I quite like it when newspapers celebrate some anniversary or other by issuing their latest print with a cover from yesteryear. Look at the typeface, so interesting! And ha, ha look at these ads, how old fashioned. Gosh can you believe how sexist society was all those years ago… la la la. But wait, the Daily Mail’s front cover its breezy headline and shitty pun is real, today, now, TODAY! Not from years and years ago when The Men In Charge didn’t know any better, now! When we tell women to shh with the moaning (campaigning) and yawn at inequality because aren’t we done? Two leaders, who happen to be women, which should indicate some form of feminist triumph, pictured wearing perfectly smart and no doubt expensive suits discussing the possible collapse of the UK. What shall we focus on? Their policies? Nah mate, their legs.
This is the newspaper of the year, it reflects the tone of the country and this is the cover. Of course I am not the first person to notice this is a cringey, peculiar and sexist piece by Sarah Vine. Owen Jones has written that: “It comes to something when this open sewer is still capable of shocking us with its stench. The newspaper’s decision to objectify the legs of the country’s most prominent female politicians – focusing on what they look like rather than what they stand for – represents one of its many lows. But while it should be mocked, parodied, ridiculed, it should terrify us: because it is indicative of what is happening in Brexit Britain.”
To see a discussion between two senior politicians about Brexit and Scotland’s future be essentially reduced to a knobbly knee competition is insulting on many levels, namely to Scotland, remainers and Brexiteers alike. But according to the Daily Mail’s response to Women in Journalism anyone who doesn’t like it should “get a life!” Because the piece was “flagged as light-hearted” we needn’t worry, you know, like when someone makes a light-hearted joke about black people but flags it by saying they aren’t being racist. OH, OKAY THEN.
We might have hoped this kind of sexism had been left behind with Blair’s Babes in the nineties, but it seems we’re going back beyond even then. I am of an age where I remember the rise of the ladette, the lad mags and girl power, although I’d like to add I was too young to legally drink and couldn’t fill an AA cup so beyond knowing a few Spice Girls lyrics I can’t say I really participated. But I remember the optimism and excitement – that money seemed to be pouring into the arts and to be working class seemed less of a barrier to success thanks to bands such as Pulp and Oasis. New women’s magazines talked about sex, money and music instead of just sewing patterns. To say in the mid-nineties we jumped the gun when it comes to calling women’s liberation is an understatement. We didn’t have equal pay (still waiting), rape within marriage had only recently been legally recognised and within living memory society had reserved their shock and upset only for the victims of Peter Sutcliffe that were not sex workers. But yeah, the Spice Girls were number one and Minx magazine was in print so the official line was ‘feminism’s work is done.’
What I am learning now is the most dangerous thing you can think is ‘ah, my work is done’. We should have learned this from history of course, but when do we ever fully learn from history? Things might incrementally improve but you can’t just erase crimes of the past simply because ‘oh, we don’t think like that now.’ Look at the emancipation of slaves, we’re still making mistakes, still resisting, if white people aren’t squeamish about the dark aspects of a slaver past then why are we offended by black lives matter?
To fall for the lie your work is done is dangerous. To say your work is done is to leave people behind. In feminism’s case we left working class, trans and women of colour behind in a race to grab a bottled lager at the bar and discuss whether pole dancing was empowering or not.
How did we ever fall for that? I think a lot of it comes down to not wanting to seem like you don’t have a sense of humour. Which we shouldn’t be afraid of because who wants the sexist guy, or the racist guy, or the transphobic guy, or homophobic guy (let’s be honest this is usually all one guy – or woman) to think we share a sense of humour? But the fear of not seeming to be humorous seems to be a big concern – particularly of course if you’re a woman in comedy.
At Funny Women on occasion we encounter the question: ‘is there still sexism in comedy’, suggesting of course that our work is done. However you only have to talk to women comedians on the circuit to hear stories of male MCs introducing them as ‘little ladies’ or mentioning their physical appearance on stage. ‘When was this?’ you ask, expecting something along the lines of ‘oh, 10 or so years ago’ not the actual answer which is usually, ‘oh, 10 or so days ago’. Rarely is anything said, for fear of being told you should have got the joke.
It is why the Daily Mail have used the duh-it-was-just-a-joke defence, it’s designed to make you feel silly, like you missed something. We mustn’t feel this way, as comedian Paul F. Tompkins said on political correctness and offensive comedy: “audiences are not telling them you can’t joke about this; what they’re saying is that wasn’t funny.”
To call for political correctness is not censoring, it’s releasing people from fear. This joke about two women leaders and their legs, it’s not funny, I mean come on I don’t think even the most ardent brexiteer is going to be repeating that one around the dinner table. So why do it? Because reducing women to their physical appearance and body parts means their parts seem easier to control.
You might think I am being somewhat dramatic and yes, I’d highlight I am using the ‘legsit’ headline as a jumping off point. But it doesn’t feel like the time to let various incidents slip by excused by their jokey nature. As Offred says in the trailer for Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale: “I was asleep before; that’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. Now I’m awake.”