Zoe Travers discusses why women politicians’ bodies are more discussed than their politics.
When the new budget was unveiled two weeks ago, there were plenty of available headlines to report. But there was one unexpected story that got a lot of attention – breasts. The home secretary, Theresa May’s, breasts to be precise, along with other senior politicians’, were featured in a double page spread in the Daily Mail, which described how ‘Theresa May managed to upstage George Osborne’s speech – not through any political statement but with her daring choice of clothing’ . Ah that’s right, ‘her daring choice of clothing.’ Her ‘daring’ red suit. Which dared to reveal the truth that Theresa May, a politician of all people, a politician over the age of 50, dared, so daringly, to own a pair of breasts.
I know, getting angry about it is exactly what the Daily Male want, but I AM angry about it – and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that is quite simply exhausting to be angry about another tabloid spread of female politicians ‘flaunting’ (aka, having) female bodies. But this story is not unique, and it’s not just the Daily Mail. From a cabinet reshuffle report comparing the legs of female MPs (Daily Mail), to Nicola Sturgeon’s face photoshopped onto Kim Kardashian’s body (BBC Newsnight), female politicians are continually subject to a special kind of media scrutiny that just doesn’t happen to their male colleagues.
As a young woman, it is tiring to be frustrated again and again when pictures of the most senior female politicians’ bodies are given more attention than anything they are actually be saying or doing. But this phenomenon does more than just make me angry. Studies in the US have shown that sexist slurs against female politicians actually hurt their chances of being elected. Furthermore, this treatment of female politicians risks alienating half of the population from participating in politics at all. A study by the Fabian Society found that 91 per cent of members surveyed were concerned about taking on a prominent public role due to sexist abuse, and that 20 per cent of women are put off politics because they see it ‘as a career for men’.
This is hardly surprising. As a young woman, seeing the objectification of women in politics makes me feel like politics is not for me, not about me, simply, not an area where I would aspire to see myself, and it makes me wonder how young women like myself will ever aspire to succeed in the political sphere in its current state. It is, above all else, discouraging to see the way women in politics are portrayed. There are currently more men in the House of Commons than there have ever been female MPs. And it is hard to see how that will change without some serious attention given to the prevailing misogyny, where all women who might consider entering politics are constantly reminded that they can easily be silenced and reduced to headlines: ‘Here Come the Girls’, or ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ (Daily Mail). It reminds my generation that despite the progress women have made, sexist media coverage is right there, ready to bring us back down again.
As a young woman, where am I supposed to look to get a positive perspective on being a woman in politics in 2016? With the looming threat of feminism being removed, or significantly reduced, from the A-Level politics syllabus, it becomes increasingly difficult to see how the portrayal of women in politics is improving and how young women today will not be entirely isolated from this world. Furthermore, the growth of online misogyny through Twitter and other sites now means that female politicians are often faced with anonymous online abuse, in addition to their portrayal in the media. The rise of misogynistic trolling, which threatens, in the words of Yvette Cooper to ‘drown women out’, does not paint a progressive picture. Ultimately, an ethos which attacks our most senior politicians and silences them with ridicule breeds a culture of alienation.
All this leaves me solemnly agreeing with comments Ms Cooper recently made, which claim that the sexist abuse recently experienced by female MPs ‘risks putting an entire generation of young women off politics.’
Illustration by Lille Allen