Ride Like a Girl is an Affront to Feminism

Justice should not be so fragile a commodity that it cannot be extended beyond the species barrier of Homo Sapiens.

Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat

I recently had the unique experience of being squeezed into a packed train filled with obnoxious, drunk white people on their way to the Melbourne Cup, and wondered how anyone could want to make a film celebrating this cruelty-driven culture. But apparently a lot of people did, and even more people wanted to watch it, because Ride Like a Girl is now the highest-grossing Australian film of 2019. What a disgrace.

I was squeezed next to a pair of white men in suits, one of whom had dreadlocks, and the other of whom was vaping on the train (wish I was joking). One of the older racing fans told them to stop, explaining that he had asthma, to which the young men offered such responses as “Calm down, cunt,” and “I’ll fuckin’ end ya”. Their behaviour almost felt like self-parody — the kind of scene that, had someone written it, I’d call too exaggerated. But then again, maybe threatening the sick and elderly was far from extreme for this carriage full of animal cruelty fans. Perhaps, as countless animal studies theorists have already posited, it’s only logical that a community indoctrinated to respond with indifference to the suffering of living animal beings (in this case, horses) would be inclined to treat their fellow human animals with a similar degree of callousness. Through the normalisation of atrocities like the Melbourne Cup, human capacity for empathy is being systematically repressed.

The exchange on the train shows us that animal cruelty is not some isolated issue to be discussed in a vacuum, away from other forms of oppression. Horse racing is a means by which the “human identity [is] constituted in opposition to animal ones”[1] through the “performance of mastery”[2], a performance which involves “seeing the other as radically separate and inferior, the background to the self as foreground, as one whose existence is secondary, derivative or peripheral to that of the self or center, and whose agency is denied or minimized”[3]. Though this quote describes human supremacy, it could just as well be describing misogyny, the very thing that Ride Like a Girl claims to challenge. To denounce the male performance of mastery over women while celebrating the human performance of mastery over nature is nothing short of hypocrisy.

As intersectional feminism has recognised, systems of oppression are linked, and none of us are free until we all are. But in spite of the growing popularity of intersectional thought, the tragic reality is that we are still not even mentioning non-human animals in most mainstream feminist discussions. The alliance that should be so obvious ­— that of women with animals, in recognition of shared experiences of bodily objectification and commodification — is yet to form outside of small ecofeminist and vegan feminist communities.

This willful ignorance of animal intersectionality in feminist circles leads to disgraceful and dangerous works like Ride Like a Girl being lauded as ‘girl-power’ films and achieving nationwide box-office success. For those of you who are unaware, the film recounts the story of Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. She has achieved her success on the (literal) backs of other beings who are forced to race against their will, beings with identities and families and desires and thoughts and independent lives of their own, beings who are routinely murdered if they fail to successfully perform a task that they never consented to perform. What makes her story worth celebrating? In spite of what the filmmakers would like to believe, the fact of Payne being a woman does not make this film inherently feminist, much like how being the first female homophobe or murderer or millionaire isn’t feminist, either. Shouldn’t this be obvious? Aren’t we beyond the children’s-book ideas of feminism meaning ‘girls can do anything that boys can’? Perhaps a better message would be ‘some stuff that boys do is fucked up and girls shouldn’t do it even though they can’.

When a movie offends certain groups of human society, those humans are often able to fight back through criticism, community action, organisation, and protests. Non-human animals do not have any of these options available to them. They are not able to speak back in a language that humans can understand, or to offer any real threat to human dominance and capitalist success. It’s therefore a particularly heartless act to put out a film that is so harmful to a community that we know can’t do anything about it. As such, the only thing that can stop a filmmaker from celebrating and promoting animal cruelty is their own conscience.

Since director Rachel Griffiths chose not to let her conscience get in the way of making this film, the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses took it upon themselves to speak for the horses at the premiere of Ride Like a Girl. It’s unfortunate that we only had a protest at the premiere, unlike the gay community’s wonderfully lengthy and disruptive protests against Cruising (1980), but the speed with which Ride Like a Girl’s controversy ran out of steam again reveals the weaker organising power of the animal activist community. There’s been minimal writing done on behalf of the horses since the film’s release, and protesters have been dismissed as “militant vegans”.

What does it say about us that we can talk about films that have a ‘gender problem’, a ‘race problem’, and so on, but hardly ever about films that have a species problem? Perhaps the ‘species problem’ is the hardest one for humans to confront, as it makes us all oppressors, and that’s no fun. Our ecosystem is in a state of crisis as a result of anthroparchy, and yet a film about humans abusing animals for entertainment and profit is the highest grossing film in Australia. I cannot overstate how sick this makes me. I cannot overstate the pain and fury I feel at the news of its success and the general air of apathy around it in conversations.

Perhaps one of the strangest things is that Ride Like a Girl’s lead actor, Teresa Palmer, is a vegan RSPCA ambassador with a history of speaking out for animal rights. I myself cannot make sense of the cognitive dissonance occurring here, as there is literally no way for horse racing to be anything but cruelty, but I digress — this is a broad issue, and I’m not trying to turn it into a personal attack against Griffiths and Palmer or their Racing-Victoria-and-TabCorp-sponsored film. It’s horrendous that Ride Like a Girl exists, yes, but what scares me more is how successful and embraced it has been.

I mentioned that the empathy of the men on the train had been systematically suppressed, that they had been indoctrinated to react with neutrality or amusement in the face of cruelty and suffering. But judging by the success of this film, those men are hardly outliers. They may in fact represent the majority.

I do believe that this is a very ‘Australian story’, if only in the sense that it’s emblematic of white Australia’s culture of cruelty towards living beings that it considers to be different and lesser than themselves. 

Ride Like a Girl tells a story of white feminism (in contrast to intersectional feminism), in which the movement’s ultimate goal is for a white woman to reach a position of power within a violent structure, rather than to dismantle the structure itself. To any feminism that actually cares about the rights and freedoms of all living beings, this film is an affront. Its success illuminates some of the most horrific elements of the white Australian identity — a pervasive anthropocentric apathy that has wreaked destruction on animals and nature for centuries — and yet its makers have the gall to hail it as an empowering feminist story. I no longer feel morally able to stand by and watch silently as this film achieves commercial success with minimal critical response challenging its messages. 

We must disillusion ourselves if we are to foster a kinder, more peaceful and empathetic world. We must stop denying the autonomy and individuality of non-human animals, who are unique and sentient persons with as much right to freedom and happiness as anyone. We must push for a truly inclusive feminism, a feminism that cares as much about non-human animals as human animals, a feminism that does not allow films like Ride Like a Girl to slide, if we ever hope to truly challenge the systems of oppression and domination that cause harm to us all.

[1] “The Love Whose Name Cannot be Spoken: Queering the Human-Animal Bond”, Carmen Dell’Aversano, Journal for Critical Animal Studies, Volume VIII, Issue 1/2, 2010.

[2] ibid.

[3] Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Val Plumwood, 1993. 

Ride Like a Girl is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.

Ivana Brehas

Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.