Have you heard? Something incredibly shocking happened in the House of Commons this week. No, it wasn’t a new Brexit negotiation shock, it wasn’t an update of escalating tensions in the Middle East, it wasn’t even about the much-debated BBC licence fee.
It was MP Tracy Brabin’s shoulder.
A female MP’s bare shoulder was at large in parliament and the internet collectively lost its sh*t.
The internet does that a lot when it comes to what women wear. It even did it earlier this week with actress Jodie Smith, who had the audacity to wear a silk crop top and skirt combo on TV, whilst eight months pregnant.
Jodie was on screen to discuss her latest film Queen & Slim; a love story immersed in the troubling societal issues of institutional racism and police brutality against African Americans.
That’s lovely Jodie, but can we discuss your crop top instead?
Tracy Brabin was called to the dispatch box to speak about the shocking expulsion of journalists from a Downing Street briefing – a move many have noted echoes Trump’s actions towards the media and which gives off a particularly suspicious aroma of dictatorship.
Yeah but….Tracy babes…can you just sort out that off-the-shoulder ASOS dress first? Thanks.
The revulsion that has met both of these women’s sartorial decisions has been vile and disproportionate. Tracy Brabin tweeted some of the choice insults she received this week; “a slag, hungover, a tart, about to breastfeed, a slapper, drunk” and, one especailly repugnant addition which has haunted my brain ever since I read it; “looks like she’s just been banged over a wheelie bin.”
Let’s take a step back shall we, and remind ourselves that what Tracy Brabin – Labour MP and Shadow Culture Secretary – has done to deserve this torrent of abuse, is wear an off-the shoulder black dress to work.
And Jodie Smith? I’d wager her outfit would have received very little commentary should her abs have been taut. But the fact she is growing a human being inside there is clearly a klaxon for trolls everywhere to unite. Put it away Jodie- the miracle of life is unpalatable to us.
Both Jodie and Tracy have shot back, of course. Jodie’s announced on social media that she “gives zero f***s about your disdain for pregnant women’s bodies on British television” attitude, and Tracy called out the obvious misogyny as well as ridiculousness of having to discuss the issue on the news; “This is frankly absurd,” she told BBC breakfast, “We are here talking about a shoulder.”
Yes, this abuse is the usual hot mess of reductive, misogynistic and offensive bile that is so often spewed out by the so-called ‘keyboard warriors’ on the mad, sad, shouty playground of Twitter. But, crucially, what this commentary about Jodie and Tracy’s clothes has drowned out are their voices.
Can anyone recall what salient points Tracy was making about this significant attack on the freedom of the press? No. Have we spent the week ruminating on Jodie’s insights into this thought-provoking film? No. Once again, we assess and respond to women in the public eye on a skin deep level; how they look, what they wear.
Think of the infamous ‘Legsit’ moment; when a pivotal meeting between then-Prime Minister Theresa May and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, was reduced, on one tabloid front page, to an analysis of who had better pins; “Never mind Brexit, who won leg-sit?”
This is a tired and yet interminable approach to any famous woman, proving our society refuses to shift away from the default male gaze. The capital of women is still their appearance. They continue to be judged, not on the merits of their accomplishments, but on the appropriateness of their wardrobe or the attractiveness of their legs.
Clothes can be actively political. Think of the sustainable choices made by the Royal Family; consciously recycling outfits to lead the charge. There is the faux-pas of Melania Trump’s infamous Zara jacket, emblazoned with ‘I Really Don’t Care, Do You?” during the humanitarian crisis at the US border or the choice of so many US congresswomen and senators at the State of the Union address this week, to wear white in honour of the Suffragists movement.
These are moments when clothes are worthy of discussion; where a woman’s choice has made a conscious political statement.
But what we have seen this week is nothing short of the policing of women’s bodies – bodies which we still stubbornly and archaically, refuse to view as anything other than sexual.
The shoulder of a strong politician, the stomach of a woman creating life.
How sad that we cannot see these things for what they really are.
How sad we are still only looking at women, when we should be listening to them.