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From Guilt Trips to Cat Fights: Gender stereotypes in Brexit news

By Melody House, University of Strathclyde

It is no secret that media reporting around women is problematic. From ‘page 3 girls’ to racist and sexist articles about the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, British media has a history of belittling, stereotypical writing on women. This is especially true when women occupy roles that traditionally ‘belong’ to someone else. It’s part of why we see the bad press surrounding Markle, as well as the sexist and often demeaning reporting of women in conventionally ‘male’ professions.

As such, when Gender Equal Media Scotland (GEMS) tasked me with monitoring news around Brexit, I was intrigued to see what I would find. GEMS asked me to monitor the news around Brexit for three days (14-16 January 2019), and present my findings in a series of blogs. My first blog focused on the statistical representation of women in the Brexit media. Here, I will focus on both the good and bad journalistic practice I came across in those three days.

The UK is in an interesting position for this kind of analysis, as both the Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland are women. There have already been a number of problematic articles written on Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, the most infamous being ‘Legs-it’: a Daily Mail ‘sketch’ focused on the comparison of May and Sturgeon’s legs under the headline ‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it’. Needless to say, my expectations for finding thoughtful and progressive journalism were quite low.

Headlines collected from 14-16 January 2019

Headlines collected from 14-16 January 2019

I have to say I was impressed by the overall lack of overtly sexist journalism. Although the press around Theresa May is hardly favourable, there was no ‘Legs-it’ equivalent in the news I monitored. That being said, there were a few examples of journalistic ‘bad practice’ that I came across. The first was a two-page spread in the Daily Record on Tuesday the 15th. The journalist, Torcuil Churchton, was reporting on May’s statement to parliament on Monday where she argued why MPs should vote for her deal. However, the sub-heading for the article read, ‘PM attempts to guilt-trip MPs before Brexit vote’ (pictured below). This was a completely unnecessary use of a loaded gendered phrase. As Prime Minister, it is May’s job to create and advocate a deal in order to deliver Brexit. In her statement, linked above, she was merely presenting her argument to parliament. Insinuating a guilt trip is drawing on sexist stereotypes on how ‘women get their way’, and is an example of bad journalistic practice.

Sub-Heading: ‘PM attempts to guilt-trip MPs before Brexit vote’, Daily Record, 2019; p.8-9

Next up, was the use of women’s first names when referring to them in a professional capacity. This is another example of bad practice. There were a number of times in the newspapers I analysed. For example Paul Kavanagh, the Wee Ginger Dug columnist for The National, referred to Scottish Shadow Secretary Lesley Laird as ‘Lesley’ in his column on Tuesday the 15th. On Wednesday, The Scottish Daily Mail’s two-page spread headline read ‘Gove Fury as Tories Betray Theresa’ (page 4-5). You might have noticed the same issue in the headline of the above article. These last two examples are particularly egregious as they both refer to May by her first name, while at the same time referencing Michael Gove and Jeremy Corbyn by their surnames. It highlights how male and female politicians are treated differently in the press, as the overly familiar use of women’s first names serves as a means to subtly undermine their status as professionals.

The final story that really stood out is slightly more positive in terms of journalistic practice. Labour MP Tulip Siddiq chose to delay her emergency c-section in order to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. Most articles that spoke about her decision highlighted the need to improve proxy voting in these circumstances. Alain Tolhurst, writing for The Scotsman, focused on previous cases where people lost their vote because they were unable to make it to parliament due to pregnancy and other health issues. These are examples of good journalistic practice, as they highlight issues affecting women and push for change. However, The Herald’s reporting on Siddiq soured the otherwise positive stories. David Wilcock’s article highlighted the same issues above, yet at the end of his he included a quote from Tory MP Kemi Badenoch ‘accusing’ Siddiq of making the ‘unnecessary' decision only to ‘make a point’. Wilcock was deliberately pitting the two women against each other, playing into the sexist ‘cat fight’ stereotype. This didn’t further the narrative of the story, but rather undermined it by falling back on lazy stereotypes.

Although these examples are no ‘Legs-it’, they demonstrate the media’s bias toward men, at times overt but more often subtle. The newspapers I monitored had the lowest percentage of women out of all three media I monitored as part of my study (23.7%). News media, particularly print, has a long way to go in achieving equal representation. For now, the least they could do, is drop the sexist stereotypes.


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