The twenty-four hour media cycle has undoubtedly changed the way we view public figures, particularly in politics. In an age of social media and instant communication, this could not be more true. It takes a simple search of a high profile politician’s name on Twitter to get a plethora of views and opinions; the likelihood however is that you’ll notice a distinct difference between the commentary provided about male politicians and that of female politicians.
If a woman cries, she’s weak and unfit for office. If a man cries, he’s defying the stereotype and bravely showing emotion.
Like so often in politics, women are damned if they show emotion and damned if they don’t.
Our second female Prime Minister yesterday announced her resignation, and instead of focusing on her achievements and time in office, every major newspaper and news outlet focused on photos of her breaking down at the end of her speech.
She delivered one of the best speeches of her life, summing up her time in office and reminding the nation of the need for compromise. Theresa May was a stateswoman throughout, even more so when her voice broke as she spoke about being the second female Prime Minister. That wasn’t a “broken” woman, that was a woman who had achieved her childhood dream, who had given her life to her country and who knew that someday another woman will fill her shoes.
May’s premiership was plagued with criticisms that she was “robotic”, only to then be ridiculed for showing the turmoil of leaving the job that had allowed her to undertake her crusade against the burning injustices in society. She was ridiculed for not “showing emotion” in the face of numerous terrorist attacks and national tragedies, for not hugging victims and survivors in front of the cameras, for not letting a single tear fall. For depriving them of a front page photograph. They didn’t praise her for showing leadership, for showing the ‘stiff upper lip’ that the British public has come to expect of their leader, they criticised her for not crying in front of the cameras to give them a viral media clip.
They called her “robotic” yet freely spung stories about her crying in the back of her car after PMQs and her statement of the WAB. The media rarely focuses on the resilience of a woman leading the nation into uncharted territory, who continued to fight through obstacles and situations that would have ended a lesser man.
The coverage of yesterday’s statement, and of the events on Wednesday reminding me of something Hillary Rodham Clinton once wrote. In her latest book, ‘What Happened’, Hillary describes the media’s reaction to her apparent ‘tears’ during the 2008 New Hampshire primary. “I didn’t even cry, not really. I was talking about how tough running for office can be (and it can be very tough), and my eyes glistened for a moment and my voice quavered for about one sentence. That was it. It became the biggest news story in American. It will, no doubt, merit a line in my obituary someday: ‘Her eyes once watered on camera.’”
Tears, shed or unshed, can fuel an entire news cycle.
What the media have failed to appreciate is that Theresa May is a rare politician in this media age, who does her best work away from the glare of the camera lens, and who does it without any expectation or desire for praise. She didn’t fit into their stereotype of the camera hungry politician who posts even their breakfast on Instagram to attract some journalist commentary. She didn’t fit into the carefully crafted box of what a female politician “should” be. She didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve and she didn’t tell the media every intimate detail of her private life.
The media – and the public – are obsessed with emotion.
It’s why we watch soap operas, it’s why we watch ordinary people document the trials and tribulations of their lives on social media, it’s why we buy magazines like Hello! and Ok! that are often filled with little more than idle gossip. Sometimes I wonder if the country has an inbuilt case of “tall poppy syndrome” when it comes to women – be it Theresa May or the Duchess of Sussex.
If you want to talk about emotion, then contrast May’s tears at leaving the job she considered to have been the “honour of my life to hold”, with Cameron whistling as he walked back into No10 after his own resignation announcement. Talk about the meaning behind the tears and trembling lips, that’s the real story. A woman who has given her life to public service and to the Conservative Party, who was proud to be the second female Prime Minister and who will have been responsible for making the path to No10 a little easier for the third.