In which everyday sexism depresses me

Today, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, reshuffled his Cabinet in preparation for next year’s General Election. There was a lot of speculation that he would up the number of women in his inner circle, as he’s previously promised, and this is exactly what he did.

The media, desperate to stir up controversy whenever it can, and having spent the previous weeks muttering that Cameron wouldn’t have a good enough pool of women to choose from to be able to follow through, was probably disappointed that he succeeded in the end. Deprived of feasting on a failure of this sort, it was forced to stir things up by intimating that the women chosen might have been just for show. We really can’t win. Either we are too crap to appoint, or – if appointed – we must only have appointed to fulfill a quota. Of course there is no way that we women could actually have been chosen for our abilities.

Today’s coverage in the London Evening Standard was shocking. The male subjects who were profiled had standard bios – career highs and lows, nothing about their personal lives. Michael Gove was said to have “one of the most acute political brains of his generation”, while Philip Hammond apparently has “a hard edge” and set up his own companies at a very young age.

The profiles of the three women who’d been promoted, although containing factual and some complimentary descriptions, all mentioned their marital status and how many children they had. The unmarried woman – Esther McVey – was singled out for special treatment. In the West End final version of the paper, there were not one but two photos of her, one as a young TV presenter in a revealing crop-top and skin-tight satin trousers, and the other as she was this morning, the wind blowing up her otherwise respectable business skirt such that the slit parted and revealed a bit of thigh. In the text, of all the thousands of phrases she’s ever uttered in her time on GMTV, the journalist chose one in which she mentioned sex, and readers are also helpfully informed that she once flashed her underwear on air. Most disturbingly, she has an entire paragraph about her relationship status that would not be out of place in a gossip column. In it, we learn that although she’s “unmarried”, she’s been “linked” with two prominent men, one of whom proposed marriage. (One cannot help suddenly picturing her as a feisty Lizzy Bennet, spurning not only Mr Collins’ advances, but Mr Darcy’s as well!) Coyly, the piece concludes that she “shares a flat” with a male MP, and allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

Now, I occasionally write copy for magazines and papers, and I know that every word matters. You whittle down the essence so that only the most important information makes the cut. Devoting two of five paragraphs to sex, knickers and which men she’s sleeping with is not an accident: the editor wanted dirt, and got it.

Okay, so they need to sell papers. Fine. But if you’re going to have tawdry irrelevances in your political news coverage, why don’t the men get the same treatment? I’m sure we’re all dying to hear more about whether Mr Gove wears briefs or boxers, and who Mr Hammond may or may not have snogged at the last Christmas party.

Come on, Evening Standard. Up your game.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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20 Responses to In which everyday sexism depresses me

  1. Steve Caplan says:

    Which prompts me to ask: is there any data on the proportion of male vs female readers of this London Evening (Sub-)Standard newspaper? In other words, if it’s catering to low-level male readers (or perhaps those who at least look at the pictures), are women still buying the paper? Or is there an air of nonchalant acceptance by women in the UK?

  2. The Standard is a well-respected paper read primarily by professional Londoners – it’s distributed free of charge at all Tube and bus stations during prime home commuter time. It’s going to be about 50/50 on the gender readership front. The Standard doesn’t usually cater to the lowest common denominator – like most commuter papers, it has the obligatory gossip/celeb section, but its news is award-winning. I’ve since seen that other papers were a lot worse, focusing largely on the new Cabinet member’s fashion sense.

  3. Dave Fernig says:

    Anecdotal observation of newspaper readers is rather depressing. As depressing as the data showing that sales of the Sun did not go anywhere near zero in Liverpool after Hillsborough, though they did decline. The hardly subliminal message is being pounded in, affecting aspirations, achievement and grossly reducing our capacity for economic and social development.

  4. cromercrox says:

    I shall not thank you for implanting the thought of Michael Gove in his underwear. This cannot now be unthought.

    The Evening Subtandard is from the same stable as the Daily Nimbyist Bungaloid Curtain-Twitcher, also known as the Daily Immigrants Cause Cancer. The fact that it is distributed free – when you once had to pay 50p for it – says something, I think.

    However, I shouldn’t be too hard on the Evening Fish and Chip Paper (did I say hard on? – Lawdy Hush Mah Mouth, but, hey, that Liz Truss, she’s a bit of goer, phwoar) . There is bugger all else to talk about in politics these days. The government has all but tied up its legislative program and will spend the remaining ten months or so of its term twiddling its thumbs. In which case it hardly matters that Mr Gove’s replacement, who is indeed a female person of the opposite sex, is in fact a right-wing homophobe, for the whole exercise is about image – it is designed specifically to appeal to the large female audience of the Daily Nimbyist Cerebellar Carcinoma who read its women’s section (‘Femail’) and likely to vote Tory. And it is this audience which will eagerly lap up every detail of the marital status and sexual armadilloes of the newer XX’s in the cabinet.

  5. If there’s nothing else to talk about, surely men’s sexual and personal antics are fair game too. Especially if you think female Mail readers are also reading the Standard – if anything that’s grounds for having more tittle-tattle about the blokes. (But having commuted on the Tube most days for the best part of 15 years – dear God, how depressing – I stand by my statement that the Standard is probably the most equally read fish wrap in Britain. The Metro would be the other. Because you’re a captive audience in there and commuters are pretty gender-equivalent in numbers.)

  6. cromercrox says:

    You weren’t in England, I think, during the final and sorry months of John Major’s administration, so you won’t remember the tales of the prostitute living in the basement of one Tory minister – or of how another minister, David Mellor, could only get it up with his mistress when he was wearing a Chelsea football shirt.

  7. cromercrox says:

    … my point being that perhaps the sexual and personal antics of the male members are really, really boring; that given that the female appointees haven’t done much yet aprt from being appointed, there is little else to discuss about them; and if you were a resident of Norfolk you’d know that Liz Truss has had a very steamy past indeed, and in Norfolk we cling onto every crumb of tittle-tattle as hard as we can (I use the term ‘members’ advisedly, stop tittering at the back, Grant)

  8. cromercrox says:

    And don’t call me ‘Shirley’.

  9. rpg says:

    perhaps the sexual and personal antics of the male members are really, really boring

    Unless, perhaps, one is a Chelsea supporter?

    But your thesis doesn’t hold (or worse, is irrelevant). The marital status and number of children for each woman was reported. And for none of the men.

    If it’s interesting for one, it’s interesting for the other. Otherwise it’s blatant, unashamed sexism that does no more than reinforce the idea that women should stay at home and look after the kids, because, really, that’s all we care about.

  10. Dave Fernig says:

    Not to be paranoid, but perhaps this is also an excellent example of “panem et circenses”. Surely strong doses of blatant, unashamed sexism allied to regular shots of phwoar and the private lives of politicians serves to reduce to zero the readers’ engagement in critical thinking and examination of evidence.

  11. Cromercrox says:

    Point taken – however, I contend that establishing the number of children of male politicians is much harder than you might think and mistakes could lead to litigation (runs away)

  12. cromercrox says:

    I am also inclined to wonder whether the application of some perspective is in order. Yes, the Evening SubStandard is mildly sexist in its depiction of female politicians. Agreed. But so what? But we live in a country with a free press, in which we are free to say what we like, without fear of being carted away in the middle of the night for doing so. At least, unlike the Grauniad, the Substandard wasn’t abusing that freedom by telling lies to support its political stance.

    Yesterday, Crox Minor phoned me from Israel, where she is on an organised tour, to say (among other things) that she’d had a lovely conversation with an Arab girl of her age who, like her, wanted to be a doctor. Now, I contend that whereas Crox Minor and her interlocutrix might suffer some mild sexism, being women interested in a career in the sciences, they wouldn’t do so while running the risk that at any moment their house might be bombed flat.

  13. rpg says:

    Ah, the Dawkins fallacy. “While worse things are going on, you can’t complain about sexism.”

  14. cromercrox says:

    I’m not saying one shouldn’t complain. Just that one should have a sense of proportion. Thank His Noodliness that in this country girls can go to school, and that women have the vote, and we have female MPs at all whose sex lives we can wonder at, for there are countries in the world in which girls cannot go to school, women cannot vote, and cannot be MPs.

    If that fallacy was named after Dawkins, the effect is that all its sting is removed – the whole of The God Delusion is based on a category error which the dimmest philosophy student could and should have grasped at once.

  15. rpg says:

    Setting aside the Douglas Adams defence (total perspective vortex, qv), well, yes, I think that a rant on a blog is an entirely appropriate and proportional response in these matters.

    I mean, Jenny took great pains NOT to strap an IED under her burka and attempt to take out half of Wapping.

  16. cromercrox says:

    No, I agree. If you can’t rant on a blog, where can you rant? I mean, you have to mind your Ps and Qs at football grounds these days. As for Islamic dress, I think it’s a good thing. Especially in the current heatwave.

  17. Laurence Cox says:

    I had hoped that the BTL comments here would not have sunk as low as the original article Jennifer complained about. Unfortunately Cromercrox seems to be bent on repeating Max Clifford’s calumny about the Chelsea football strip, which Clifford was forced to admit in court he had fabricated to sell the story about David Mellor to the tabloids.

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