March 30, 2017

The 1950s called and asked for their headline back


Tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail has caused outrage and been widely criticised over a sexist headline that ran on its front page last Tuesday, March 28th.

Alongside a picture of British Prime Minister Theresa May and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the paper leeringly asked, “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” In the article the photo accompanies, Sarah Vine writes:

…what stands out here are the legs — and the vast expanse on show.

There is no doubt that both these women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal.

Breaking news everyone: humans have legs! Certainly a more pertinent issue than the triggering of Article 51, Britain leaving the EU, and Scotland gaining its independence, all issues in the hands (sorry, legs) of two of the most powerful people in the country, who happen to be women.

The backlash was instant, with MPs, journalists, critics, and members of the public taking to social media in droves to condemn the “reporting.” The former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband tweeted:

Labour MPs Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper also took to twitter, as well as current Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said “It’s 2017. This sexism must be consigned to history. Shame on the Daily Mail.”

Former equalities minister Nicky Morgan told Sky News:

These two very senior female politicians are being judged by their legs rather than what they said.

I think this headline is deliberately provocative and it is deliberately demeaning.

There are very important issues at stake that the Prime Minister and First Minister were discussing yesterday.

The union between England and Scotland is very important, the United Kingdom is very incredibly important and I think that’s what should be focused on in terms of their meeting – not a picture of their legs.

May, politely batting away the comments (and perhaps hoping not to fan the fire), said, “If people want to have a bit of fun about how we dress, then so be it.”

But does this make it ok? No.

Amelia Womack, the deputy leader of the Green Party, has submitted a forma complaint against the Daily Mail to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, on the grounds of gender discrimination. As she said to Sky News:

This attempt by the Daily Mail to ignore years of progress by women in politics is utterly pathetic.

The paper is deliberately ignoring the struggle women have faced to break into politics even though we now have a female prime minister, first leader and party leaders.

As a young woman politician I find it absolutely extraordinary that a national newspaper has sunk to this level.

And what has the Daily Mail got to say in response to all of this? A spokesperson has remarked, according to the BBC:

It appeared in an 84-page paper packed with important news and analysis, a front page exclusive on cost-cutting in the NHS and a health supplement devoted to women’s health issues.

For the record, the Mail was the paper which, more than any other, backed Theresa May for the top job.

Again for the record, we often comment on the appearance of male politicians including Cameron’s waistline, Osborne’s hair, Corbyn’s clothes — and even Boris’s legs.

Is there a rule that says political coverage must be dull or has a po-faced BBC and left-wing commentariat, so obsessed by the Daily Mail, lost all sense of humour… and proportion?

Except men are not subjected to such overt sexualisation, and their words are rarely dismissed in favour of judging their appearances. To drum home the message, a spoof Daily Mail cover was created by member of the public, Ashley Gould, and circulated on Twitter. It asks us to judge the gams of Corbyn, former PM David Cameron, former Education Secretary Michael Gove, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, all exposed under fetching shorts.

As for Vine, she wrote a response piece in the Mail yesterday, defending her article and views.

A light-hearted commentary I wrote in yesterday’s Mail about, among other things, how nice Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs looked in a photo of them sitting side by side in Glasgow, got blown out of all proportion when the usual suspects (Twitter, the BBC, The Guardian and subsidiaries) decided to take offence.

Why should this be any different simply because the protagonists are women? Sturgeon and May’s gender is neither here nor there. After all, male politicians are routinely teased about their appearance, often in much more crude terms than any of the gentle jibes I deployed.

My own husband, for example, was once described as ‘looking like a foetus in a jar’. David Cameron was savagely mocked about looking a bit portly on the beach. And both he and George Osborne got it in the neck all the time about their thinning hair.

The difference being, of course, Vine’s husband does not run the country, and while mocking Cameron on the beach may have been uncalled for, he wasn’t at the time in a meeting discussing the future of the country.

If you feel slightly dirty after reading this heinous piece of Daily Mail twaddle, you could turn to some to some intelligent, well-argued literature on feminism and gender issues to help cleanse your soul. Such as Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not a Feminist or Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck, which contains this pertinent passage about women in the limelight:

All too often, losing your story also means that if you make decisions people don’t like—after a certain point, in this process, every decision you make will be one people don’t like—they feel entitled to hurt you. It means being subject to a hostile, unasked-for, all-consuming intimacy: having other people claim ownership over your body, your sexual history, your medical history, your emotional life, your future.

We may not like all the decisions made by our politicians, but that isn’t an excuse to objectify woman. Or men, for that matter.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.