Melbourne Cup: Sexist, classist and speciesist
- Published: 20 November 2011
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Australia’s biggest horse racing event is blatant in its depiction of intersecting oppressions – animal slavery, sexism and classism, and it’s time for left-wing progressives to take a stand against it, writes Rebecca Cleaver.
20 November 2011
Every year on the first Tuesday in November in Australia, the nation stops to watch as a select group of tipsy millionaires dressed in their finest garb cheer on an even more select group of horses as they race one another for the coveted Melbourne Cup trophy.
Perched atop these horses are a seemingly competitive bunch of small-statured men who, we imagine, are enjoying their moment in the spotlighted gaze of high society.
And a high society it is: millions are shelled out by companies as diverse as Emirates Airlines and Lavazza Coffee to secure the attendance of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Sarah Jessica Parker in their exclusive, “Cup-side” tents.
These women are generally expected to take part in a parallel “race” of sorts, as they strut around the field under the watchful eye of fashion commentators everywhere in the hopes of being spared a public scolding in the form of inclusion in a “worst-dressed” list.
I was bombarded with Melbourne Cup-related articles and fluff-pieces in the days leading up to the big race. Invariably, betting tips and trainer profiles were written by men (and overwhelmingly about men), while the fashions of the field were covered by women, safely nestled away in the lifestyle sections promoting diets and beauty products.
The “hard” racing news predictably covered things like betting odds and trainer histories, while the style and living stories tirelessly examined the dresses, fascinators, hats, and heels of women who were seen to have no opinions on the goings on of the race itself.
While it is not unusual to read pages upon pages of sports news without coming across a single woman (as either journalist or athlete), horse-racing is unique in its ability to completely whitewash the actual participants of the sport itself – namely, the jockeys and horses.
It has also been remarkably successful at encouraging women to spend money on an activity that they are otherwise actively excluded from. While it makes perfect sense for the racing industry to pretend that racehorses themselves do not exist as living, breathing creatures, why make the same mistake where women – living, breathing, and potentially spending creatures – are concerned?
And so every year on the first Tuesday in November we are treated to an event so glaring in its depiction of intersecting oppressions – animal slavery, sexism, classism – that it seems a backlash is imminent. And every year I wait.
Speaking to a friend recently about the Melbourne Cup, I was met with a common scepticism. “In the scheme of things,” he tentatively began, “don’t you think racehorses are probably treated pretty well?” “Sure”, I shot back, “the 40% of them who aren’t deemed underachievers and sent to be slaughtered.”
Though successful in getting my point across, this was probably a glib assertion on my part. The fact is, even “winning” racehorses aren’t out living the celebrity high-life.
Most are doomed to lead unnatural lives, isolated from other horses and enclosed in small stables for most of their day.
While most sportspeople are taught to treat their bodies with tremendous care, racehorses are pushed to the brink day in, day out, to the point where their bodies begin to give way under the pressure.
Even excluding the high risk of injury associated with racing (injuries that usually lead to slaughter on account of the horse being no longer financially viable), racehorses generally present with an alarming array of health problems.
Animals Australia cites a study that found 89% of racehorses develop stomach ulcers as a direct result of their (cost-effective) grain diet, while 90% suffer from bleeding lungs caused by the exertion of training.
But we should already know this, somewhere in the back of our minds. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that a life of forced labour isn’t going to be pleasant.
So why is it that on Melbourne Cup day this year I opened my Facebook page (filled with lefty activist friends) to find an alarming array of Melbourne Cup-related status updates?
And not angry, lamenting, or frustrated posts; standard fare that resembled the trite garbage I had been force-fed by the media all week. Things like “Yay, an excuse to wear a dress and drink champagne while pretending to care about racing”, or “Damn, the office sweeps weren’t kind to me this year”.
The only thought I felt like sharing at that moment was “Why the hell are all my otherwise intelligent, thoughtful friends buying into this crap?”
The answer, I think, is only partly related to the media. Like I said, regardless of what we are told by the mouthpieces of commercial racing through the mainstream media, it doesn’t take a genius to be critical of the oppressions inherent to horseracing.
The real problem, I think, is that the media is telling us exactly what we want to hear. And if my one-semester of psychology and subsequent dealings with pop psychology are anything to go by, we are always more likely to believe things that fit in neatly with our existing beliefs.
The standard discourse on horseracing – dedicated racehorses work in “partnership” with loving and tirelessly hard-working owners and trainers as part of a social contract that affords them good food and a place to sleep at night – fits nicely into the narrative we are told about farm animals and their desire to be eaten in return for a nice place to stay in their short time on this earth.
And so long as we are rarely confronted with the actual living, breathing creatures who are expected to shoulder the huge burden of this cruel industry, it is easy to go on believing that racehorses live a relatively easy life.
Specieism meets sexism meets classism
There is more than just the usual speciesism at play in our apparent acceptance of the Melbourne Cup, though. As I noted earlier, the Melbourne Cup is a hotbed of intersecting oppressions.
And seeing as intersectionality is the politics de jour, you would think 1 November would be marked as an auspicious date on the lefty protest calendar.
The owner/trainer/jockey/horse hierarchy is a striking example of capitalism’s failings. At the top of the hierarchy we have millionaires who put in small portions of their fortune to pay for the upkeep of “economically viable” horses, while reaping all of the rewards of their “investment”.
At the bottom lie the two beings who are most likely to be injured or killed in the process of making a return on the owner’s investment. Horses, as we know, exist in a state of slavery where their labour is extracted for nothing. Jockeys, while certainly treated with far more respect than the non-human animals used in racing and agriculture, are paid next to nothing and risk injury or death every time they race.
According to an article published in The Australian, the suicide rate amongst jockeys is remarkably high, and is often attributed to the pressures involved in maintaining an unnaturally low bodyweight.
Of course, whatever jockeys are put through it beats being sent to slaughter, and they at least have some say in their chosen career path.
But it is interesting – particularly in light of the recent wave of Occupy protests – that horseracing continues to go un-analyzed as the extremely unequal economic practice that it is.
And it is not just the horses and jockeys who are expected to perform on Cup day in the name of contributing millions to the racing industry. While I’m sure Kim Kardashian was more than happy to accept a giant paycheck in return for strutting her stuff on the field – and I certainly don’t begrudge any woman the right to earn an income – it is surely damaging to the feminist movement that women would support an industry that necessarily relegates them to trophy-status.
Not a single woman was featured in any of the “hard” racing stories I read, and in the lifestyle sections women attendees were always quizzed on who they were wearing before they were asked anything relating to their opinions on the Cup itself.
Of course, most of the women deemed worthy to appear in the lifestyle sections were presumably paid considerable amounts of money to attend the Melbourne Cup, but only in the service of enticing other (less well-off) women to shell out hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars each for the pleasure of contributing to the “eye-candy” of race day.
Classist sexism used to promote speciesism. What a way to stop the nation.
The reason the Melbourne Cup remains so successful is that it replicates existing stereotypes in a way that is remarkably palatable.
Animal slavery? It’s okay, they’re treated really well! Like celebrities, the lucky things.
Classism? What classism? Everyone enjoys the Melbourne Cup – it’s the race that stops the nation, after all. Sure, some people benefit more than others but it’s all in the name of entertainment!
And it’s not sexist if the women are enjoying themselves.
And so we all get to spend our disposable income on dressing up and drinking ourselves into oblivion on a weekday, and everyone is happy.
But it is just this type of approach to the world – the reluctance to explore difficult ideas, the refusal to review and change existing beliefs, the insistence on justifying comfortable habits regardless of contradictory evidence – that allows oppression to grab a foothold in our psyches and continue to inform our choices.
And it is our choices that are capable of making a real difference to the way the world works.
It is important to reject the accepted narratives epitomised by events like the Melbourne Cup, and make the active choice to reject all instances of oppression in our society. Just because something is easy, or accepted, or an established part of being “Australian” (whatever that means), that doesn’t mean we are doomed to take part.
And so next year, on the first Tuesday in November, I am hopeful that people will be more willing to critically examine this supposedly unshakable fixture in our culture’s landscape, and perhaps forego the annual office sweeps, in favour of acknowledging how truly problematic the Melbourne Cup is.
Rebecca Cleaver is a Philosophy graduate with an interest in ethics, feminist philosophy, and human interaction with animals.