Editor-At-Large: Superwoman is now dolled up as the supermissus

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The Independent Online

Forget WAGs: there is a new female royalty. They spend their time espousing worthy causes while dressing for maximum impact. They maximise every photo opportunity, they twitter and they blog; getting their man's message out is the name of the game, all in the name of PR. But, unlike their husbands, they've never stood for political office. In fact, they don't really have a proper job, in spite of being well educated and highly intelligent. Some might say they represent a giant step backwards for womankind. These leaders' wives are famous for being a Mrs – women with another man's name identifying them. I don't know about you, but this isn't what I've fought for in the name of equality.

In the past week, Sarah Brown decided that if she introduced her husband at the Labour Party conference, she could persuade us to vote for him. She put on an expensive dress, a pair of £350 shoes, and plastered on the make-up. She told us Gordon had his faults, but was wonderful, and had our interests at heart. A few days later, Michelle Obama left two daughters behind in Washington and flew to Copenhagen to make an impassioned speech to try to secure the 2016 Olympics for her home town, Chicago. Once again, a super-brainy woman was reduced to playing warm-up for her husband. Sadly, the thick dollop of schmaltz didn't work, and the president and his loyal wife flew home empty-handed: Chicago was eliminated and Rio de Janeiro took the prize.

This week, David Cameron will be parading his wife, Samantha, around the Conservative party conference. She was in the front row at the Burberry fashion show I attended the other week, sitting next to Emily Watson, an event so A-list there were hundreds of photographers and the media coverage was immense. It was part of the new way of selling politics: bring on the wives. With politicians being seen as a turn-off by most of the electorate, their wives are increasingly being moved centre stage. This is a new phenomenon, and it is bad news for ordinary women. Most of us crawled over broken glass to get promoted at work. We have encountered plenty of hurdles, in the form of middle-aged men, blocking our route upwards in so many workplaces. We are proud of our achievements, even though we are woefully under-represented in parliament and the boardroom. So how come these other women are happy to sublimate themselves into the modern version of the 1950s housewife? Come back Doris Day!

I thoroughly resent Sarah Brown telling us that Gordon "really cares", as if we can't decide for ourselves. This is a woman who has gradually shed her gutsy personality, her freewill and her judgement to morph into a professional wife, who sees her place as one step behind her man. Michelle Obama had a brilliant career, but now she's reduced to appearing on childrens' TV series such as Sesame Street, to encourage kids to grow vegetables. She says things like, "You know what, guys, if you eat these healthy seeds, you're going to grow up big and strong, just like me." Pass the sickbag. Sarah Brown hangs out with Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell. Michelle is best friends with Oprah. Sam Cam has got the Notting Hill set on her speed dial.

At the same time as Michelle Obama was tearily talking about sitting on her dad's knee to watch the Olympics, and instilling sporting values in her two girls, a sordid drama was unfolding on US television. Top chat show host David Letterman was confessing to serial adultery with female members of his staff, live to a studio audience in a show that was broadcast coast to coast. He did it only because he was being blackmailed and it would have emerged in the media anyway.

As much as Sarah, Michelle and Sam are cast in the new role of modern mum and superwife – the new renaissance woman – it is important to remember that actually very little has changed. Powerful men still have affairs with blonde young women. For all the talk of family values, there is a deep hypocrisy at work here. Men are happiest when women know their place – and that's one step behind them. Or undressed and available.

New blood: Matt Lucas does a good turn and puts bums on seats

Matt Lucas is a brave man. Not only has he shed three-and-a-half stone (and claims he plans to lose more) but his latest role requires that he prance about on stage wearing only some repulsive grey underpants and a cheap wig that resembles a sleeping ferret. It's a bravura performance, although some middle-aged American tourists in the audience when I went seemed unsure whether to laugh or be deeply shocked.

I'm mystified by the critics' lukewarm reaction to Prick Up Your Ears, Simon Bent's new play based on the doomed relationship between the depressive, deeply jealous Kenneth Halliwell (played by Matt) and the outrageous, highly talented writer Joe Orton (Chris New gives a great performance). We know the dénouement – Halliwell eventually bludgeoned his lover to death with a hammer before killing himself – but that doesn't detract from an entertaining evening. David Walliams took a big risk when he acted in a Pinter play, and now Matt has followed suit. Critics complain that Bent's play isn't as good as an Orton farce (Mathew Horne was a success in Entertaining Mr Sloane recently), but I disagree. David and Matt bring a new, younger audience into theatres – one that is badly needed and doesn't come loaded with the literary baggage of critics.

Naked Shields was the least of it

Tate Modern's new show Pop Life is a sprawling, confused mess. There's already been some controversy after the police paid a visit to the gallery and a work by the US artist Richard Prince, showing a 10-year-old Brooke Shields posing naked, was removed. In 1981, Ms Shields tried, unsuccessfully, to buy back the negatives from the session which her mother agreed to in 1975, hoping to launch her daughter as a child star. The image bothered me less than the ragbag of other exhibits – I was in the "adults only" room, looking at a picture of a giant penis entering a vagina, when a small, grey, middle-aged man walked past. I hardly recognised Jeff Koons, the owner of the willy in the picture. There's nothing here you haven't seen before. Avoid.

Shooting one's royal mouth off

Like his eldest son, Prince Philip erroneously believes that ordinary citizens welcome his opinions. In an interview in Shooting Times he whinges about the decline in village life. According to HRH, it's all the fault of the big supermarkets. "Villages used... to be more or less self-sufficient: they had a butcher, a baker and a shoemaker." He complains about commuters owning second homes, and holiday cottages that remain unoccupied. Finally, he moans about the UK population – 60 million, compared with three million in the reign of Elizabeth I. Pretty rich coming from a Greek bloke who has four palaces at his disposal. What rural fantasy is he trying to recall? Villages might have been self-sufficient in the 1850s – but half the inhabitants had no education or healthcare and, if poor, didn't live long. Village life needs protecting, but it must also reflect 21st-century realities.