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“The media’s sexism towards Theresa May obscures the real criticism we should be levelling at her”

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Sarah Shaffi
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Theresa May announces her resignation

As Theresa May announces that she will resign as prime minister on 7 June, we must reject the sexism that has clouded media coverage of her while still holding her accountable for her troubling legacy.

After trying and failing (and trying and failing, and trying and failing) to get a Brexit deal through Parliament, Theresa May has finally resigned.

It is fair to say that I am not a fan of May’s. Her record as home secretary was dire — those “go home” vans were driven round the country on her watch, and police budgets were slashed (May also oversaw the mess that was bringing in elected police and crime commissioners to replace police authorities). Our then-home secretary presided over the long-term detention of women at Yarl’s Wood, and her decision to set the income benchmark for spousal visas has led to families being torn apart. And, as prime minister, she’s been little better: we’ve seen her refuse to stand up to and critique US president Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban”, fail to tackle Islamaphobia in the Tory Party, and dodge questions from MPs about the strict abortion laws in Northern Ireland. That’s just a very quick look at some of the negatives of her brief stint at Number 10 Downing Street.

But, in spite of all of this, the slew of celebratory headlines about May’s departure have left a sour taste in my mouth.

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Naturally, I’m dreading what (or more precisely, who) comes after May — the thought of Boris Johnson or Michael Gove as Prime Minister is something we should all be terrified of. However, these headlines also serve as a staunch reminder of the fact that May has been treated unfairly during her time as leader of the country. This is a woman who took over a job no one really wanted, from a man who, after wrecking the country, is now living a life of luxury as he writes his autobiography (Cameron sold his memoirs to HarperCollins for a reported £800,000). This same man’s sidekick, likewise, is now editing a newspaper… despite the fact he has zero journalistic experience.

Sexism is shot through almost every bit of coverage about May. Reporters questioned her about expensive leather trousers and her reasoning for serving up goose, not turkey, at Christmas dinner, rather than… well, her political agenda. Then there was the media’s focus on May’s clothing during Trump’s visit to the UK in 2018. Their demands to know about May’s plans for International Women’s Day: not policy-based, but focused entirely on her “perfect get-together with her girlfriends“. And, of course, there’s the sexualisation of her and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during their discussion about Scotland’s renewed desire for independence in the wake of Brexit.. 

This kind of coverage first began when May was named PM, and The Sun went for the headline “Heel, Boys” alongside a close-up of May wearing animal print kitten heels upon her triumph in the leadership battle. It has continued through to the eve (or, rather, morning) of her resignation, with May — and remember this is the Prime Minister of this country, regardless of how much power she actually has — being presented by the media and a handful of her fellow politicians as a woman to be controlled by her husband. Think I’m joking? The Express decided that May’s resignation offered the perfect opportunity to run a piece about her husband, Philip. The Metro’s front page, meanwhile, read: “Just tell her, Phil.” 

It’s a condescending headline that reduces May to the role of a pawn controlled by her husband. That the Metro is reporting on the actions of the Tory party is no defence; its choice to hone in on this angle shows the publication’s contempt for a female prime minister.

Of course, this isn’t the sort of coverage we’d get for a male prime minister. We never saw front pages sexualising David Cameron, nobody ever questioned him about the price of the suits he wore, and nobody appealed to his wife in order to better influence his political decisions. But the way May has been treated isn’t new, or confined to the UK. Hillary Clinton has been battling this type of media coverage for as long as she’s been in the public eye, with the media debating everything from her suit colours to her hairstyles, when they should have been focusing on the sexist, racist and frankly unpresidential behaviour of Trump.

The coverage of May is appalling for three reasons. Firstly, it continues the long and unsavoury legacy of treating women as less-than, and women in politics as being unable to do their jobs as well as men. It speaks to a media industry unable to see a woman as having any substance, as saying that her looks and her sexuality are the most important thing about her.

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Secondly, it plays into a cycle where male politicians happily and unthinkingly make sexist, offensive remarks about female politicians, and get away with it scot free. The politician says it, the media says it, and everyone else responds by buying into this toxic narrative: they start believing that these types of attitudes are acceptable.

Thirdly, and this is the point that concerns me most, is that the skewed coverage of May clouds actual discussion about what she has done in the job. By taking a surface level look at how much money she’s spent on clothing, what kind of shoes she’s wearing, her awkward dancing, her body language when meeting Trump, we suck up oxygen that could be used to talk about her policies and their impacts.

Coverage of Theresa May's time as prime minister has been characterised by its sexism.
Coverage of Theresa May’s time as prime minister has been characterised by its sexism.

I was struck by May’s assertion in her resignation speech that the “unique privilege of this office is to give a voice to the voiceless, to fight the burning injustices that still scar our society”. What a statement from a woman who, as I’ve previously said, showed contempt for immigrants, whose party is a hotbed of Islamaphobia that it can’t seem to face up to (and yes, Labour has a terrible record on anti-Semitism, don’t think for a second that I’m letting them off easy). Will the media examine whether May really did give a voice to the voiceless and fight those burning injustices?

Her resignation speech outlined what she clearly thought were great achievements. Among them, May cited setting up “the independent public enquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”. Again, that’s some statement coming from a prime minister who didn’t meet survivors from Grenfell Tower in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and at a time when there are families from Grenfell who have still not been rehoused.

But I will be (pleasantly) surprised if that’s what the media choose to look it, and if May’s record is examined with nuance. Instead, I suspect that coverage of the resignation will no doubt focus on how emotional she became at the end of her speech.

“I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold,” she said. “The second female prime minister, but certainly not the last.

“I do so with no ill will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.”

May’s final words were said in a choked voice, as she clearly struggled to hold back tears. And yes, it’s an emotional time for her, I don’t begrudge her that. But how many column inches and internet think pieces will be devoted to that show of emotion at the expense of the other things she said? And how much of that coverage will contain thinly veiled sexist attitudes about a woman crying at work?

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I don’t think May is a particularly feminist prime minister — just days before her resignation, as previously mentioned, she brushed off a question about abortion law reform in Northern Ireland — but as a feminist, I will stand up for her right not to be reduced to stereotypes based on her gender. Sexist coverage of May is outdated and lazy, and it obscures the real discussions we need to have. Discussions about the policies she enacted, the people and communities she did and, more importantly, didn’t serve, the long-term effects of her actions on society’s most vulnerable.

Yes, I don’t like May, but I don’t like her for good reasons, not because she wore kitten heels or spent a lot of money on an item of clothing. The media could do with understanding that.

Images: Getty

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