Odd, but Brexit debate offered up a sexism wakeup call last week

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Why is it considered fair game to make light of women’s body parts, especially in the context of a political negotiation?


First published in The Hill Times on Monday, April 3, 2017.

OTTAWA—If ever the world needed a sexism wake-up call, the Brexit debate offered it up last week.

Just as two leaders were meeting to tackle the thorny issue of the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union, the best a British tabloid could do was serve up a piece on the shape of the leaders’ legs. “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!,” the headline read, “Sarah Vine’s light-hearted verdict on the big showdown.”

Worse than even committing the sexist sin was The Daily Mail’s defence of its piece, admonishing upset readers to “get a life.”

One cannot imagine a “light-hearted piece” comparing the size of U.S. President Donald Trump’s butt cheeks with those of Vladimir Putin.

So why is it considered fair game to make light of women’s body parts, especially in the context of a political negotiation?

The Daily Mail’s piece served its purpose, reducing the seriousness of the conversation to a seduction attempt using women’s best weapons, sexy legs. In so doing, it trivialized the gravitas required to successfully negotiate the extraction of the United Kingdom from the rest of Europe.

The Brexit opening salvo last week involved British Prime Minister Theresa May triggering clause 50, in a six-page letter stating her intentions for a proposed departure from the EU within two years.

There is a huge amount at stake, for Britain and the EU. Speaking to Parliament, Prime Minister May heaped praise on Europe, focusing on the longstanding relationships and shared values developed over centuries. She also proposed a two-track parallel negotiating process, where costs and conditions for exiting are determined in tandem with a new trade pact mirroring that of the former common market.

If Europe refuses to negotiate on the British timeframe, the current integrated commerce rules would be forfeited in favour of those of the World Trade Organization, which some are characterizing as disastrous for the United Kingdom.

Remaining European states will be reluctant to negotiate preferential trading arrangements at the same time as they are finalizing the divorce, fearful that too sweet a deal might prompt other countries to follow the British lead.

The first runoff of the French election this month includes a leading candidate from the far right who is actively promoting an end to the European monetary system and a return to the French franc.

If the United Kingdom is seen to retain all the benefits of European integration without any political responsibilities, that could be an attractive catalyst for further disintegration.

On the other hand, Europe is Britain’s largest trading partner and vice versa, so there is a mutual need to keep borders as seamless as possible.

Then there are the internal challenges of the not so United Kingdom.

With Scotland voting over 60 per cent to remain in the EU, the Scottish Parliament just decided last week to hold another independence referendum.

Serious stuff indeed. And May’s meeting with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was designed to tackle that issue as well.

So how could a newspaper possibly deduce that focusing on duelling pairs of legs was in any way relevant or worth reporting? In the first edition, the legs story led front page coverage, and actually played larger than an adjacent political piece referring to proposed British Brexit details.

The columnist writing about the legs of May and Sturgeon claimed that she was analysing the messages being sent out by each leader, based on where and how they placed their legs.

The writer, whose husband happens to be a Conservative MP, claimed the Scottish leader won the battle of the gams, by crossing her legs and pointing one of them directly at her audience in an effort to seduce them. She chided May for her vicar-approved posture.

The twittersphere exploded with harsh rebukes for the newspaper which must be laughing all the way to the bank.

The sexism angle vaulted the story to the lead on multiple newscasts around the world.

Even those reporting on the incident used inadvertently sexist language.

The London journalist covering the story for CNN pointed out that these two were among the most powerful women in politics. The anchor, another woman, corrected that unintended misstep, by stating the obvious. They were two of the most powerful people in politics.

In the current Brexit drama, May is arguably one of the most influential political figures in Europe, facing another potent leader in the person of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Their legs should not be for turning.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter @Sheila_Copps.