Angela Rayner row holds up mirror to systemic way media portrays women

The objectification of women’s bodies, their authority undermined, portraying them as manipulators and silencing them are four ways in which women are damned.

There was understandable uproar last week after Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner was likened to Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct, for having the temerity to possess legs and, further, having the utter effrontery to move them in the House.

And, while I agree with the Prime Minister that accusing her of crossing and uncrossing her legs in order to distract him is “the most appalling load of sexist, misogynist tripe”, it’s surely not “hard to say”, as he averred, whether there’s a cultural problem in Parliament.

According to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, “There is not a single female MP or staff member in the Commons who doesn’t have their own stories about sexism and misogyny.”

And the vilification of Rayner that has unfolded is far from an aberration. In a week in which Tory MP Neil Parish was also caught watching pornography on a phone in the Commons chamber, it’s an object lesson in the systemic sexism that still lurks in politics, the media, business and society as a whole.

We see it played out across four key tropes:

The objectification of women’s bodies

The notion that women are bodies to be enjoyed rather than people to be respected remains widespread across the media and society.

Women are too often scrutinised according to their appearance and sex appeal. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media warns about “this hypersexualisation and objectification of female characters”, where “even female characters in family films serve primarily as ‘eye candy'”.

Most worryingly, the objectification and sexualisation often happens without the woman’s consent. Sharon Stone herself has related in her memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, how she was tricked into her Basic Instinct “vagina shot”, and called her lawyer (“of course, [director Paul Verhoeven] vehemently denied that I had any choices at all. I was just an actress, just a woman; what choices could I have?”).

Similarly, Rayner told ITV’s Lorraine she’d “begged” the Mail on Sunday not to run the story, and yet here we are, with the picture of her legs and the Basic Instinct headline repeated ad infinitum.

And now allegations are flying that Rayner instigated the whole thing herself in conversations on the Commons Terrace, despite a Mail article back in January accusing her of getting Johnson “in a fluster” by “channelling her inner Sharon Stone”.

Whatever “joking” conversations have or haven’t happened on the Commons terrace with the unnamed source, we do know that in the world at large, women who are being objectified often feel under pressure to laugh along with the boys’ banter, before feeling able to say “no but seriously” and taking a stand against the issue.

‘We’re just having a laugh, don’t you have a sense of humour?’ is one of the hardest manifestations of misogyny for women to fight against.

Women’s authority undermined

Rayner’s class as well as her sex was used to undermine her authority, with the repugnant Mail on Sunday piece describing her as having been “a socialist grandmother who left school at 16 while pregnant and with no qualifications before becoming a care worker”.

As Mary Ann Sieghart catalogues in The Authority Gap, in the media and life in general all kinds of women are less likely to be sought out as experts and their expertise less trusted and respected.

Women also suffer from a “double bind”, allowed to be either likeable or competent – but not both. Nice girls shouldn’t have authority.

Women as manipulators

The trope I find particularly troubling here is the Lady Macbeth narrative – the suggestion that Rayner deliberately used her sexual allure to sabotage the PM’s Oxbridge-worthy oratory.

The media casting women as dangerous sirens luring men to their doom would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. Just look at Incel sites, the new frontier in terror. Or the way Meghan Markle is apparently responsible for corrupting Harry and destroying the monarchy.

Positioning men as unable to control their base instincts in the face of feminine guile is a popular media narrative that’s an insult to decent men, as well as a danger to women and girls.

Women being silenced

Frustratingly but understandably, Rayner ended up self-censoring, wearing trousers to avoid being judged, because “it’s not about my legs”. 

But Googling her name suggests “Angela Rayner’s legs” and “Angela Rayner crossing legs” are getting more airtime than her policies and ideas.

Both the cross party think-tank Demos and the BBC found that “female reality TV contestants are disproportionately targeted on social media, with abuse frequently rooted in misogyny and combined with racism”. No wonder some women withdraw from the public eye to escape this onslaught.

In less aggressive ways, too, women’s voices are frequently silenced. Hardly any Best Picture Oscar-winning films feature women speaking 100-plus words – and men even have the majority of the dialogue in films featuring female leads.

This is not surprising, when considering a survey conducted by Stacy L Smith of the University of Southern California, which found that only 7% of directors, 13% of writers and 20% of producers are female.

In “real life” too, from Supreme Court justices to job interviews, “research in linguistics and psychology has shown that women are routinely interrupted by men, be it in one-on-one conversations or in groups, at work, or in social situations”.

So what can we do about it? Instead of just threatening to “unleash the terrors of the earth”, as Johnson put it, on the anonymous sources of this story, if we’re going to stop this sexism at a systemic level we need more education and discussion about how damaging this kind of toxic “mischief” is.

Freedom of speech shouldn’t mean freedom from any responsibility: we should stop enabling the people, algorithms and organisations who peddle these narratives.

We need to work hard together – men and women, traditional and progressive, left and right wing, to actively counter the polarising and reductive myths, mythologies, tropes and stereotypes that have held sway for centuries, and to engage in more nuanced, respectful portrayals and discussions.

Let’s start right now, by getting our attention off Rayner’s legs and on what she, and other women, actually have to say.

This article was originally published in Campaign Magazine on 4th May 2022

About the author

Lori Meakin
Lori Meakin
Founder & Chief Executive Office
The Others & Me; Author of No More Menemies

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