Today was Boris Johnson’s first Prime Minister’s Questions, and he chose to mark the occasion by apparently calling Jeremy Corbyn a “great big girl’s blouse”. This sexist language has no place in politics, let alone our everyday lives, says writer Nell Frizzell.
Using the phrase “great big girl’s blouse” as an insult in 2019 is unacceptable. So why am I – a blouse-wearing woman – not surprised to read that our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, used this outdated term to try and diminish his male opposition?
Well, this is the man who likened women wearing burqas to “letter boxes”, referred to people of colour as “picanninies”, described Liverpudlians as “wallowing’” in their “victim status”, joked that voting Tory would give your wife “bigger breasts,” called gay men “tank-topped bumboys,” joked about Papua New Guinea being a place of “orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing”, wrote not-so-satricially about people in Africa having “watermelon smiles” and who – please let’s not forget this – got a British mother, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, imprisoned in Iran, thousands of miles away from her children, for five years because he managed to somehow mispronounce ‘is on holiday’ as ‘is teaching people journalism’.
I know you’ve read lists like this before. We all have. But just like being reminded to check your smoke alarms, or to drink enough water, or when the deadline is for your tax return (Midnight 31 January 2020 if, like me, you do it online) it’s good to be reminded exactly who our Prime Minister is and what he’s said.
Because, when someone earns £275,000 a year for a weekly newspaper column, on top of his salary as a speech-delivering MP and now as a commons-debating Prime Minister, it’s probably fair to judge him by his words, as well as his actions.
Which is why I’m not surprised by what’s been said today. Whichever way you slice your ham, using “great big girl’s blouse” as an insult in 2019 is unacceptable.
It’s just another example of how men have, for centuries, belittled women using sexist terms such as ‘throw like a girl’ or ‘fight like a girl’ to imply that doing anything ‘like a girl’ is to do it worse than a man.
And of course, to use the phrase as an insult in The Commons Chamber in 2019 is beyond belief.
The House of Commons is a place of work. It is the meeting room for the UK’s MPs, if you like. A bit like your meeting room at work, only with more polished wood and sleeping grey-haired men, and fewer fluorescent light bulbs and sticky jars of instant coffee. It is also a place of work viewed by potentially millions of members of the public, via a livestream, that dictates the laws, values and politics of Great Britain.
Under the Equality Act of 2010, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, religion and various other protected characteristics. That means anyone using discriminatory language at work – the sort of language that, oh I don’t know, equated being female with being weak or pathetic – is liable to be pulled up on it, reprimanded, maybe even dismissed.
Boris Johnson was at work. We are paying him for that work. And so we have the right to point out when he is using language at work that is sexist, derogatory, inappropriate or, in this case, a little of all three.
What I would give to be a HR manager that got to walk past those green leather benches and hand someone breaking the code of conduct their P45.
I would not pat him on the bottom and send him on his way, as Johnson suggested back in 2005 that Spectator magazine did to their publisher, Kimberly Quinn. Nor would I make like David Cameron addressing MP Angela Eagle and tell him to “calm down, dear”, as I deactivated his parliamentary email address and took away his key fobs. I would simply ask him to leave.
As someone who has, throughout her life, worn many blouses, some of them quite big, I do find this flavour of insult strangely pathetic. Offensive in its intention, absolutely, but also rather missing the point.
If your idea of the very nadir of human courage is manifested in a loose polyester top then, frankly, you’re not looking very hard.
In Syria, people in blouses pull their children out of rubble and attempt to build safety out of dust. In New Zealand, people in blouses enact the sort of gun control laws that people in suits have shied away from for decades. In India, people in blouses formed a 620km human chain demanding gender equality despite the orders of their government. In the UK, Ireland and America people in blouses have risked death threats and prison sentences in order to help other people in blouses have abortions, cross borders or feed their families. Walk down your local high street right now and you will see people in blouses who have undertaken a greater physical danger than almost any man will ever face, simply by giving birth.
I don’t want to revert to anatomical, misandric, childish or bigoted language here. So I will not refer to our current prime minister as a bluster-fuelled egomaniac from whom all human compunction has been drained like the fluid from a blister.
I will merely point out that, if you’re looking for courage, strategic thinking, long term planning, the ability to multitask, strength, empathy, pragmatism, political will, professionalism and daring, it might be a good idea to look for the person wearing a blouse.