The Daily Heil regularly judges women and girls on their appearance, rather than their intellectual abilities and achievements, but a few days ago they surpassed themselves by running a piece by Sarah Vine about whether Theresa May or Nicola Sturgeon had the best legs as their cover story. The headline was ‘Never Mind Brexit, What about Legs-It’ or something similar, and showed a photograph of May and Sturgeon sitting together in skirts which rose above the knees. And The American progressive internet news show, The Young Turks, have duly laid into the article for its sexism.
Cenk Uygur noted that Theresa May just shrugged it off as a ‘bit of a laugh’, as she would, considering that one of her press secretaries used to work for the Heil. Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader, simply commented that ‘the 1950s called. They want their headline back.’ Uygur and his co-host, Ana Kasparian, then ripped into the article proper. This raved about how the women’s ‘pins’ and ‘shanks’ were the two women’s greatest weapons. However, Theresa May sat demurely, as befitting the public schoolgirl vicar’s daughter she was. Sturgeon, however, was rather more sexy, ‘seductively’ pointing her feet at the audience.
Uygur and Kasparian point out that the article’s describing two of the most powerful women in Britain – the British Prime Minister, and the First Minister of Scotland. These two ladies were discussing a vitally important issue – Britain’s departure from the European Union, which also threatens to destroy the three-century old union with Scotland, should Scots vote to remain in the EU. And the Daily Mail is there trivialising the issue into a simple contest over which one had the better legs. Uygur says at one point that he doesn’t know what Vine’s ‘proclivities’ are, but Sturgeon wasn’t trying to seduce the audience. She was just sitting there. Kasparian was also deeply unimpressed about the Mail’s blatant sexism, and advised Vine to go off and examine her life.
Here’s the video:
This rather unsavoury piece of journalism is very much par for the course for the Mail, whose articles frequently comment on the appearance of female personalities and celebrities. The newspaper was specifically aimed at a female readership when it was set up in the 20s or 30s. It was aimed at the wives of the men, who read the Torygraph. Despite this, it has a very strong anti-feminist stance. In the 1990s it ran an article about a group of women calling themselves the fluffragettes. These young women were a kind of anti-feminist group, who wanted women to go back to being more ‘feminine’ – in their view – by being ‘fluffy’. And feminists have frequently criticised the paper for the way it judges women by their appearance. This is not just demeaning, but also dangerous. Many girls and young women are severely anxious about their bodies, which can and does lead to problems like eating disorders and an obsessive concern with pursuing an illusory ideal of female beauty and physical perfection, an ideal that can take over and ruin the lives of women, who have absolutely nothing wrong with their appearance in the first place. And this is quite apart from fostering the attitude that, whatever else a woman may achieve, her primary role is simply to look good.
This whole issue also distorts and complicates attitudes in the workplace. Since the 1970s feminists have been campaigning against sexual harassment at work. Again, a few years ago there was a piece of research, in which groups of men and women were shown or played footage of a man greeting female colleagues in various ways, including commenting on their appearance. This was done in order to gauge what the audience considered sexual harassment. Normal greetings at the start of the working day, like ‘Good morning, Mrs X,’, or ‘Hi, Sue’ obviously don’t count. When it involves commenting on a woman’s appearance, it can be sexist or demeaning, or be construed as such.
The Mail’s obsession with female appearance creepily extends to teenage girls. A few years ago Ian Hislop and some of the other panelists on Have I Got News For You also laid into the Heil for its very dubious moral stance in whipping up fears about predatory paedophiles, when it also ran sexualised articles about teenage girls. They made the point that the newspaper regularly printed articles showing photographs of 14 year old girls under headlines admiring their beauty.
I have to say I was really somewhat amazed by the Mail’s attitude, as it didn’t strike me that there was anything particularly sexy about the women’s pose. May and Sturgeon are politicians, which is hardly a physically glamorous profession. One comedian once said that it was ‘Hollywood for ugly people’. It’s not entirely true, but it does make the point that most politicians aren’t there because of their good looks. Nor should they be. The only criteria for their election to office should be whether they are effective representatives of their constituencies and good managers and leaders. And it also goes without saying that they should also be moral, law-abiding citizens.
It’s also not a bad idea to have a female journo commenting on May and Sturgeon as politicians and negotiators. There’s one strand of feminism, which says that women bring a different set of skills and perspectives to politics than their male comrades. I did wonder whether Thatcher deliberately excluded women from her cabinet, because they could see through her management strategies in a way that may not have been apparent to the men there, and so formed a potential challenge to her authority. If women do have a different leadership style, then it would make sense to have a female writer analyse it, as she might be able to perceive subtle nuances that may not be quite so apparent to a bloke.
But this was precisely what the article didn’t give us. We didn’t get any deep insights into the debate about Brexit and the British constitution between the two leaders. We just got a bit of drivel about which one had the better ‘pins’. It really does make you wonder about the people writing and reading the Heil. My guess is that many of the hacks there have come from the even lower end of the tabloid spectrum, like the Scum, which regularly feature various attractive young women in states of undress. The Heil is supposedly somewhat above this style of journalism, but as this headline showed, not by much. The journalistic urge to write about how glamorous and sexy a woman is, is still very much there. It’s just that it’s now applied to female politicians.
I think Ana Kasparian’s right. Someone at the Heil desperately needs to sort their life out. Or take a cold shower, at least.