Why Ségolène Royal is right about décolletage

If she did indeed argue that professional women working in her ministry should avoid flashing the flesh, was that really such an outrageous thing to suggest?

 

Share

In what has been the perfect episode from the British perspective Ségolène Royal, a senior minister in France’s socialist government, has allegedly issued a decree against women working in her department wearing low-cut, cleavage-revealing dresses.

How we have all laughed. “Shame on you, Ségolène!” wrote one female columnist. “You live in a society where female style is second to none and to carp about what (younger) women wear sounds catty and disloyal.”

There have been endless (catty) mentions of the minister’s age, and of the fact that she was once President Hollande’s partner. Old photographs in which the Royal poitrine is clearly visible have been gleefully published.

Here, in fact, is a soft news story with everything the British press could want: loony leftism, the French, and breasts.

Yet if Ségolène Royal did indeed argue that professional women working in her ministry should avoid flashing the flesh, was that really such an outrageous thing to suggest? It is an odd fact of modern life that the most heroically feminist of women can cheerfully appear at work – in politics, on TV, in offices across the country – dressed to kill in clothes which, in various clinging, lifting, peek-a-boo ways, are designed accentuate the wearer’s physical desirability.

Men like it, of course, and presumably so do the women themselves. The generally accepted view is that, even in a society which likes to think that it is egalitarian, working life is made just that little bit more bearable by the occasional tug of hopeless desire in the office, the opportunity to drift off into an inappropriate fantasy during a meeting. Is it, though, entirely in keeping with the basic tenets of feminism?

Imagine how we would all react if, in order to steal a march on Nigel Farage in the recent televised debates on Europe, Nick Clegg had swished on to the stage in skinny, buttock-clinging chinos with a bulging posing-pouch to enhance his intimate proportions and chest-hair sprouting manfully from his tight, open-necked shirt.

It is a horrible thought. No male politician, with the dubious exceptions of Vladimir Putin and Lembit Opik, have gone out of their way to accentuate their sexual attractiveness – indeed, the fashion is for a statesmanlike sexlessness. Anything else would undermine the required air of seriousness and responsibility.

Yet when a female politician steps up the despatch box in the House of Commons with the top part of her breasts exposed (Jacqui Smith) or teeters on to a party conference platform in what used to be known as fuck-me shoes (Theresa May), it is the men who dare to gawp and giggle who are held in contempt. How neanderthal, we all say. How childish and tediously sexist.

Not that the Royal argument against women dressing sexily for work excuses the sort of male oafishness which, according Germaine Greer, interviewed for Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes, to be broadcast on BBC2 next month, is if anything getting worse. “Nowadays women expect to share men’s lives, they want to do the same work, they want to play the same games, they want to have the same social life, and I think it’s driving men nuts.”

Some men, Germaine: the stupid, the fearful, the sexually insecure, the pornified. There are a lot of them around. As Laura Bates’s admirable Everyday Sexism Project has shown, women and girls are daily subjected to small acts of male prejudice and bullying. What was once widely dismissed as a bit of banter or innocent if uninvited flirting is now recognised for what it is – an unattractive expression of the perceived power of men over women.

Because sexism still exists, the way influential women present themselves in professional life is all the more important. The argument for equality of opportunity in the workplace is weakened if politicians, TV presenters and even feminist polemicists continue to play the very game of which they disapprove. When young women are encouraged to use their sexuality as part of their professional armoury at work – perhaps somehow to even out the inbuilt gender imbalance – it is an admission of defeat. They are being told to exploit their own kind of inequality.

The argument behind the Everyday Sexism Project is straightforward. “Everything is connected,” Laura Bates has written. “Inequality is a continuum, with the minor and major incidents irrevocably related to one another as the attitudes and underlie one allow the other to flourish.”

No one could seriously deny that continuum of small and large, of cause and effect, but it works for both genders. Just as there is for men a clear division between self-presentation at work and at a party or at the pub, so the same should be true for women.

If attitudes are to change, it may be men who are going to have to most of the growing up, but intelligent, powerful women need to play their part. The sexy office dress, a bit of thigh-flashing during a TV interview, dolling oneself up before an important political statement: they are all, in their way, part of everyday sexism, too.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own