Angela Rayner, porn in parliament and a depressing week for British politics

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There are more women in the UK parliament and government than ever before – making up about one third of the total 650 members. Yet, there are still cases like The Mail on Sunday running the headline “Stone the crows! Tories accuse Rayner of Basic Instinct ploy to distract Boris”. An unnamed source had told the outlet that Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, crosses and uncrosses her legs to “distract” the prime minister during parliamentary sessions. In case anyone was in doubt about the reference, the article was accompanied by the famous image of Sharon Stone from the film.
Sexualising a female politician may seem like low hanging fruit but it’s common in political discourse. Female politicians in many countries are put in a double bind: appear stereotypically feminine and you’ll be reduced to your looks, appear stereotypically masculine and you’ll be labelled a shrew. It’s typical for women in traditionally male dominated spaces to be sexualised as a way to undermine their legitimacy.

In fact, research shows that men will objectify women in authority as a way to reassert their dominance. It’s therefore not simply a sexist act to perpetuate the harmful stereotype of women using their sexuality to distract men, it’s an act to challenge a woman’s authority. It reduces her to being a Jezebel woman, rather than a politician fulfilling her duties.

Highlighting how stark the double standard is, some tweeted a famous picture of Conservative minister Jacob Rees-Mogg draped across the front bench of the House of Commons with his eyes closed in 2019. Of course no one accused him of mimicking Sharon Stone at the time. Meanwhile, an unnamed Conservative MP is under investigation after it was alleged that he has repeatedly been seen watching porn in the House of Commons chamber.

In response to the Rayner smear, Lindsay Hoyle, the House of Commons speaker, asked for a meeting with the editor for The Mail on Sunday, David Dillion. The invitation has been declined in the name of press freedom – a decision that seems to be supported by Boris Johnson.

Such a response is not surprising. Tabloids are in the business of stirring controversy. However, the Mail’s reasoning is key. In a follow-up story, the paper justified its original story by claiming that Rayner herself has also joked about the Basic Instinct comparison. Now the responsibility shifts to Rayner. She asked for such a headline because supposedly she’s made such jokes herself – though anyone listening to the podcast in which she is supposed to have done so can draw their own conclusions about her view on the matter.

‘She loved it’

On a journalistic level, this rationale would appear to contradict the Mail’s claim that it was simply using free speech when propagating misogyny. If it was necessary information the Mail needed to publish as a duty of the free press, then Rayner’s reaction shouldn’t be relevant in the decision-making process. To highlight her reaction in its defence unnecessarily drags Rayner further into the situation.

More broadly, this incident brings to mind all kinds of common myths that are used to justify gender discrimination and sexual violence. To use gendered language since the case involves a woman as the target, the myths include “she asked for it”, “she secretly wanted it” and “it wasn’t really serious”. The myths serve to excuse the perpetrator, blame the victim and downplay or distract from the act.

We can see all three happening in this case. The original act, which contributes to undermining women in politics, has quickly transformed into a debate on “free” speech. The Mail can be excused as simply doing its job since even Rayner is laughing. Even this overlooks how women are often conditioned to laugh in potentially threatening situations so as to not escalate the situation further.

And finally, Rayner herself is strapped with the responsibility of navigating being objectified. It is for her to justify how she may or may not have responded to the trope levelled against her. Standing up to the misogyny or even just trying to move on from it could easily be interpreted as her failing. Putting more focus on Rayner’s response and supposed laughing (which she says is not true) represents the never-ending burden women in the public realm carry.

In the case of porn in parliament, it appears that it was left to a woman MP sitting next to the man in question to report the matter. Forced into an uncomfortable situation by a colleague who didn’t seem to care, she had to take another uncomfortable step in sparking an investigation.

A woman is told to smile – it was just a joke – but it’s her fault for the joke because she smiled. Don’t dress too sexy in professional settings but also don’t dress like a man – that’s too threatening. Don’t be a vocal feminist, but if you’re attacked with sexism make sure to represent all women flawlessly. It’s sad that such a worn-out stereotype can still be used to sell papers (or rather clicks).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation
The Conversation

Lindsey Blumell receives funding from City, University of London.

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