The pun is based on “Lexit”, the portmanteau referring to the left-wing case for leaving the European Union, but too few of the Daily Mail’s readers will recognise that. The already infamous “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” headline that accompanies a rather staid shot of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon in ordinary mid-length skirt suits and court shoes operates on a different level, and one which the Mail has been expert in exploiting for decades: the female tendency to compare one woman with another.
For all the handwringing about a return to the dark ages of male-dominated news reporting (Yvette Cooper rather wittily remarked on Twitter after seeing the front page of the paper that she thought the clocks had “gone forward this weekend, not 50 years back”), there is something even more concerning at play than a bunch of macho suit-wearing hacks apparently ogling at the limbs of two senior women in British politics.
The Daily Mail is a predominantly female newspaper in terms of its readership. In fact, it is the only national newspaper that has more female readers (somewhere between 52 and 55 per cent, according to surveys) than male. It’s not men who are lapping up these regressive perspectives on women in leadership positions; or, at least, we can say that it’s not only the men. And it was a woman – Sarah Vine – who wrote the piece which carried the offending headline.
It is true, as complainants have said, that political journalism is a frustratingly male-dominated profession; it is also true that there are more men than women in senior editorial positions in newspaper journalism. It is likely, though I don’t know if it is inevitable, that a man signed off that front page. But that doesn’t mean that a female journalist would not have made the same call. Quite the contrary.
It might be an uncomfortable truth to many, but it is women who want to read (and often to write) such pieces; it is women who were motivated to hand over a few silver coins in the newsagent with that deeply old-fashioned headline.
The question is: why? Why would women countenance such a facile response to a news story as important as the two leaders of the largest countries in our union meeting to discuss its possible breakup?
One possible answer is that many women, perhaps the majority, simply do not care about the ways in which such an article objectifies women and reduces their professional achievements by concentrating only on the most basic of analyses (how they present themselves physically in front of the gathering press). That’s an answer I find wholly unconvincing. Women do care about objectification; if nothing else, the international success of the Everyday Sexism project, which gathers examples of daily remarks women face at work, at home and in their social lives, demonstrates that.
Another answer is that women know that they are judged in myriad ways on their own appearance and therefore believe that those who choose to enter public life – particularly women, who are most likely to face scrutiny based on choice of clothing, hairstyle and the like – knew exactly what they were getting into when they put themselves in front of the cameras. Just like the chitchat over Theresa May’s collection of kitten heels, they may say, this is a bit of harmless fun that both parties willingly signed up to. Indulging in the guilty pleasure of asking “who wore it best” is a victimless pastime. And it sells papers.
The saddening thing about this analysis is that so many women, particularly those outside those professional metropolitan jobs where certain codes of conduct are now expected in the workplace, are simply not exempt from such scrutiny because they work in, say, a provincial tax office rather than the Westminster corridors of power.
While female readers pore over today’s analysis of the positioning of leg and skirt hem, believing this is what women in senior positions accept as part of the job, the same judgements are being made about them time and again, in more subtle but often far more pernicious ways. By consuming journalism and culture that perpetuates such regressive attitudes, they are – entirely unwittingly – making their own lives much more difficult.
Every woman (and every man) is a collection of contradictions. It is quite possible, for example, to be both deeply engaged in the minutiae of public policy-making and yet still to enjoy browsing the pages of Vogue – a magazine in which both May and Sturgeon have appeared, as defenders of the “Legs-it” headline pointed out – and wondering which blazer you might splash out on for spring. One does not undermine the other. As prospective Liberal Democrat candidate Daisy Benson wrote in response: “I’ve had a subscription to Vogue longer than I’ve been a party member. Amazing as it may seem. I’ve discovered it is possible to a) keep more than one thought in my head at a time, b) hold down a job, c) pursue a political career and d) maintain a healthy interest in fashion.”
Yet our culture creates little room for that complexity. That is true for men too, but it is particularly obvious in the presentation of women on television or in journalism, or even within social circles. How many have been labelled the “serious one”, the “sporty one” or the “silly one”?
Seen in this light, it is more remarkable that a headline such as “Who won Legs-it” caused any controversy at all than it is surprising it can still be published in the year 2017. The Daily Mail did not singlehandedly create the sexist culture in which we live; it reflects it back upon itself. And it is one of the best-selling publications in the country.
While I personally am appalled at the implications of that headline running on the front page of a daily newspaper – judging the state of two women’s legs is more interesting than the conversation they held about the future of the United Kingdom – the answer to tackling such misogyny is not simply to criticise one newspaper for one silly headline. It is to question all the ways and all the places in which women are asked to present themselves simplistically: as either body or brains, as political or physical.
It is this inability to look above the superficial that is perpetuating small acts of misogyny all over the country, and in many of the lives of the women who so eagerly purchased the Daily Mail today.
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