Why Michelle Payne’s victory at the Melbourne Cup is not a win for women or horses

Yesterday, for the first time in Melbourne Cup history a female jockey, Michelle Payne, rode the horse, Prince of Penzance, who won.

As a general rule, I don’t like to run down or criticise other women. There are plenty of other people who do that.  Also, as a general rule, I like to applaud and celebrate the (major and minor) achievements of other women. There are not enough people who do that.

That said, I simply can’t get behind the outpouring of pseudo-feminist sentiment regarding the supposedly barrier breaking event that was Michelle’s win.

Of course, I am painfully aware of the no doubt mind-blowing levels of misogyny and sexism she had to – and presumably will still have to – face in order to compete in such a male dominated sport.  She tackled this openly herself when she referred to the sport being chauvinistic and talked about some of the other owners who wanted to ‘kick her off.  None of that can have been fun and I am sure she was subject to some truly terrible and ugly moments.  In fact, I’m pretty confident that some of that will also be reflected in the press coverage of her win (like the focus on the ‘fairytale’ nature of her win, or, perhaps she will be asked like this all female space crew, how she coped without make-up).

Despite all this, and despite this seeming to be a moment where barriers were broken, and proof was offered that nay-sayers should “get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world”, I still can’t get behind Michelle’s win. And here’s why.

Horse racing is cruel and animals die because of it far too often.  This includes the visible deaths that occur on the racecourse as well as the massive amount of ‘wastage’ when horses are not considered good enough to race.  The true numbers of horses killed due to wastage are unknown with conservative estimates at c. 10, 000 per year in Australia.  This doesn’t begin to touch on other cruel practices – whipping, forced drug ingestion, for instance. Nor does it get to the heart of the problem which is that the commodification of animals – seeing them as ‘things’ to elicit profit from – will always lead to their mistreatment.  In part, this explains many of the parallels with greyhound racing cruelty.

These are all good explanations for my own (and others) refusal to get on the bandwagon of feel good stories about Michelle but this shouldn’t be read as my being critical of her as a woman per se.  We need to be wary of suggesting that we should expect higher standards of behaviour from women than men.  That’s a form of reverse sexism.  Women, just like everyone else, are socialised into a world that sees animals as commodities so we shouldn’t expect awareness from them simply on the basis they are women. Similarly we should (and I do) hold men just as accountable for their cruelty to animals as we do anyone else.

But there are deeper, more complex, reasons to refuse to herald Michelle’s triumph and these are wrapped up in two connected concepts – intersectionality and total liberation.

Ecofeminism, and later critical animal studies, have done much to raise awareness of the interconnections between ideas of mastery of nature and mastery of women/marginalised others.  To this way of thinking, systems of domination overlap and it’s a fruitless endeavour to concentrate on which one “matters most” as that simply reinscribes the kind of hierarchical, binary world view that underpins their very existence.  These ideas are rooted in the notion of mastery and control and they are hegemonic, i.e. so deeply embedded in our cultural lives as to be thought of and defended as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’.  They operate through what Plumwood calls a ‘web’ or network of dualisms like male/female, human/nature, human/animal where “one passes easily over into the other, linked to it by well-travelled pathways of conventional or philosophical assumption” (p. 45). These ideas then underpin practices of oppression and exclusion and often operate together.  As Plumwood goes on to note the ‘normal case’ is a “combined identity in which colonised and coloniser identities are interwoven … To the extent that women are not only the colonised in relation to gender, but are also themselves the colonisers (for example, in relation to other races and cultures, classes and species” (p. 67).

And here we arrive at the heart of the problem of heralding Michelle’s victory as a victory for feminism. She may have broken boundaries for women but she did so at the expense of other animals.  If we accept (and I do) the idea that speciesism, sexism, racism and other forms of exclusion and oppression are connected and operate in a mutually enforcing network she achieved her success through participating in a practice and institution that contributes to, and is an outcome of, the very misogyny she claims to have overcome by winning. And this is why I simply can’t buy the idea that women participating in organised animal cruelty helps women’s liberation in any sense.  Put more formally, by Peter Singer “I don’t see any problem in opposing both racism and speciesism, indeed, to me the greater intellectual difficulty lies in trying to reject one form of prejudice and oppression while accepting and even practicing the other…. If we think that simply being a member of the species Homo sapiens justifies us in giving more weight to the interests of members of our own species than we give to members of other species, what are we to say to the racists or sexists who make the same claim on behalf of their race or sex?”

Being complicit in one form of oppression to help undo another is never going to be helpful in the long term.  Instead, we need to move toward an understanding of the complex ways such oppressions overlap so we can move toward total liberation for all oppressed groups, not elevate the status of one at the expense of another.  The tough part for me in all of this has been trying to articulate this without feeling as though I am running another woman down for achieving something.  There will be plenty of people eager to do so and I don’t want to contribute to that diatribe but it simply is not the case that the ‘first female’ to win the Melbourne Cup is a victory for women … Or for horses.

Author: Nik Taylor

Update: In 2019 the ABC’s 7.30 Report covered the “dark side of horse racing” that shows this cruelty is ongoing and systemic.

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