On the front page of the Times website today you could see this:
“A fish in a barrel: ‘Chloe Smith didn’t deserve Paxo’s Newsnight stuffing’ VIDEO: Defending her boss, she took one for the team. Poor thing.”
Poor thing? Stop a moment and ask if you’ve ever seen this sort of language used about a male MP. There’s a whole heap of language being used about her that’s reserved only for women and a lot of it has a big spoonful of pity added for good measure.
If you missed it, Chloe Smith, Junior Treasury Minister, was given a proper going over by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight about the Government’s change of heart on fuel duty. If you look at the clip on YouTube you can only agree that it’s pretty unbearable to watch. She put up a terrible argument and reminded us all why modern politics can be such a farce. But if you look down that right hand bar on YouTube you’ll find that countless Ministers and MPs have been in that seat before her and some have received a dressing down that was just as bad. The Michael Howard interview has become legendary.
So what’s different about the way Chloe Smith is receiving endless column inches and twitter chat on the subject? Well she’s a woman and she’s relatively young (the paper edition of the Times writes “Young Chloe didn’t deserve a mauling from Paxman over her boss’s U-turn” – patronising in the extreme?). What this type of situation does is play straight into the hands of the prejudice that many people hold about women in politics. In this case Chloe Smith has been debating successfully in the House of Commons as a Junior Minister for some time. No one has noted her performances as being poor or not up to scratch. Then this event happens, and immediately all sorts of language is wheeled out that suggests we can attribute this embarrassment to her gender. We can’t. Men have had bad appearances on Newsnight, but no one puts it down to them being men. What happens here is people have the opportunity to wheel out a stereotype that they hold in their minds. This stereotype is WOMEN ARE POLITICAL LIGHTWEIGHTS. Most days of the week/month/year they don’t get to see an event that matches that prejudice – but regardless of this – on the one day of the year that they do see something that matches this prejudice they shout BINGO – here’s the proof that matches my thought: HERE IS A WOMAN WHO IS A POLITICAL LIGHTWEIGHT, I HAVE BEEN VINDICATED. Of course they don’t say that out loud. At least no one would dare around me. They use language like “poor thing” and say that George Osborne shouldn’t have “let” her do it. This is language that belies the opinion that men are the paternalistic gatekeepers of women in politics. It probably was poor judgment for a Junior Minister to have been put up against Paxman on this subject. Or was it that the Treasury believed she is a competent Minister who would do the job well – not many commentators have considered that, it seems.
In society, gender is a very significant category used for classifying others and is usually the first thing that people notice when meeting others. This means people have a habit of attributing something to a person’s gender that has nothing to do with it. My nephew recently told my partner that he couldn’t possibly wear contact lenses because only women wear them. He had only ever seen his mother wear them and assumed therefore that they were specific to her gender. That’s how strongly we like to connect things with gender that are unrelated. There are good male and female politicians and there are bad male and female politicians. Gender is not that cause of Chloe Smith’s bad performance, Chloe Smith is the cause of it.