Harriet Harman has wheeled out a ‘pink’ bus in an effort to attract ‘the female vote’. The photo op is a standard tactic in contemporary politicians’ media management strategising. But election coverage isn’t only about photo opportunities. It is about the way in which the media choose to present such coverage.
Following the historic number of Labour women elected to Parliament in 1997, The Sun chose to run with the caption ‘Blair’s Babes’. In the 2010 election, media coverage focused on leader’s wives in much more detail than female MPs (Harmer & Wring, 2013). Research that I did with a colleague demonstrated that women MPs are much less likely to receive media coverage than their male counterparts (2014). Where women do appear they are more likely to be referred to in terms of their ‘feminine attributes’ rather than their policy positions (Garcia-Blanco & Wahl-Jorgensen, 2011).
The recent Daily Mail coverage of Cameron’s cabinet shake up as a catwalk of female members, describing clothes, shoes and describing senior figure Esther McVey as ‘thigh flashing Esther’. Will we ever allow Teresa May to be taken seriously as potential leadership material with a continual focus on her shoes? Now it may be that we think that all this is a bit harmless, and actually that is just the way it is. But would we describe Osborne as ‘looking chic in his Armani’ or Cameron looking elegant in his Paul Smith. And if not, then why do press commentators think it is ok to describe women in these terms.
It would be wonderful to see a different kind of media coverage. To do so, we need to take women seriously (cf. Enloe, 2013). Wouldn’t it be great to see newspaper coverage that presented female MPs as political contributors, rather than clotheshorses, sex objects or adjuncts of men? Political parties need to play their role in this too. Women are not stupid, and do not need to be attracted by the colour pink. They need to be treated as the intelligent adults that they are. Surely, that is not too much to ask for in democratic dialogue?