There were two not entirely unexpected things in the news this weekend.
The first was that Boris Johnson, the man who once boasted “I haven’t had to have a wank for 20 years”, has had a series of affairs during his 25-year marriage to lawyer Marina Wheeler.
The second was the obsessive and often sexist coverage that accompanied the revelations.
Perhaps the most egregious example was a line from Tim Shipman’s and Caroline Wheeler’s piece in the Sunday Times – photographed, highlighted, and tweeted under the caption “cracking quote” by BBC political correspondent Chris Mason – in which an unnamed ally referred to the skeletons in Johnson’s cupboard as having “skin and big tits […] walking around the West End.”
In the era of MeToo, is this really how we want politicians or members of the media talking about women?
Whatever one thinks of the behaviour of Johnson and those he has allegedly had relationships with, the idea that women are just a walking pair of tits can only be offensive.
Since the story broke on Sunday, Carrie Symonds, who is linked to Johnson, has had her life put under the microscope – and the frankly boring sexist tropes have abounded.
There’s the Sun’s “Blonde Ambition” headline, which pruriently remarks that Carrie Symonds likes to post “glam photos of herself” online – interspersing the story with 17 such pictures so we can share in its disapproval.
Determined to make sure we don’t miss a tut-tutting shot, today the tabloid posted pictures of Symonds dressed up as Britney Spears. Who cares if the pictures are nearly ten years old and contribute nothing to the public interest? Let’s ogle disapprovingly at a young woman in fancy dress!
While most papers don’t go as far as talking about women as “skin and a pair of tits”, they aren’t immune from employing dehumanising language.
The Sun refers to her as “Boris Johnson’s blonde” – because as soon as a woman is in a relationship with a man she loses her identity and becomes his property. In the Mail, she’s Boris’s “fun-loving mistress”, a term last seen in a smutty romance novel.
But it’s the use of “blonde” that is perhaps most uncomfortable. In every tabloid she’s the blonde: Boris’s blonde, the young, party-loving blonde – all with lots of pictures dug up from social media profiles. Surely we are past the point of referring to women by their physical attributes? Surely we have moved on from defining women by their hair colour?
Put simply: she’s not a blonde, she’s a woman.
It’s an obvious point, but no man would ever be described in these terms. Replace “fun-loving” with “networking”; “ambitious” with “successful”; and “blonde” with “man’s name” and suddenly it’s not quite so sexy… or sexist.
There’s an argument to be had about whether Johnson having an affair is a matter for the public interest or not. There’s also an argument about conflicts of interest, as well as whether private lives impact on political behaviour. Thankfully divorce is no longer the political scandal it once was, and politicians are free to date, have relationships with, and marry whoever they want.
But there’s no question that publishing old photos of women at student parties is not in the public interest. Nothing is gained from knowing that many years ago, Carrie Symonds dressed up for a party. Nothing is gained from printing photo after photo of a blonde woman on holiday, except to rile up dislike or even misogyny against the woman in question.
What would be infinitely more interesting than knee-rubbing bikini pictures taken from social media would be to review Johnson’s history of behaviour towards, and comments on, women. Isn’t it time to question that, rather than post endless photos detailing the history of one woman?
The coverage of this latest affair could, then, provide an opportunity to examine Johnson’s attitudes towards half the population. It could be an opportunity to remind us of when he referred to sportswomen as “semi naked glistening like wet otters”; of his sexist dismissal of Emily Thornberry as “Lady Nugee” during a debate; his blaming of women for rising house prices and social inequality; his claim that voting Tory would give your wife bigger tits; his advice to his Spectator successor to pat a female colleague “on the bottom and send her on her way”; his review of the “hot totty” at Labour party conference… the list goes on.
But talking about a prominent man’s sexism is a bit boring, isn’t it? Much better to post a picture of a blonde in fancy dress.
Again, it doesn’t matter what one thinks of the behaviours of the people involved in this news story. This is about how sexism in news coverage works, and the double standards applied to ambitious blonde women and ambitious blonde men.
Update: This article was amended on 11 September to correct the name of Boris Johnson’s wife.