Let’s talk about Theresa May’s shoes

BY AMRIT DHILLON| IN Media Practice | 15/07/2016
The appearance of British women politicians is dissected with a sexism that is mercifully unthinkable in India, so far.
AMRIT DHILLON on the UK press’ merciless appraisal of women

Pix: Google search---lots of photos of Theresa May's shoes and clothes


In matters of sexual equality, sections of the British press like to think they are indisputably superior to poor, benighted India with its ‘rape culture’ and ‘degradation’ of women.  They sneer at India de haut en bas. Their commentaries drip with contempt. Yet look at the UK press, in particular the tabloids, and look at how, in contrast, the Indian media’s treatment of women politicians is almost devoid of the relentless scrutiny, savage appraisal and merciless dissection of their physical appearance which characterize British reporting.

The elevation of Theresa May to Prime Minister has exposed the sexism that is ingrained in many papers and commentators. At once, the scrutiny kicked in, the kind of scrutiny reserved exclusively for women in public life. But before we come to that, it was, sadly, another woman, her rival Andrea Leadsom, who perpetrated the worst crime by invoking the patriarchal nonsense that a woman who is a mother is naturally more concerned about the long term future than a childless woman like May (who wanted children but was unable to have them).

The comment, made in an interview to the Times, was ugly and retrogressive. Leadsom said she would make a better prime minister than May because she has children and May does not and this gives her a ‘very real stake’ in the future of the country.

This is an old inanity. It posits childless women as strange and unpleasant because they have not fulfilled their primary role of procreation.  No such comment is ever made about a male politician remaining childless. Nor would a male politician ever suggest he is better for the job of prime minister because he is a father. He has no need to make such assertions because he is taken on his merits and not on his fatherhood.

Leadsom’s remark rightly triggered a backlash which caused her to resign from the race. But this kind of vilification of women over their reproductive status will not end. Earlier this week actress Jennifer Aniston took to venting in the Huffington Post  because she was so sick of false reports that she was pregnant and of her belly being photographed and discussed every time it appeared to bulge slightly. It is a given that the media must perforce project Aniston as an object of pity because, despite her beauty, fame and talent and the ‘advanced’ age of 47, she is not yet a mother.

May and Aniston are just two examples. Every female celebrity and woman in public life in Britain (and elsewhere) is subjected to the same forensic examination, body part by body part, from their hair, mouth, teeth, skin, eyebrows and neck to the breasts, thighs, buttocks, and legs. Even the humble knee is not exempt. The Daily Mail routinely carries stories comparing famous women’s knees to point out which ones are bony and which are pleasingly smooth and round.

So here we are, 67 years after Simone de Beavoir’s The Second Sex, 53 years after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, 46 years after Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and a full 26 years after Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, women are still subjected to the same toxic standard of beauty that demeans them and locks them in a permanent and vicious neurosis of anxiety and insecurity. As Gloria Steinem once said sardonically: ‘All women are Bunnies’.

Thankfully, we are not in such a pathetic state in India. Of course, female celebrities’ appearance is commented on but not with anything like the same degree of ferocity, intensity and micro-detail. The other difference is that while female politicians in Britain suffer the same degrading treatment as celebrities, their counterparts in India are treated with considerably more dignity.

Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee’s unmarried and childless state is not discussed (had they been British, they would long ago have been humiliated as sexually frustrated spinsters). The most that is said about Mamata’s appearance, if anything, is her penchant for traditional Bengal saris and in Sonia Gandhi’s case, her preference for handloom saris. With Mayawati, there used to be much private snickering about her handbag and synthetic suits but no one dared to do a feature on the topic in excruciating detail and accompanied by pictures.  

No one writes about Sushma Swaraj’s generous waist or Vasundhara Raje’s ample chin (by mentioning these features I am guilty of the offence of which I write but in this context it may not deserve a hanging). Much nonsense is written about Priyanka Gandhi but the media does not carry a major story every time she changes her hairstyle. Contrast that with Hilary Clinton, another woman whose physique has been analysed down to her ankles): ‘If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle’. So much for the intellectual depth of the Western press.

Ever since May threw her hat into the ring for the prime ministerial job, her clothes, shoes and unsexy appearance have been commented on.  I haven’t seen the word ‘unsexy’ used as that would be too crude but the phrase ‘the daughter of a vicar’ acts as a sort of code.  Writing in the Daily Mail, controversial columnist Katie Hopkins was more explicit:  ‘Despite the massive row that did it for Leadsom over whether being a mum makes you a better candidate for Number Ten, I have to admit Grey May does look like a woman who keeps cats. (). A woman who keeps cats, ie a sad woman who has no children and probably isn’t having much sex.  

A woman like May can’t win. Either she is as dull as a flannel nightie or, if she tries wearing snazzy shoes, as she did in 2002 when she wore some leopard print shoes to the Tory Party conference, she has to endure intense media coverage with even The Guardian meowing .

A similar pair of shoes worn on 12 July this year attracted comment too by most newspapers. . Last year, the Daily Mail devoted an entire article to her shoe collection.

Please note: this is the Home Secretary they were talking about, in fact, the longest serving Home Secretary since 1892. Being the occupant of one of the great offices of state is no protection against the trivialization of women. Nor is this trivialization limited to the tabloids. In the past, the Daily Telegraph has also carried articles on May’s shoes and clothes, as it did on this week too , just befor she was named prime minister.

But their focus on her shoes and clothes was small beer compared with the eruption of sexist comment that followed May’s appearance in the House of Commons on budget day last year wearing a top that showed a bit of cleavage.  So saturating was the coverage that it prompted an equal storm on social media with one Twitter user posting at one point: ‘I think Theresa May may have just broke the internet.’

Not in recent history have a woman politician’s breasts been so extensively and exhaustively debated. Feminists were stunned. As one tweeted: ‘Seriously, women have breasts, people. Even if they’re Home Secretary.And even if they are over 40’. May’s cleavage almost pushed the Chancellor’s budget off the front pages.

Here, there is not much chance of Sushma Swaraj’s pallu ever slipping because of the sturdy waistcoats she usually wears over her saris but imagine, if you will, that one day it slipped, allowing a flash of cleavage while, seated next to her, Arun Jaitley droned on sonorously about the budget. People would laugh about the incident at home but put it on the front page? Never. At least, not yet.

No doubt the Indian media has gone through a dumbing down in recent years but compared with the UK’s tabloids, we come across as particle physicists. And compared with the reflexive and rampant sexism of the UK press, we aren’t doing too badly. The day that India’s most senior woman politician is discussed under headlines such as the ‘busty budget’ and ‘boob-boosting push-up bra’ - as May was for her low neckline - we will know we have fallen into the gutter. But we’re not there yet.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi.

The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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