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‘Light-hearted’ political coverage of women shouldn’t be an excuse for sexism

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Journalist and researcher Fiona McKay was invited to write an article on the media’s representation of women in politics as part of NUJ Scotland’s Stronger Voice for Women in the Media project.  She will be speaking at the project event next Wednesday April 19 (6-9pm).  She writes mainly for the Herald and Times Group and is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Strathclyde, looking at gendered media representations in Scottish politics.  The aim of the Stronger Voice project is to improve representation of women working in the media and how women are represented by the media.

“Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” said the Daily Mail’s staggeringly sexist front page, unabashedly splashing Theresa May’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s pins as the focal point in their coverage of talks about Brexit and a second Scottish referendum.

While there was a large degree of national outrage and media criticism (and rightly so), there was also an audible sigh and collective eye roll; surely as a nation, we should have moved on from this kind of gendered commentary, particularly around two of the UK’s top leaders?

As the Daily Mail later clarified in its second edition, this was supposed to be “light-hearted” take on the negotiations. Left-wing detractors were accused of lacking a sense of humour and “proportion”.

But proportion here is a key word when it comes to women, politics and the media. Nearly 100 years on from the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, women have yet to attain levels of representation matching one-third of elected MPs – in the 2015 election there were only 29% elected, which was a record high – and women fair even worse in other areas of UK politics including the House of Lords and local councils.

Researchers in this area have sought to find the reasons why uptake of female politicians is so slow. These range from supply (women who can and want to enter politics) and demand (the selection of women entering politics), across identifying the different obstacles that can affect low numbers, such as party selection processes, to lack of adequate childcare and other time/money pressures on women. Most do also acknowledge the over-arching role the media plays in this issue.

As shown by the reaction to the Daily Mail piece, there is a great deal of people who do acknowledge there are differences – and problematic ones at that – when it comes to how female politicians are represented in the media. This has something which has been in play since women’s emancipation and entry into the political realm.

An interesting study by Sarah Pedersen from Robert Gordon University shows how Scottish newspapers covered the suffragettes in early twentieth century Scotland. In it, she argues that this coverage, which had a pronounced focus on women’s body and appearance, has similarities with present day coverage. It’s still the same occupation with female politicians’ clothing choices and the same discussion about their domestic lives.

This is often seen as a hangover from women’s long-time association with the domestic realm, often seen as the opposite of the masculine, male-dominated world of politics, dominated by the “masculine” traits of strength and leadership. This goes some way to explain the different, gendered focus on some of this coverage.

In research of this field, scholars have used the term ‘double-bind’ to describe the problems women encounter in politics, which can also be traced in the media. This double bind is a kind of ‘damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t’ situation where women are obliged to balance the expectations around how they act as a politician and as a woman. For example, if a female politician is seen as having ‘masculine’ traits of leadership and toughness, she may be depicted in the media ;aggressive’, ‘manly’, a ‘bitch’ even, or on the flip side of this, she may be seen as too ‘girly’ or ‘soft’.

Similarly, this may also be in play in other ways, such as age (if she is too young, she’s too inexperienced; too old, she’s too weak) and motherhood (if she has children, she can’t fulfil her political duties; if not, she’s seen as an abnormality – see the Sunday Times’ sidebar of ‘childless politicians’ featuring six women for an example).

And then there is also the appearance double bind, which is perhaps the most prevalent. Here we can see how women in politics can either be trivialised by how good they look, or demonised for being plain. This propensity to focus on the looks of female politicians – who are seen as a novelty in many cases – can easily veer into sexualisation. We have seen at various points the likes of Nicola Sturgeon bikini-clad on a Miley Cyrus-type wrecking ball, the women of the new Tory cabinet being depicted as walking on a “Downing Street catwalk”, and all that boring coverage around women’s cleavages.

Though it may be difficult to prove the effect these depictions may have on young girls thinking about entering politics, it is hard to escape the idea that they are having some sort of effect. As Meryl Kenny, politics and gender lecturer at Edinburgh University and steering group member of the Women 5050 campaign has pointed out in the past, in considering how many women there are in the UK population, it’s difficult to imagine that there aren’t a few hundred of them competent enough to make up more than 29% of the parliament.

Of course it is counter-productive to put all this down to the media. Firstly, on many occasions they reflect wider attitudes. It was newsworthy to note Andrea Leadsom’s comments that being a mother would make her a better prime minister, and the media gave this reductive comment the rightful scrutiny it deserved. And on a more global scale, when for example someone like Silvio Berlusconi calls Angela Merkel an “unf*ckable lardarse”, such comments may be used productively to highlight that these attitudes are still prevalent for women in the highest positions.

However, there is merit in the media being more mindful of the subtler ways attitudes and double-binds may creep into how they are described. And these may not necessarily be seen as negative. For example, it is good to celebrate more women in politics. And certainly when someone like Nicola Sturgeon took the role of First Minister, there were much coverage around this as great progress for all women. But it’s important to know this can easily be turned on its head: if a woman is seen to fail in some way, she is often depicted as doing ‘all women’ in politics a disservice.

The more women who are in political roles, the better we get at recognising that women in politics are a diverse bunch: they have different background, political affiliations, have different achievements and failings. Then there is perhaps less room for the media to revert to old stereotypes, instead focusing on what female politicians are doing and saying, rather than their legs, and kids and husbands (or lack thereof).

The Daily Mail pointed out that it also makes fun of the appearance of male politicians like “Cameron’s waistline, Osborne’s hair, Corbyn’s clothes”. Yet these are often exceptions to the rule. It is also important to remember that male politicians don’t have the same historical legacy and stereotypes attached to them, so while talking about Boris Johnson’s hair and Nicola Sturgeon’s hair at the same time may appear like equal representation, images like this don’t happen in a bubble: we draw on a wealth of historical references points which again have different implications for men and women.

There is also merit in recognising that attitudes may be shifting where we start to see more women in politics. Scotland, for example, has a higher proportion of women in Holyrood than Westminster, with three main party leaders who are women. And there has also been differences in Scottish coverage when it comes to women in politics. The English edition of the Sun, for example, depicted Nicola Sturgeon astride that now-infamous wrecking ball, but this was absent from Scottish editions; instead it later featured her as Star Wars heroine Princess Leia. And the Scottish Daily Mail decided to forego Legs-it and instead opt for a slightly cooler: “Oh so frosty” comment about the talks. Of course we can hazard that there is a lot more to it than this, but it is certainly something worth noting. It all shows the need for ongoing scrutiny and sensitivity in this area. Political coverage doesn’t have to be “dull” and “po-faced”, but that doesn’t mean it has to be sexist.

For more information about the Stronger Voice project, contact



One thought on “‘Light-hearted’ political coverage of women shouldn’t be an excuse for sexism

  1. Pingback: A Stronger Voice for Women in the Media – event round-up | NUJ Scotland

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