The media’s fascination with Theresa May’s dancing is a fig leaf for the government’s incompetency
Another day, another bone-scorchingly uncomfortable video of the Prime Minister doing the rounds.
On August 28, Theresa May touched down for a three-day trade visit to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. That afternoon, BBC News at One opened with a headline about May’s visit to Cape Town. The first video, with the opening music still rolling, was May dancing with a group of school kids. In a circle they swayed and side-stepped, May moving in a style that my grandmother would have evocatively described as being “all bones”. The camera cut to Natasha Kaplinsky’s perfectly made-up face, struggling to suppress a laugh. Shortly after, all of the major – and minor – news outlets set about gleefully sharing the video.
Apparently not deterred, three days later May was at it again, this time with an even more protracted set of moves that put me in mind of the 1996 dance competition final at Bognor Regis Butlins when six late middle-aged women put down their cocktail umbrella-festooned vodka and oranges and got up on stage to do the Whigfield Saturday Night dance.
Look at the Maybot. Look at her trying and failing to act like a normal human being, again. Look at how she moves, stiff and ungainly. Look at how different she is from the rest of us. Or is she?
I’m the last person to claim to have any sort of warm feeling for May. But I’ve stood in nightclubs at the beginning of the evening while Snoop Dogg plays and, let me tell you, an inability to dance actually makes the Prime Minister more human and easier to relate to, not less. Have you been to a wedding disco recently? And have you been to a wedding disco where you weren’t allowed to drink, it was brilliant daylight, you didn’t know the song you were dancing to and you were painfully aware that there was a wall of photographers, beaming the images onto TV screens around the world? No? Thought not.
It’s not the first time this has happened, either. It wasn’t too long ago since the internet exploded with 1,001 memes after she was captured curtseying to Prince William. While everyone lined up to call her out for being socially awkward, the headlines should have centred more rigorously on the problematic nature of a democratically elected representative bowing before a member of the royal family.
Similarly, after Donald Trump’s visit – which many agreed was morally wrong – some people seemed more concerned with the cut of May’s red dress and the diabetes patch attached to the back of her arm. In some unsavoury corners of social media, men (and it was predominantly men) discussed between how terrible she looked and how unflattering her clothes were. I saw many of these comments in groups that profess to be left wing and progressive, though I’m struggling to see what is progressive about shaming someone’s body and lowering your political discourse to how sexually attractive you think somebody looks in a dress.
It’s true, of course, that other politicians have fallen victim to unflattering photographs, embarrassing media faux pas, publicity stunts gone wrong. There was Ed with the bacon sandwich, for instance. But let’s remember where that photo originated: on the front page of the Conservative paper The Sun, in the middle of an election campaign. Miliband was frequently described as awkward, but his awkwardness saw him likened to cuddly Wallace – of Wallace and Gromit – rather than a “wobbling fridge” and a “dalek”. Meanwhile, Boris continues to show all of the physical and social grace of an elephant stuffed into a mouse’s dinner jacket. The tide may be turning against him but it’s because of his abhorrent comments on race and not how he looks.
I’m not sure that the media’s agenda is necessarily to bring May down by encouraging us to laugh at these videos. Instead, I think there are several things going on here. One is that this coverage is gendered. I think if Boris was Prime Minister then the coverage of this sort of event would show him in a much more positive light – yes, we’d be encouraged to laugh, but there would be a sense of us laughing with him, not at him, that he’d be somehow in on the joke. This is an era where the images we regularly see of women are predominantly airbrushed, filtered, curated. The impact of this is huge: mental health problems among young people have skyrocketed, with a study this week showing that a quarter of girls regularly self-harm. Among several reasons for this, one that was repeatedly highlighted and quoted was that girls and young women feel like there are impossible standards in physical appearance to live up to.
Here’s a radical thought, though: is it possible that actually May is laughing at herself? Is it possible for women to be OK with being physically ungainly? Is it possible that, y’know, she was all right with doing something a bit embarrassing to further diplomatic relations because she has the top job in politics in this country?
The other reason is that the media’s damaging fascination with awkwardness – physical and social – allows the Government to continue its destructive and unjust policies behind a smokescreen of discomfiture. It’s a fig leaf for incompetency. And we’re falling for it.
At the same time we were all laughing ourselves silly behind our keyboards at May’s dance moves, an excellent Channel 4 interview with the Prime Minister before she headed out to Robben Island repeatedly asked her exactly what she did during the 70s and 80s to help release Nelson Mandela. Did she go on protests? Did she boycott South African goods? Was she arrested outside the embassy? No, of course not. But she couldn’t say that, and so she repeated the same thing: she was proud of what the British Government had achieved. If that interview gained even one tenth of the exposure that the dancing videos did, perhaps we’d be spending more time thinking about May’s lack of morals and less about her lack of rhythm.
The question mark over this woman’s humanity is in her politics, not her body. She presides over a government that has decimated spending in all key areas. Vulnerable people are left struggling to access the money and support they need to live. The NHS is at breaking point, described by various consultants as struggling with “third world conditions” and the “worst conditions in memory”.
Streets in every major town and city in the country bear the shame of homelessness. Just weeks after the Government vowed to end the epidemic of people sleeping rough, starved city councils are slashing funding to the very charities and organisations set up to support those people. We’re about to fall off the white cliff edge of Brexit as May’s negotiating teams fail to come to any real consensus about the best way to approach one of the biggest political challenges in living memory.
These are just some of the problems with Theresa May. Not that she can’t dance. Not that she’s tall and looks silly curtseying. Let’s forget about May as a person and look at what, politically, she stands for. That’s the real shame.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.