Why the Evening Standard’s attack on Theresa May is pure misogyny

The quickest way to humiliate a woman is to attack her for her sex, as opposed to her politics.

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Since becoming editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne has become known for regularly attacking his old cabinet colleague, Theresa May. But Christian Adam’s political cartoon published today, which Osborne proudly shared on Twitter, reaches a new low.

The image recreates the iconic nude photo of Christine Keeler, who died on Monday. Taken shortly after the Cold War era Profumo scandal, in which she had affairs with both a Tory cabinet minister and a Russian diplomat, Keeler poses naked behind a chair. In its cartoon, the Evening Standard has replaced Keeler with a nude Theresa May. And while Keeler famously presents the camera with a “come hither” raised eyebrow and a pout, May is portrayed as frowning and scowling. 

In trying to measure the problems with this cartoon, it’s useful to turn to Caitlin Moran’s guide as to whether something is sexist or not. Her rule of thumb is to ask: are the men doing it? And when it comes to having naked cartoons published of you in a daily newspaper, I think the answer is a decided no.

In this image, a male illustrator and a male editor have taken the decision to humiliateMay by reducing her to a sex object — while also castigating her for not being as “sexy” as the original model. The men behind the cartoon are anticipating the laugh to come from the incongruity of taking what is considered to be a sexy image — Keeler in the chair — and imposing the unsexy caricature of May onto it.

At the same time, by positioning May in the role as “call girl”, they aim to undermine her as Prime Minister. Isn’t it hilarious — the cartoon seems to say — that this woman thinks she can be a leader! Doesn’t she know what women are actually good for? And… we don’t even think she’s hot!

Why does this matter? After all, shouldn’t politicians learn to expect this kind of mockery, and these kind of caricatures, as part of the job?

Well, it does matter. It shows how in today’s culture, where all too often women’s value is based on her perceived desirability, it remains the case that the quickest way to humiliate a woman is to attack her for her sex, as opposed to her politics.

The cartoon sends a clear and horrible message: you can be Prime Minister. You can be the most powerful woman in the country. But when we want to attack you, we’ll criticise you for how you look, not what you say. We’ll mock the idea that you should ever have been taken seriously. And once we’ve done that, we’ll attack you for failing to live up to our standards of “good womanhood” — i.e. by failing to be sexually desirable on our terms.

In this respect, the image is closer to the behaviour of men’s rights activists who superimpose feminists’ heads onto pornographic images than an attempt at political satire.

Of course political leaders are caricatured in newspapers all the time. For the six years of his premiership, Guardian readers got used to seeing David Cameron depicted with a condom over his head. But while Steve Bell explained how this choice was to tell a story about Cameron’s smooth, slick image, and his apparent commitment to “transparency”, this cartoon of May doesn’t say anything about her as a political leader or character.

Political cartoons should be a place where we can expose or satirise something about the behaviour or conduct of a politician. As grotesque as it was, Cameron with a condom over his head achieved that. But all the Keeler cartoon tells us is that Theresa May is a woman who they accuse of being unattractive to men. As such, the cartoon suggests that the problem with May is not her policies or her conduct, the problem is that she is a woman, and not a very good one.

There are literally hundreds of reasons to criticise Theresa May right now. Her government are in disarray following an unnecessary election she called out of hubris. The government’s policies are causing untold suffering to people across the country, through austerity measures, a hostile environment for immigrants, and the panic around Brexit. She is a weak leader who is struggling to hold her party together during the greatest political crisis our country has faced since the 1940s.

This cartoon doesn’t tell us any of that. Instead, it says that you can work hard your whole life, to become the second female home secretary and then second female Prime Minister in history. You can reach the pinnacle of your professional career and achieve the highest state of office.

But in the end, you’ll be nothing more than a woman. And so long as we see being a woman as something lesser, we’ll humiliate you for it.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.