On Tuesday – the day before Theresa May was scheduled to trigger Article 50 – the Daily Mail ran a front page that managed to belittle and sexualise both her and her Scottish counterpart, Nicola Sturgeon. Stylist’s Moya Crockett says this relentless tabloid sexism has to end.
Next month, the Everyday Sexism Project celebrates its fifth birthday. Given that a lot can happen in half a decade (see: President Donald Trump), you’d be forgiven for hoping that things might have changed for women since Laura Bates launched her ground-breaking, misogyny-collating website. But alas; alack. The world still largely treats women as sex objects, and the Daily Mail is leading the charge.
By now, you’ve probably already seen the British tabloid’s controversial front page, featuring a photo of Prime Minister Theresa May and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in a Glasgow hotel room. The two women, both wearing sober skirt suits and determined expressions, were there to discuss Scotland’s renewed desire for independence in the wake of Brexit.
The Mail chose to run this headline: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”
Even by British tabloid standards, and even without the glaring grammatical error (questions generally require a question mark, you guys!), it’s a headline for the ages. Precisely which age, however, is up for debate. Personally? I’m going for 1952.
May and Sturgeon are two of the most powerful people on the planet, politicians at the top of their respective games. This week, the PM will change the shape of global politics forever when she triggers Article 50, signalling the start of the UK’s formal exit from the European Union.
Sturgeon, for her part, will potentially be the person who steers Scotland – which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU – into independence from the rest of the UK. If anyone has earned the right to be taken seriously, it’s these two. Yet here they are, being reduced to their legs.
Being in a position of power during a time of political turmoil should, in theory, guarantee a woman some respite from the onslaught of sexualisation that many of us experience from late childhood onwards. But nothing – not power, not influence, not anything – protects you from the ingrained, lads’ mag sexism of British red-tops.
The UK tabloid press is renowned for its retrograde attitudes towards women, from its belittling obsession with May’s fashion choices to publishing up-skirt photographs of frightened teenage actors. (Britain, incidentally, is renowned in turn for its tabloid culture. We might like to think of our international reputation as echoing Hugh Grant’s speech in Love Actually – all Shakespeare, the Beatles and David Beckham’s right foot – but we’re also widely regarded as the originators of the ‘gutter press’.) The Mail’s headline might be offensive, but it’s not surprising; your reaction was likely glum disdain, rather than abject shock.
What made this particular example of everyday sexism uniquely baffling was the context. At the time the Mail went to press, May was less than 48 hours from formally launching Brexit – a political event for which the right-wing, anti-EU newspaper had pushed for years, and celebrated as an unmitigated triumph post-referendum. Perhaps more than any other tabloid, the Daily Mail helped cement public anti-European sentiment in the UK. And now here they were, daring to tell their readers to “never mind Brexit” – because phwoar, boring old politics is hardly as important as checking out the cracking pins on a couple of birds, is it? Even by tabloid standards, it was a calamitously condescending headline.
Adding injury to insult was the article that accompanied the Mail’s front page. Journalist Sarah Vine describes May and Sturgeon’s meeting in exactly the kind of creepy, salacious, catfight-coded language we’ve come to expect from tabloids – and yet it stings more, somehow, that this sexist drivel came from a female writer. Of course not all women identify as feminists; hell, not all women are decent people, full stop. But reading Vine’s prose makes you want to send her a stack of books about the male gaze and a note asking what the sisterhood ever did to her.
Little reference is made to what May and Sturgeon actually discussed, with Vine instead choosing to focus on the politicians’ sexualised bodies, their clothes, and the fact that they’re clearly desperate to claw one another’s eyes out. (At one point, she genuinely suggests that the Scottish First Minister was “having to use every ounce of self-control to stop herself poking [May] in that gimlet eye”.)
Sturgeon’s “natty blue suit” is interpreted as a subliminal reference to the Scottish flag, while the Prime Minister – the Prime Minister – is described as sitting with her “famously long extremities… demurely arranged in her customary finishing-school stance.” Sturgeon’s legs (sorry, her “shorter but undeniably more shapely shanks”), in contrast, “are altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed, with the dominant leg pointing towards her audience.”
By far the article’s most bonkers passage comes when Vine describes Sturgeon’s completely normal way of crossing her legs as “a direct attempt at seduction”. “Her stiletto is not quite dangling off her foot,” Vine writes, “but it could be.” (Huh?)
“‘Come, succumb to my revolutionary allure,’ [Sturgeon] seems to be saying,” Vine continues. “‘You know you want to.’”
Watch: Woman gets dressed according to real headlines
Vine has been a journalist for a long time. And she understands politics: she’s married to pro-Brexit former justice secretary Michael Gove, who ran against May for the Conservative leadership last July and lost spectacularly. She knows what she’s doing when she writes about other women in such sexualised, provocative terms. It is an act of sabotage, of belittlement. To reduce a woman – two women – to nothing more than their bodies and their clothes and their nail varnish and their sex appeal is to render them trivial. For the duration of one short, poisonous article, May and Sturgeon’s power was denied.
When asked recently what advice she’d give to girls who wanted to follow in her footsteps, May – who is reluctant to call herself a feminist – reportedly replied: “If you have any setbacks, don’t ever think it’s because you’re a girl.” The Mail, meanwhile, has apparently attempted to present its coverage of the Glasgow talks as a hilarious joke, describing Vine’s article as “light-hearted”.
But there are some things that happen because you’re a girl, or because you’re a women. Only women politicians still see themselves profoundly sexualised and trivialised on the front pages of national newspapers. Only women have their authority undermined and their bodies used against them in this manner.
And if media institutions refuse to take responsibility for how they portray women in power – well, that’s not very funny at all.
Images: Rex Features