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26 June 2018

Media coverage of the UK's female prime ministers has become more gendered from Thatcher to May

Blair Williams, PhD candidate, School of Politics & International Relations, Australian National University

A focus on Theresa May's appearance and fashion choices is one of the most common gendered tropes


Women politicians are often presented in the mainstream media as women first, politicians second – in stories that should focus on their policies but instead analyse their personal lives, appearance and gender. Has this gendered media representation of women political leaders changed over time? Is it better or worse? To answer this question, I have investigated and compared newspaper coverage (The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Mirror and The Sun) of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May during their first three prime ministerial weeks in 1979 and 2016, respectively. 

The phenomenon of women experiencing gendered media representation is referred to as ‘gendered mediation’. Gendered mediation occurs when the media representation of politics reinforces, rather than reflects, gendered and sexist stereotypes, norms and assumptions. Through such a lens, women politicians’ gender is emphasised, and they are often regarded as novelties or trivialised while their male counterparts are portrayed as the norm. While men are expected to adhere to the stereotypically masculine behavioural norms of politics, when women adhere to these norms they are perceived to be cold, aggressive, bossy or ‘bitchy’. However, they are caught in a double-bind as when they act too ‘feminine’ they are seen to be ineffectual, weak, incompetent and overly emotional.

Additionally, politics is increasingly becoming a form of mediatised entertainment. This often means that the media constructs political leaders in a personalised and presidential style. This sort of construction can be beneficial for male politicians, creating an affable and approachable image. For women politicians, however, it can draw attention to their unconventional gender choices, and in this way further trivialise and ‘other’ them. Though it is possible for women politicians to use their femininity or gender to their advantage, their gender can also be used or weaponised against them.

For example, my analysis showed that in the first three weeks of their respective terms as PM, on average, Thatcher’s gender was mentioned in 44% of the articles surveyed while May’s gender was mentioned in 48%. The Daily Telegraph, however, mentioned May’s gender the most, in 68% of its articles in the sample (compared to 36% for Thatcher).

Interestingly, Thatcher’s appearance was only mentioned in 15% of articles while May’s was mentioned almost twice as often. While it appears that all UK newspapers had a slight increase in the frequency of mentioning appearance from Thatcher to May, the conservative press increased two-fold. The frequency with which The Daily Telegraph discussed appearance markedly increased – from 19% to 43% – while The Sun also doubled from 12% for Thatcher, to 24% for May.

Furthermore, while Thatcher’s femininity was emphasised on average in 33% of the articles, media emphasis on May’s femininity increased to 45%. The Daily Telegraph tripled and The Sun doubled the amount they mentioned or emphasised femininity for May compared to Thatcher.

The print media discourse reveals another entrenched style of gendered mediation. Among many other gendered tropes, both Thatcher and May were consistently compared with school girls or head girls. One article called May a ‘head girl’, stating that ‘since Theresa took over, Boris has combed his hair … if the woman can get Boris to comb his hair, just think what she can do to Putin’. In this, she is not the prime minister – a job reserved for men – but a head girl, the feminine-marked other. Referring to them as ‘girls’ infantilises Thatcher and May as much as it patronises them. This type of discourse or language denigrates their skills as successful politicians and prime ministers.

One of the most common gendered tropes in the media portrayal of May is a consistent and repetitive focus on appearance and fashion choices, with The Daily Telegraph and The Sun being the most prolific. Kitten heels became a symbol for May herself in political cartoons and were frequently mentioned in hard news articles that concentrated on her policies and the state of the new government, illustrating the extent to which the media use gender to undermine her authority and perceived significance. For example, a Sun article titled ‘Kitten heels must put foot down on immigration now’ uses the term ‘kitten heels’ to refer to May. The over-emphasis on May’s personal attributes, her outfits, rather than her policies, highlights the subtle ways in which the media undermine women political leaders – here’s the woman, not the politician.

As May is the second woman to be Prime Minister in the UK, and as there have been many social changes since Thatcher’s era, it might be expected that this gendered media treatment would have decreased. However, this does not appear to be the case with the mainstream press, especially the conservative press, which on average have become more gendered. Is this phenomenon due to the rise in personalised mediation of political leaders? Or is it a possible conservative backlash against ‘political correctness’ and women entering spaces once designated as being for men? i


i This research comprised part of the author's PhD thesis, to be published in 2019.