By Amy Callaghan
It should really come as no surprise that, yet again, the Daily Mail has published a shockingly sexist portrayal of female politicians. As if the hugely patronising ‘Downing Street Catwalk’ article in September 2014 wasn’t enough, the Mail has decided to undermine the value and importance of female politicians once again. This time, however, the Mail have managed to reach even more sickening and misogynistic heights, actually claiming that female politicians intentionally use their bodies and their ‘curves’ to make political advances. In their article, published in print and online on the 18th of March 2016, the Mail claims female politicians know that ‘moving a hemline up or a neckline down can be a powerful political tool’. The article cited 11 specific examples of female politicians – from current Home Secretary Theresa May to Alison McGovern, MP for Wirral South – who have apparently dressed provocatively and subsequently seen political advancement. The Mail provides a rundown of what exactly the politicians wore, what body parts were specifically exposed, and the ‘resulting’ promotions or political gains achieved.
I find it unbelievable that in the year 2016 one of the most widely read newspapers in the country is publishing this toxic and sexist garbage. Female MPs occupy just 151 of 650 seats in the House of Commons, and this kind of vitriolic misrepresentation is perhaps one of the reasons why we still don’t have equality in Parliament. As a young woman studying International Relations and interested in politics as a career, seeing female politicians portrayed in this way is nothing short of discouraging – clearly, their achievements and political merits are not taken seriously. In fact, we’re led to believe that anything they have managed to achieve is because they’ve flashed a bit of thigh to the right crowd. This is so demeaning, both to these clearly very accomplished politicians, and to women everywhere whose achievements are belittled and written off in this debasing way.
Sure, the Mail article is an extreme example and the assumption that women have only achieved anything because they can use their bodies and sexuality is so astonishingly sexist and outdated. People may argue that it shouldn’t affect how female politicians actually do their jobs – and it likely doesn’t, as they are professionals. It’s also true that publications such as the Daily Mail and the Sun, which persist in this ridiculous representation of women, are frequently called out on it and are of course not taken seriously by everyone. Yet it is something we see all too often and this toxic portrayal of women no doubt permeates the minds of a wide readership.
It is ridiculous enough that the number of male MPs in the House of Commons at the moment outnumbers the total number of female MPs in history. Only seven cabinet ministers out of a total of twenty-two are female. Women are clearly underrepresented in politics, and it’s no wonder. Not only are women likely discouraged thanks to ridiculous stereotypes perpetuated by institutions such as the Mail, but superiors and those in positions of power – statistically, more likely to be male – may subconsciously be influenced by this image of women and thus not take them as seriously as their male counterparts.
This blatant example of sexism towards female politicians in the media points to a much deeper and long-lasting problem. Girlguiding, a charity focused on and driven by girls and young women, carried out some research in 2015 proving that young women are put off by the portrayal of women in the media. Fifty-five % of 11 to 21-year-old girls said that in the past week they had seen the media talk about a woman’s appearance before her achievements or job. It is evident that the media’s often sexist portrayal of women is obvious even to younger girls, and may influence the way they view themselves and other women. If female politicians, some of the most successful and powerful people in the country, can’t escape this appearance-based scrutiny, then girls might wonder, what are the chances we can?
The Mail’s article is a disgusting and extreme example of the sexism women face from the media, but it is by no means the only example. This kind of toxic and misogynistic ‘journalism’ has to stop. Has there ever been an article that equates male politicians’ attire and their resultant political successes? Why do we insist on treating our male and female politicians so differently, when they hold the same merit and do the same incredibly difficult job equally well? It’s archaic, sickening and it has to stop, if we ever want to see a truly equal society. Stop discouraging women from going into politics with this repulsive nonsense. And stop belittling them and degrading them when they get there.