Societal progress moves at a glacial pace. Sexism didn’t go away when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and it’s still with us even though Teresa May now occupies Number 10 Downing Street.
Still, it’s interesting (to me, at least) to watch our societal attitudes change, even at the quantum level. In fact, I think it is particularly worthwhile to note the most granular changes in our discourse: in this case, how we talk about women and men.
Many people have shared this article by Nicole Morely in the Metro: ‘Theresa May’s husband steals the show in sexy navy suit as he starts new life as First Man‘.
Of course it’s a satire on two related media practices of recent years: a focus on Samantha Cameron’s fashion choices; and the obsession with Mrs May’s shoes.
I have a couple of notes.
The first is that this is a joke whose time has come. In recent years, complaints about the way women are reported by the media have become louder and more frequent. People highlight the double-standards in many ways: remember, during London 2012, that widely shared article ‘What if every Olympic sport were photographed like beach volleyball‘? Remember Scarlett Johansson calling out sexist questions during an Avengers press conference?
How come you get the really interesting existential question, and I get the like, ‘rabbit food’ question?
All these call-outs are rightly shared on social media. At the time, Re-Tweeting and Fav-Hearting and Facebook Liking and Re-Vining may not seem like a big deal, and it’s easy to dismiss these cultural micro-acts as superficial. But in aggregate, it is this stream of call-outs that put us into the mental ‘habit’ of thinking about the messages our media disseminate.
We have now reached a tipping point where highlighting the contradictions becomes obvious, and the mainstream media gets in on the act. Morely wasn’t the only person to make the joke: I just heard a version of the joke on this week’s Dead Ringers too. A welcome consensus is forming and it has been catalysed by social media.
I think political reporters will, for the most part, refrain from talking about Mrs May’s shoes. One hopes they will recognise that to do so would not only be sexist but would propagate a tedious cliché.
Because the most important thing about a Prime Minister who is a woman is her shoes pic.twitter.com/3m4HYfpWPm
— Robert Sharp रॉबट शारप (@robertsharp59) July 12, 2016
Having said that, some nagging thoughts remain.
Note how remarking on the fashion choices of a middle-aged man is obvious satire. There is no serious discussion of Philip May’s clothes because they are exactly the same as every other man’s clothes. Even conservatively dressed women are remarked upon if they show up wearing the same dress, or even a similar colour, to another woman.
When women do adopt a highly conservative and traditionally masculine style of dress, that too becomes remarkable.
So the fact that the media might show restraint in discussing shoes or outfits of our politicians may not address the underlying inequality.
There is also this consideration, from Vouge editor Anna Wintour, discussing Hilary Clinton’s decision to decline an invite of a photoshoot:
Imagine my amazement, when I learned Hillary Clinton…had decided to steer clear of our pages…for fear of looking too feminine. The notion that a woman must look mannish in order to be a seeker of power is frankly dismaying. This is America, not Saudi Arabia.
Another consideration is this: Fashion is a form of design and is immensely interesting and important. The debate around politicians clothes is tinged with the idea that sartorial choices are inherently frivolous. I am not sure we should accept this.
How to square this circle? A while ago, I read something interesting about fashion, culture and sexism in India. The author and the link now escape me, but the central point does not. Discussing the apparent obligation on Indian women to continue wearing saris in order to ‘preserve their culture’, the writer pointed out that this obligation always seems to fall on the women. Meanwhile, Indian men wear jeans and generic business suits. Perhaps, said the author, the men should do their bit by deploying more kurtas or sherwanis or whatever and let the women wear the jeans.
So perhaps a way out of the sexism is for us to take male fashion, and what it says about our culture, a little more seriously. For too long we’ve ceded this ground to the hipsters with their beards and skinny jeans. Philip May is now our nation’s most prominent Person To Be Seen But Not Heard, a man in late middle-age who is far removed from the young avant guarde. How he presents himself is actually a very good indicator of culture in this country. I say we should continue to discuss his sartorial choices… but with our tongues firmly out of our cheeks.
Hah! Right on cue, this: