When it comes to Theresa May in the press, sexism means sexism

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Theresa May gave a really important speech yesterday. But don't worry about that. Let's talk about her clothes. Oh, and does she remind you of anyone? 

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By Marisa Bate on

Yesterday, when Theresa May gave her speech, she could have announced World War Three. Or the next space race to the moon which would involve planting of a sign reading: “refugees not welcome here”. She could have announced a ban on freedom of speech or voting rights for women. She could have proclaimed the end of the world was about to arrive, introducing Mike Pence to the stage riding a white stallion. But if she had actually done any of those things (or even all of those things), the British media would still be obsessed with what she was wearing. 

In turns out that what May was saying was exceptionally significant, funnily enough, what with her being the Prime Minister and all. After months of wondering what “Brexit means Brexit" actually means, May has set out a 12 point plan for Britain’s stance on trade deals with the EU. 

But don’t worry about that! What you *really* need to know was that Theresa May was wearing a Vivienne Westwood suit, as The Times points out (with price) on their front page (they are, after all, the home of #trousergate). Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has announced the arrival of the “brop” – half bob, half crop apparently. “With trousers billowing”, wrote Quentin Letts, “she was a carpet buyer in a souk”. Eh? Europe’s a souk which May has swept into like Captain Jack Sparrow, propelled by her “billowing” Vivienne Westwood suit? Am I missing something? 


The echoing of Thatcher in May’s “steel” is explicitly about women’s behaviour and, lo and behold, there’s more than one woman in the world who’s prepared to make a stance or demands (as I should bloody hope so)


I saw May speak in London at the Women in the World festival in 2016. (Not to be confused with Jude Kelly’s Women of the World festival. This is the showier, corporate version where tickets cost mega bucks and it felt somewhat appropriate for May’s problematic branch of feminism). Anyway, May was quick to brush aside questions of sexism and media scrutiny about what she wears. Mostly, she seems to give zero fucks and I have little doubt that Theresa May would rather us be talking about her trousers than the very serious calamities over which she now presides; like Brexit, the NHS and Boris Johnson. My theory is that her leopard print kitten heels and her statement necklaces are a smart distraction, a cunning ruse. We’re all too busy looking at her feet or fighting over leather trousers to notice that the government has just completely fucked over students or that she still won’t do anything about Yarl’s Wood. Even her reported upcoming appearance in American Vogue (possibly on the cover), I’m sure, has bugger all to do with fashion, and far more to do with positioning herself on a global, more culturally relevant stage. 

There was of course another question put to her when I saw her being interviewed by Tina Brown in London last year: how did she feel about the Margaret Thatcher comparisons? And again, May was quick to brush that off; she doesn't “believe in role models” or comparisons. She is resolutely her own person. (That was exceptionally believable at the time. Now, in 2017, as Prime Minister, Theresa Maybe does’t quite seem so sturdy on her feet). 

There is, of course, an inevitability that May will be compared to Thatcher – and not just because she’s a woman. All modern Conservatives leaders are. Thatcher’s cast a long shadow over British politics and society as a whole, so it’s not surprising that her shadow looms largest over her own party. Thatcher claimed there was no such thing as society; May says we must live in a shared society. This is a major evolution of Conservatism and that warrants a comparison, in my opinion. 

But as the Mail boomed in the big black letters of its front page this morning: STEEL OF THE NEW IRON LADY, I don’t believe it came from shrewd political analysis. Yes, Thatcher was notoriously fierce, and yes, this is May’s toughest stance on Brexit to date, but the mention on an Iron Lady seems only to reiterate the surprise and unease when women behave in what has been typically characterised as male. The echoing of Thatcher in May’s “steel” is explicitly about women’s behaviour and, lo and behold, there’s more than one woman in the world who’s prepared to make a stance or demands (as I should bloody hope so).

We know May is tough; be it because of her firing of Cameron allies like Osborne when she became party leader or because of her banging her head on a desk in frustration as she confessed to on Desert Island Discs. But moulding May into the Ghost of Thatcher past is the most reductive, lazy and unhelpful type of sexism. It roughly translates to: “You’re a woman in politics with a tough outlook – and therefore you can only ever be a hazy mirage of another woman. Because women are there to be categorised, to be either/ors; to be binaries in man-friendly boxes. So let’s talk about her clothes, let’s compare her to another woman, because we’re not really sure what else to do and anything else makes us all feel a bit…uncomfortable…”

May’s clothes are entirely irrelevant to the future of the UK economy, (who would have thought?!) but your political beliefs surrounding May should be equally irrelevant when it comes to the British media. We have to hold the press accountable for this sort of rhetoric. Because as long as we reduce our female Prime Minster to her wardrobe or simply being “bloody difficult”, we’re a long bloody way from encouraging more bloody difficult women to enter Westminster.

So while we’re still figuring what Brexit means Brexit actually means, we sure as hell know that Sexism means Sexism means Sexism.


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women in the media
Theresa May

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