Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen me tweet this headline from The Spectator:
With the words “is this real life?” so I apologise if this feels like I’m going over old ground for some readers, but I do feel like this sort of headline is harmful on a number of levels, and some important points are being missed while people’s brains are imploding at the idea of Theresa May as a sex symbol.
I won’t be drilling into the article itself – partly because I couldn’t force myself to finish it, but mostly because we live in an age of tweet length news, rolling 24 hour coverage and attention spans more stretched than a whale’s waistband, so the headline and sub-heading is all most people will see of a lot of news stories, whether that’s digitally as we scroll past on our newsfeeds or physically as we walk past the news-stand, or see someone reading a paper in public.
Almost all of the chatter I have seen about this has centred around denial that Theresa May exudes erotic appeal. Personally, my cup of tea she is not, but it takes all sorts to make the world go round, and life would be very beige and boring if we all found the same people attractive. Desirability is entirely subjective – so it’s a bizarre premise to set an article on.
May’s attractiveness or lack thereof aside, what bothers me most about this headline is the casual sexism. This kind of headline seeps into the collective consciousness and suggests that a woman who has been working in her field for over 20 years and has reached the very top of her profession must have done so because of her sexuality. That she is in her position because of the male gaze – that men still very much hold power over women, however powerful that woman may seem.
Why then should we – having internalized this message – have respect for any woman who has risen in her field? Those who have followed my writing in the past know well that I have no time whatsoever for Theresa May. I think she is an incompetent, floundering politician who has achieved her position purely because no one else wanted the poisoned chalice, she’s a terrible representative and an even worse person. But if we reduce even the Prime Minister to “We Britons have always liked a girl on top” nudge wink, Carry On Westminster, what does that say about other women in professional positions?
Why would people not assume the same about female doctors, engineers, mechanics, or any other traditionally male dominated profession? This fosters a societal attitude of distrust of women’s abilities at all levels, implies that we cannot hold power in our own right, and as such is incredibly insulting – both to the millions of competent, hardworking women this attitude impacts on, and to the men who the writer seems to assume voted for someone to run the UK based purely on the fact they’d quite like to bang her.
This creeping sexism is massively disheartening to those of us trying to teach the young women in our lives that they have a world of opportunity ahead of them, and can be anything they choose. This kind of headline teaches them that’s not true. Whether they want it or not, regardless of how they present themselves, or what job they do, they will still have male fantasy projected onto them, and be viewed through the lens of their sexuality, not their achievements. They will not have a choice in the matter. Even if they become a navy trouser suit wearing, “Christian” Conservative Prime Minister, they will still be viewed as wank fodder by so called journalists who can’t imagine for a moment they may have achieved anything without the help of fawning men who fancy them. Why should our young women strive to be anything other than just sexy if that’s all they’ll be judged on anyway, whether they want to be or not?
I’ve no doubt the writer would say, if asked, that the article was meant to be complimentary, and they had no intention of undermining anyone’s authority or indeed implying anyone’s value lies in whether they are judged to be hot or not by the chattering classes. But this smacks of putting the woman in her place, reminding women that they are welcome at the top table only if men put them there, asserting power. It is, as one of the replies to my tweet said, so grubby.
This “article”, as far as I could see, wasn’t written in response to a survey or opinion poll. It wasn’t written to try and make sense of an unexpected bounce in the polls, or as a reaction to a fluff news piece. Perhaps the writer was asked to write a positive story on Theresa May and this rot was literally all they could think of. If so I’m not sure if I despair more at the competence of the PM, or the editor that thought this drivel was worth printing. I suspect though, that this casually misogynistic word salad was turned in with little thought and used to fill inches and sell ad space and generate outrage clicks.
Why then am I giving the piece further attention here? Because words matter. Headlines matter. And once upon a time, in a land that feels far, far away now, journalism used to matter. Our media is a direct influence on all levels of our society. Its about time that responsibility was taken more seriously.