The Danica Dynamic

By Sally Jenkins
Monday, May 28, 2007

If you're looking for a lecture on feminist rhetorical constructs, Danica Patrick is not your girl. Patrick has become a star for being a woman in a man's business, and she evidently doesn't mind that, otherwise she wouldn't pose like a hood ornament in a red leather bodice, or sign on to risque ad campaigns for "GoDaddy." You've got your pedagogues, and your pedestals, and you tell me which one is more fun.

Patrick's femininity is the inevitable, fatal topic in any discussion of her career thus far. Her supporters over-congratulate her for being a woman, the highest female finisher at the Indianapolis 500. To her detractors, she has raced in yet another Indy without a victory, making her a winless, Hostess-endorsing twinkie who takes commercial victory laps without ever seeing the checkered flag. Both views are patronizing: Beneath them lies the assumption that it's amazing women can drive at all, because, you know, they're always on cellphones.

Either way, responses to Patrick are loaded -- far more loaded than responses to her male counterparts, or to Sarah Fisher or Milka Duno, who also were in the field of 33 drivers at the 91rst running of Indy on Sunday, yet who didn't excite the same interest. Patrick herself bears responsibility for that, because she has promoted herself as much as a female icon, as a driver. One minute she sassily tosses her tire-iron of a ponytail, and blows kisses to the camera, and the next she's a toughie who insists she's going to win, and says, "It's not a matter of can."

Patrick's outsized persona obscures the more commonplace truth about her, which is that she's an extremely adept driver in a monotonous sport populated by a lot of guys with the charisma of Elvis impersonators. In her eighth-place finish at Indy on Sunday, she controlled an ill-handling car early, coped with shifting weather conditions to contend all afternoon and even surged into second place. She was running eighth when the race was called because of rain.

"It's really the only race we say who's the winner, and if you finish second, third, fourth, fifth, it doesn't matter," she said. "It's a matter of taking advantage of the opportunity and not settling."

Patrick's career is a perfect illustration of the racing term "negative lift." Anyone who watches Indy marvels at the way the cars hug the oval on those banked turns at over 200 mph. The principle that allows the cars to stay on the road instead of spinning into space is the negative lift created by the wing assemblies, the aerodynamic equivalent of a jet plane turned upside down. Patrick's femininity is like that, it's an inverted dynamic. Her girlishness made her an overnight star after she finished fourth as a rookie at Indy two years ago. And it has kept her in the limelight during the last couple of seasons, as the sport's highest-profile, highest-paid and biggest-selling driver, despite going winless and posting results no better or worse than, say, a Ryan Briscoe.

She has co-hosted "The View," been in Super Bowl commercials and on Letterman, and the cover of Sports Illustrated. She has deals with Coca-Cola, Argent and XM Radio, among others.

The public fixation on Patrick has everything to do with the fact that she is a woman competing head to head against men in potentially deadly circumstances. Even in tennis, the most equal of sports in terms of pay and audience respect, women don't directly compete with men except in mixed doubles. But in the Indy 500, men and women are similarly situated, they are indistinguishable pairs of disembodied eyes staring out of helmets, encased in 1,550 pounds of carbon fiber, with a chassis, turbo-charged camshaft with valves and cylinders, wing assemblies, and tanks of methanol fuel.

But Patrick is not just a woman, she's an unapologetically pretty one who sports film-star sunglasses and diamonds in her ears, and who once posed on the cover of FHM magazine in a leather get-up spread eagled on a 1957 Chevy. It's precisely Patrick's arch-femaleness that makes her such a compelling draw. Patrick is playing out some basic questions at 220 mph: Are we heading toward a kind of competitive androgyny, or recognition of fundamental difference? Do we believe that men and women have genetic inequalities in their aptitudes, or not? We still haven't decided.

There are undeniable physical disparities between men and women but we're deeply confused about what that means. Patrick is just 5 feet 2 and weighs little more than 100 pounds. Driver Robby Gordon has actually speculated that her very petite-ness is an unfair advantage, because her car is lighter. In other sports, like football, we consider muscle mass differences virtually insurmountable and declare them single sex activities. Does that mean that there is such a thing as what authors Michael Cozzillio and Robert Hayman Jr. in their legal textbook Sports and Inequality, term "justified inequality"?

Should we care if Patrick plays with her femininity, for stardom and profit? Maybe, depending on whether she is busting or perpetuating stereotypes. For one thing, our courts make decisions all the time based on female stereotypes, and were doing so long before Justice Joseph P. Bradley's remark in 1873 that, "Civil Law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman."

It may be that we're drawn to Patrick because we suspect she could change everything, all of our suppositions about femininity and aggression. In Sports and Inequality, Wendy W. Williams suggests in an essay that when we address these questions what we're really addressing are "sex role assumptions and assignments so complex and interrelated that we cannot successfully dismantle any of it without seriously exploring the possibility of dismantling it all."

Patrick can't answer all of these questions simply by winning. But at least she could prove the point once and for all that she is a deserving driver. She is past due when it comes to hoisting a trophy, and until then, she'll be considered an under-performer who is over-rewarded with extravagant endorsements, based on her looks. With her move to the first-rate Andretti Green racing team this season, she herself says she has no more excuses. She's on a premier team allied with the first family of racing. Her teammate, Marco Andretti, won last season in only his 13th start. "I really believe in her, I believe she can get it done," Michael Andretti told ABC.

Patrick sends mixed messages. But if she doesn't always seem to know how she wants to be regarded when it comes to her gender, well, none of the rest of us know what we want from her, either. Except for a victory.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company