenson Button had unfollowed him on Twitter) or by getting upset on track (his shock after colliding with teammate Rosberg seemed to set his whole season off-kilter from then on) and he’s massively too eager to share things sometimes, a teenager still very much somewhere in the make up of his personality.
Teenagers are cruel. At a guess, maybe in some complex, twisted way Lewis was jealous of a kid being able to pick what they wanted down to a dress — or maybe he’s just just as bad as all the rest and has done a good PR job of not seeming that way. It’s just disheartening, at the end of a year where the British media has waged war on transgender rights, the US has backslid hugely on all civil rights fronts and Australia staged a huge referendum on whether same-sex couples should be considered as valid as man-woman ones, to see someone who for a huge number of people represents being able to do something differently policing anyone else doing that.
I mean, this is the dude we all thought was going to take the knee during the anthem in Austin because he does actually get into political things, much to the chagrin of Mercedes PR. Which is why it’s shocking. There’s no headline in “F1 driver is a socially conservative performer of masculinity” but there is a headline in Lewis doing it.
I am glad he apologised. I suspect he’s taken it to heart — like I said, he’s emotive. I hope maybe he will spend some of the winter break thinking about it, I really hope he apologised to his nephew and will buy him all the princess dresses he wants. If Lewis wants to try one too then I hope he gives himself the opportunity. I hope all the repressed, toxically supersaturated blokes I encounter in motorsport somehow drain the wounds and perhaps we will all be wearing ballgowns rather than checked shirts next time I’m in a Paddock.
I really hope Lewis learnt a lesson. It is a horrible wound for me, who this barely affects — as a femme, cis woman — to have someone I am a fan of do this, to lessen something I love to wear as something someone shouldn’t and god knows that is not the heart of the harm here. I totally understand why people won’t let it go, won’t forgive it just because he said sorry because it goes further than that.
Next time everyone I know is talking about someone from motorsport, I really hope it’s for something good. But if even Lewis fucked it up this badly I don’t have massive hopes.
(Come on Formula E, you’re good at this)
(I don’t think the apology is watered down by “him” liking some anti-PC tweets on Twitter by the way; from the inside, Lewis does not do his own Twitter and whichever poor -and presumably unpleasant- sod was on Christmas shift cover at the agency that manages it will have been having to have any copy posted signed off but would have been allowed to like whatever they wanted. I hope the whole approach of the team will be reviewed and better thought through and I hope Lewis himself takes it up with them.)