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Media coverage of Theresa May has been sexist and infantilising

13 Jun , 2017  

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A week is a long time in politics. Far from the resounding victory that Theresa May imagined when she called last week’s snap general election, she’s been left with a hung Parliament, reliant on the regressive Democratic Unionist Party to pass votes. Jeremy Corbyn must be laughing all the way to the allotment.

Yet, instead of celebrating the inevitable demise of May, there’s been a considerable outcry in the liberal press of people who purport to feel a degree of sympathy. Maybe there’s a lot to feel sorry for – in the cutthroat Conservative Party, she’s unlikely to hold onto her job for long and she’s in for a thrashing over the coming months – but considering her position on key issues, this seems like a bit of a reach. She is after all the same politician who told a visibly upset nurse that there’s no ‘magic money tree’ to fund the NHS, she is the person who is responsible for the detention and state-sanctioned abuse of women at Yarl’s Wood and she has also been credited as wanting to create a ‘hostile environment‘ for immigrants and asylum seekers.

It’s not hard to come to the conclusion that this sympathy may stem from the fact of her gender. After all, the media has made a point of May’s ‘daring’ sartorial choices and her position as a vicar’s daughter for a duration long outspanning that of the campaign. Pair this with the obsession with prefixing her when addressing her – think of how many times you’ve heard ‘Mrs. May’ compared to just plain ‘Corbyn’ – and the little woman trope may be having an effect.

Journalist Jane Merrick tweeted: ‘You can hate her politics & be glad she’s lost her majority but we should remember the tough week May has had, & ask whether we could do it.’ In addition, media reports from the day after election night had mentions of May crying prior to meeting with advisers. I can’t be alone in doubting that such an emotion-led take would take centre-stage should she have been a male Prime Minister.

I’m loathe to ask whether Corbyn was afforded such an empathetic take when the whole of the press and half of the Parliamentary Labour Party has been out for his guts – for the best part of the last two years. Or why David Cameron was left to flounder without a pat on the head when his decision to facilitate the Brexit referendum led to his calamitous resignation. If we want to go back a bit further, Gordon Brown’s stoic turn as PM following the global financial crash was met with little more than widespread derision, from both the left and the right.

From an anecdotal point of view, scrolling down my social media feeds it appears to be predominantly women who are defending May following the election results. And while it is vital for women and girls to see other women rise through the ranks, it’s infantilising not to hold a supposedly competent and powerful woman to the same standards that men are held to. If that means taking full accountability for a disastrous career decision – which May has notably not done so yet – then so be it. When a woman has risen to the top by shooting down other women, particularly marginalised, disabled, poor and BAME women, then surely the ranks of female solidarity should close their doors even further.

To absolve May of the blame for plunging the UK into electoral doubt possibly necessitating another election this year, is a condescending and palpably gender-based piece of positioning based on a narrative of incompetence and pity. It’s yet to be seen what unfolds over the coming days, but one thing we can say with certainty is that this is not what feminism looks like.


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