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Theresa May Can’t Win for Losing

I am the least likely candidate to defend anything Theresa May has said or done—from her views on job security to the Snoopers Charter she largely created which seeks to completely abolish Internet privacy to racist and xenophobic Prevent strategy in UK schools.  Indeed, May supports the continuation of the Prevent strategy despite demonstrative evidence that it is being used to target Muslims while not proving any public benefit whatsoever.  Add to this the fact that May’s government has come into power in an era where one-third of British university students are having to take out payday and online loans to cover expenses.  May’s tenure as Prime Minister is hardly progressive by any measure and is probably best described as Draconian.

Yet over this past week I have been stunned by the media pundits and peers who decried—of all things—Theresa May’s “inability to show emotion” in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy immediately following the claims laid by former  Michael Portillo asserting that the Prime Minister “didn’t use her humanity” when she visited the scene of the blaze yesterday.  Something seemed amiss when left-wing media grasped onto Portillo’s words and discarded all objectivity surrounding what May’s actions last week.

Let’s unpick the description of May’s response to the tragedy of Grenfell Tower as detailed by The Telegraph:

[U]nlike Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, she was not seen speaking to the victims of the tower block. 

Downing Street aides said that the purpose of Mrs May’s visit was to get a briefing from emergency services and ensure that they had the resources they needed.

But Mr Portillo told BBC’s This Week: “She met in private with the emergency services, a good thing to do no doubt, but she should have been there with the residents, which is what Jeremy Corbyn was.

So, from Portillo’s statement, an entire media blitz descended upon Theresa May for allegedly having not met with the residents.  I say “allegedly” because indeed the Prime Minister did meet with the residents of Grenfell Tower. She met with the victims and their families in the hospital and did so without cameras present.

And yet, the misreading of facts does not end there.  Soon after various comparisons to Hurricane Katrina began to stream in, it seemed as if media scrutiny of facts had entirely disappeared and instead the same echo chamber that social media creates for individuals was re-created within the scene of mass media.   Such representations between these two events are inflated at best.

When Katrina made landfall, George W. Bush had been on holiday at his ranch in Texas for 27 days and only found out about the disaster several days later when his aids showed him carefully curated images of the region.  It was only then that Bush flew back to Washington on August 31, after 29 days on holiday, instructing Air Force One to fly over the wreckage not taking a moment to visit the site or the people of New Orleans in person. Hence, the infamous photo of Bush looking out the plane window as it passed over the ruins left by Katrina.   This scenario is could not be more distinct from how May handled the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

First, May immediately acted quickly to get funding in place for the victims of the fire, to secure council housing for the many displaced, set up a safety review of over 4,000 old tower blocks throughout the country,  has been concurrently dealing with a parliamentary crisis, and indeed did go to the site the day after the blaze. And despite this, one media source reports: “However, unlike Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, she was not seen speaking to the victims of the tower block.”  Silly Theresa May—she was taking up important measures to help those affected and went to hospital to speak to victims there instead.

There is a trend in how female politicians’ actions are reported both within mass media and social media and May is not exempt from this treatment.  For days social media was dominated by people obsessing over May’s facial expressions and her tone with most evidencing that they had not read very much—if at all—on this subject.  The myriad inaccurate stories and social media outrage set a tone where instead of looking askance at what was political point scoring, disgruntled Labour voters merely parroted fake news about how May never visited the site of the fire at all.  And the media did its fair share of adding onto the false stories by running stories of May being heckled leaving church, omitting the fact that Sadiq Khan was also heckled.  In fact, politicians across the political spectrum are getting their fair share of critique.

Even Labour MP, Emma Dent Coat, who is now accusing Tory-led Kensington and Chelsea council of failing the people, citing “poor-quality materials and construction standards”, leftist media is pretty much ignoring the fact that Dent Coad was on Kensington and Chelsea’s housing scrutiny committee, the body in charge of safety issues, until 2014.

I seriously have difficulty taking these critiques of May’s response to Grenfell Tower seriously as they come off as desperate attempts to wield party politics within a larger, tragic political theatre while conterminously pitting May against Corbyn as somehow showing her up as the wealthy, arrogant and dismissive woman who couldn’t be bothered to get her hands dirty.  Also, these comparisons to male politicians and the second-guessing around what her facial expression really means is not in the best interest of those affected by this blast. In the wake of an election where the Conservatives failed to gain a majority and Labour has behaved as if they won (when they most certainly did not), there has been some rather petty political manoeuvres from the left.   I fear that using the tragedy of Grenfell Tower to score points is not only in bad taste, it is simply dishonest.

Again, I do not support Theresa May and hold political beliefs that are further to the left of Jeremy Corbyn.  My problem with this bizarre stream of misrepresentations about May’s handling of the situation is how the media treats female politicians quite differently from their male counterparts.  Nowhere is it more painfully clear with how not only Theresa May is reported in the media, but how other female politicians are treated by British media.  Just a year ago MP Angela Eagle faced severe criticism for her voice cracking when critiquing Corbyn’s leadership abilities and just a couple of weeks later was accused of being too harsh on Iraq and welfare cuts.  And this is not limited to the United Kingdom given that beyond Hillary Clinton was also called the Iron Lady, Nancy Pelosi the “Grandmother in Pearls,” Angela Merkel according to The Guardian’s meta tags, “Barbie Doll or Iron Lady?” while the title of the article simply reads, “Angela Merkel: The world’s most powerful woman?”  And the list goes on from former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who referred to Liberal candidate Fiona Scott’s “sex appeal,” Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi who called Angela Merkel an “unfuckable lard-arse.”  (Note that David Cameron who actually did perform a sexual act with a pig was immune to any such nomenclature sticking.)

The roots of political misogyny spans the left to the right and is certainly not a recent creation. Let us not forget how the media framed Margaret Thatcher with the moniker of the “Iron Lady” which despite emanating from a Soviet journalist was allowed to stick solidly in western media, repeatedly recycled throughout her career.  In this moniker, the message was clear:  women are not “naturally” strong, iron-like figures and when a female politician is in fact strong.  Certainly her nickname denotes the draconian policies she undertook, but it likewise builds her as cold, unfeeling, and inhuman even if she was staunchly against feminism.  The interesting part of Thatcher’s naming by the public, whether it was “Maggie” or “the Irony Lady”, is that these references were uttered often with a tinge of misogyny by opponents, but with affection by supporters.  And to this end, even when Thatcher died, there were calls to oblige the BBC to play “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”  Like or dislike Thatcher, the critique of her politics was inevitably reduced in one way or another to her femaleness despite many valid reasons to loathe and cogently critique her political positions.  While the misogyny of the left towards female party members and leaders has been long documented, I am at a loss to understand why, when political critique is directed at female politicians, the terms and language of the political immediately result in ad hominem directed at these women where their bodies, their dress, and their age are made into the collective object of ridicule, even before any thoughtful critique of their policies is executed.

Indeed, we must ask what kind of female leader the left might aspire to obtain if she is not warm, fuzzy and fuckable?   Female politicians cannot win for losing given the pressure to be like any male politician—they are too old or too young, too slutty or too sexless, too cold or not strong enough, too full of humanity or not enough.  And on and on the same old soundtrack plays.  At the heart of this dilemma is the underlying narrative that male politicians are the base model to emulate—the given, if you will, of our collective, political humanity.  And partisanship means that women are even more sacrifice-able since what really matters is party politics, not addressing the vast exaggerations and fictionalisations of May’s wrongdoings.

Comparing a president who does absolutely nothing for 72 hours while flying over a disaster is in no way comparable to a Prime Minister who has taken steps behind the scenes and with her advisors to immediately sort out an immediate solution to the many left homeless from this disaster, to organise a mandate preventing any future disasters, to establish a Grenfell Tower Recovery task force which set a maximum three-week timeline to find permanent housing for the victims as close as possible to their neighbourhood, an initial £5 million discretionary fund to assist people with initial expenditures resulting from the loss of their homes and loved ones, and worked with the Department for Work & Pensions to ensure that everyone has access to benefits and pensions.  Yet, the media spin pretty much ignored all this and focussed on Corbyn’s camera-ready smile and affable nature.

Sean O’Grady’s piece on May, like so many other journalists of late, compares her to Corbyn:

In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn hugs those he meets and says very little. When he does, his very lack of oratorical skill only goes to demonstrate his authenticity. He does informal. He speaks human. He is at ease. The images of him were natural and unspun – any press officer would be delighted by them. No tie, lots of sympathy.

I cringe when I read such descriptions since these very same traits which are attributed to Corbyn, minus his cycling habits and book bag, have established some terribly vacuous and flimsy logical fallacies: namely, that casual dress and egregious hugs equal righteous ideals and conversely, that anyone who might wear a suit or that who does not go on camera hugging people at the worse moment of their life must be an absolute monster.  I can speak from personal experience as someone who is socially outgoing and very much a hugger, that in the worse moment of my life I did not even want my closest friends to hug me, much less the leader any country.  I find it odd that O’Grady takes, as his bottom line, that the only form acceptable gesture of “humanity” is Corbyn’s perfectly planned public photo-op not May’s meeting with fire fighters and other relief staff on-site, nor her later meeting with the families and victims at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, no cameras present.  May also met with a group of residents in Kensington whom she invited to Downing Street and has been regularly returning to the site to check up on the progress of these residents who are currently in Kensington.  All this was ignored by a media that seems to have its focus on portraying this leader in a negative light through the elision of facts.

This analysis over May’s humanity raises so many issues from the callous attempts to succour disfavour directed at May using the deaths of those from this tragedy as their vehicle to aid in the plumping up of the Labour Party which has, for the past several weeks, bizarrely cast its electoral loss as a win. There has also been a concerted effort from many Labour voters to use the tragedy of Grenfell Tower to exculpate their party from any contribution to this tragedy. This is not only a completely bizarre notion to advance given that investigations are under way as to the processes that failed these people, but anyone who has been alive since the 1970s knows that there is blame to spread between among both the left and the right.

From the time Grenfell Tower’s construction was completed in 1974 through 2000, the borough was governed by mostly Conservatives. Nor can the efforts of the Greater London Council (GLC) which between 1965 and 1986 attempted to confront the problems of inadequate housing be ignored. This fact cannot be ignored. Nor can the fact that since 2000 when the position of Mayor of the City of London was created, the city has been governed largely by Labour politicians which, although do not directly manage borough affairs, must consider climate change in social housing such that the cladding now found to be combustible met environmental targets.

With the Independent running stories like “Theresa May’s inability to show emotion to the public proves that she isn’t fit to be Prime Minister,” journalism has stepped from its mission of critical inquiry and the archival of historical facts into propaganda machinery.  And the left is certainly not beyond “fake news.”  Like the local news in the UK such as Yorkshire which reports on the robbery of electric toothbrushes, the media can represent petty crime as a cardinal offence as much as depicting the female leader of a country known for its “stiff upper lip” harnessing of feelings as emotionless.  Where men represent the tough British exterior typical of the emotional lesson’s passed on to May’s generation, May suffers for behaving in a very typical British manner despite her swift actions to address the tragedy and its fallout. As a result of May’s actions approximately 100 tower blocks a day are being investigated for faulty materials and construction around the country with eleven high rise buildings already found to fail fire-risk tests.

I cannot help but fully agree with Brendan O’Neil’s assessment of this situation as he posts May’s 16 June letter to : “Shame on Theresa May doing this kind of thing instead of mopping up her tears with a teddy bear on the 10 O’Clock News.”  Not only do I not view May as deserving of the recent opprobrium for Grenfell Tower, I find it highly speculative that the only response women politicians and media pundits are allowed to have to this tragedy must involve tears—having them, fighting them back, being close to having them.  Categorically women are once again constricted to demonstrating appropriate behaviour as they are framed within this uniquely acceptable emotional construct. Just look at the many faces of the Queen, each frame attempting to reveal her “humanity” as if lifted from Eisenstein’s Film Sense.  The female political figure is expected to carry the emotional weight and investment that is put upon her.

Equally horrifying is that Piers Morgan seems to be one of the few journalists actually engaging in cogent critique of the government as he abandons the tissue box.

While Labour voters love to point to Corbyn who styles himself as a man of the people with his casual and at times scruffy appearance, his red bicycle, trouser cuff tucked in right sock, and seemingly humble demeanour, one cannot escape the fact that Corbyn lives in one of the poshest neighbourhoods in the world.  Just as May and Corbyn have different dress codes and ways of expressing themselves, this exterior presentation should not release the political cannibalism of the dead to advance party politics.  If indeed a bicycle and carefully planned photo ops are all it takes to fashion oneself a credible leader, then we are deeply in trouble in an age where images are not only malleable and change by the second, but where the stuff of politics does not happen through whimsical back slaps and teary eyed-confessions.  It happens through the dry interchanges of politicians attempting to mete out the future of people very much in need of support over hugs.  Image is far easier to manipulate than political action.

Or, as someone told me yesterday, “Boris Johnson cycles too.”

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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