Tracy Brabin’s dress: Cultural Control Over the Female Body

Caitlin Thomson examines the objectification of women’s bodies in the light of controversy concerning MP Tracy Brabin’s off-the-shoulder dress.

The backlash against MP Tracy Brabin’s off-the-shoulder dress was poisonous. After reading the highly sexualised criticisms on social media, she tweeted “I can confirm I’m not a slag, hungover, a tart, about to breastfeed, a slapper, drunk or just been banged over a wheelie bin”. It’s impossible to ignore  the gendered nature of these insults. No such criticism has been directed at Boris Johnson, who is rarely seen with combed hair, a neat tie or a tucked-in shirt in the Commons. Regardless of your beliefs on appropriate, professional attire; there is no official dress code for women in the House of Commons, aside from abstaining from jeans or flip flops. The underlying problem here is that our parliament is a space that was never intended for women. 

Brabin, MP for Batley and Spen since Jo Cox’s tragic death, responded to the situation with eloquence and style. She told the BBC that it was her responsibility to challenge the discourse, stating “women around the world…are being demeaned every day because of what they wear”. She listed the dress on eBay, raising a staggering £20,200 for Girlguiding UK when bidding closed last week. 

In Grazia, Brabin discussed the everyday sexism exemplified by this situation, highlighting that attention was diverted away from the important statements she was making at the dispatch box. She won’t let herself be silenced, to her merit. Yet, it is deeply saddening that in the same article she felt the need to provide further context and justify her clothing choices. She has a broken ankle and the plaster on her foot restricted her clothing choices; she went to a music event earlier in the day and wasn’t expecting to be in the Commons at all; she leaned on the dispatch box to steady her ankle, meaning the dress’s shoulder fell down a little more and so on. Brabin shouldn’t have to explain herself yet, as a woman, her body and clothing choices are immediately open to  public scrutiny. She resists the immediate identity of passive victim and sexual object, a result of her eroticised, mass-consumed body. Still, her apologetic justification subconsciously enforces the vilification of the female body. 

Bourdieu and Foucault state that female bodies are a direct locus of social control. Thus women’s bodies are engraved with limiting cultural rules, fraught with masculine ownership and enforced femininity. In a patriarchal, capitalist society, female bodies are sexualised, fragmented and consumed on a mass level. This can be seen from media images and advertisements, to films and art. But this is not a modern phenomenon, the female body has been treated with cultural anxiety for centuries. Some examples include the biblical figure of Eve, invention of the corset, hysteria and the rest cure, culturally produced eating disorders, force-feeding suffragettes, anti-abortion laws and female actors like Nell Gwyn being forced into sex work. For female bodies of colour, this is all escalated: historically enslaved, forcibly sterilised, Chinese foot binding, fetishised due to Orientalism like in the cases of performers Anna May Wong and Josephine Baker. Western imperialism and the spread of eurocentric beauty standards for women has resulted in a billion-dollar skin bleaching industry in South Asia. Saartjie Baartman was a foundational figure in representations of black women’s bodies. She was exhibited in Victorian ‘freak’ shows, with an emphasis on her large buttocks. She refused to reveal her genitals when alive yet George Cuvier preserved her genitals and buttocks in jars (after her death) against her express wishes. They were on display in a Parisian museum until 1976 and this hyper-sexualisation and objectification of black female bodies continues today. These are all examples of women’s bodies that have been appropriated, culturally claimed for public consumption, sexualised and fragmented through reductive harm.

Susan Bordo states “female bodies become docile bodies – bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation”, which is what we see in Brabin’s case. She is forcibly demeaned and silenced, with her political power symbolically stripped as she becomes both a sexual object and a victim. There are prescribed roles for women in our culture and time: dutiful daughter, passive wife, sexual object or female victim. Powerful woman does not feature in this list. Tracy Brabin experiences direct retaliation due to her occupation; Bordo writes that “culture enjoins the aid of our bodies in the reproduction of gender” and its traditional boundaries. Society polices the female body in ways that it would never police the male body – seen in the differing expectations and judgements placed on Tracy Brabin and Boris Johnson.

Female bodies are never neutral sites. They are inevitably politicised as vehicles for social control, coded with a cultural identity and battlefields of power dynamics.  Tracy Brabin is not the only female MP to face unrequested comments on her clothing and body. Other examples include Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May, with the infamous 2017 Daily Mail front-page titled “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-It!” Inside the article read: “Finest weapons at their command? Those pins!” and Sturgeon’s legs were described as “flirty, tantalisingly crossed … a direct attempt at seduction”.

In my opinion, time would be much better spent criticising the reclining, male body of Jacob Rees Mogg in the Commons. This type of disregard and entitlement is truly disrespectful to the House of Commons, unlike Tracy Brabin’s clothing choices.

If interested in any of the subjects in this article, check out feminist body theorists like Susan Bordo and Carol J Adams who examine mainly modern culture. Film theorist Bell Hooks is also instrumental in examining the black female experience. Other feminist writers on body and agency include Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvoir and Monique Wittig. Fiction authors like Margaret Atwood write knowingly on the female body often through the lens of the above theory too. 

Other articles of note:

Shine: On Race, Glamour, and the Modern – Anne Cheng – PMLA journal on JSTOR

The meaning of Serena Williams – Claudia Rankine

Artwork by Steph Garratt.

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