Opinion: How the response to the Mail on Sunday’s “Sharon Stone” slur perfectly illustrates how sexism still pervades our politics, our media and our society

From people’s desperate desire to shame Rayner, to a relationship between politicians and the Press that inhibits accountability, the response to the Mail on Sunday’s “Sharon Stone” attack on Angela Rayner demonstrates just how far Britain has to go on issues of sexism and gender equality.

On Saturday 23rd April, the Mail on Sunday’s political editor Glen Owen published an article that shared an anonymous Tory MP’s views that Angela Rayner deliberately distracts the Prime Minister during PMQs “by crossing and uncrossing her legs” in a manner resembling Sharon Stone from the 1992 film Basic Instinct. Whilst the Mail on Sunday’s article received criticism from across the political sphere, the paper continued its attack on Rayner, with the Mail on Sunday reporting a week later that Angela Rayner herself had been the source of this sexist slur, during an exchange with Tory MPs on the Commons Terrace. What the paper failed to acknowledge however was that the slur had been targeted at Rayner long before this alleged conversation took place, by none over than the Daily Mail itself, with columnist Amanda Platell accusing Rayner of “channelling her inner Sharon Stone” during a PMQs exchange in early January.

Based on this evidence and Rayner’s retweeting of a similar analysis that highlights this earlier article, the most likely scenario seems to be that Angela Rayner tried to laugh off and thus disarm the misogynistic meme that had been popularised by the Mail’s earlier attack, whilst joking with the unnamed Tory MPs on the Commons Terrace. Thus, the excuse put forward by the Mail and its sister paper that the Mail on Sunday was “simply reporting what she (Rayner) had told Tory MPs” shatters, as the existence of this misogynistic meme prior to the alleged meeting destroys the anonymous Tory MP’s claims that Rayner’s supposed comments were an admission of guilt, as opposed to an attempt to laugh off the misogyny that had previously been directed against her. As journalist Martha Gill points out in her analysis of the events, “laughing off a sexist story that is already widespread is very different to coming up with it yourself.”

Whilst many journalists have tried going into detailed accounts, like that of the likely order of alleged events to prove Rayner’s innocence, the truth is: they really shouldn’t have to. To most people, the original accusations made by the anonymous Tory MP should be so clearly false and abhorrent as to warrant no second thought. Unfortunately, we live in a world where many people’s instantaneous reaction when listening to such allegations, whether due to blatant misogyny or toxic political tribalism, is to believe them. Yet even if we chose to live in this Daily Mail world, far removed from reality, where Angela Rayner deliberately did a “Sharon Stone” to distract the Prime Minister, whose fault is it really if Johnson is distracted? I mean what would it say about our Prime Minister if a woman crossing her legs is enough to stop him from doing his job?

Speaking of the PM, when the Mail on Sunday released the initial story, he promised to release the “terrors of the earth” on the anonymous MP who made the allegations. Perhaps in this stand against sexism, he could start by calling out his own Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, who on 30th April retweeted the claim by Mail columnist Dan Hodges that Rayner was responsible for the comments attributed to her, whilst conveniently ignoring the Mail’s earlier slur.

Some might also extend their criticism to the Labour Party leadership. Whilst Keir Starmer’s defence of Rayner and attacks on the unnamed Tory who made the original comments have been robust, his criticism of the Mail’s handling of this whole affair has been much more muted. An easy conclusion to make is that Labour are trying to avoid an all-out war or words with the Mail, which could be potentially costly in the run up to the upcoming local elections. But what does that say about our democracy when a party is so intimidated by a newspaper as to not fight its corner against obvious and abhorrent sexism? However, perhaps we should be cautious about jumping to such conclusions, as an equally conceivable situation might involve Rayner herself not wanting to push the matter further due to the abuse this would inevitably entail for her and her colleagues. This possibility itself perfectly demonstrates how sexism plagues our politics and how far we’ve still got to go.

It should be stressed at this point that a certain amount of guesswork is needed to come to grips with this story, as some of the events mentioned remain unclear, with the Mail still adamant that the alleged conversation between Tory MPs and Rayner took place. Therefore, some people may still ask why Rayner hasn’t given more clarity on the issue, as it should be clear that, if the alleged comments were made, they were simply an attempt to laugh off and mollify a misogynistic slur directed against her. But why should Rayner need to explain herself at all? I mean, whether or not the meeting took place, it’s clear that Rayner did not start the slur, so why should she be treated like the criminal rather than the victim? Its hard to escape the parallels between the Press’s treatment of Rayner and the wider issue of the treatment of victims of sexual assault in our society. Sometimes it seems people are just so eager to make the victim the criminal to support their own narrative.

I guess the real question is, should we just accept that in our political system any female MP who makes comments in jest, as a way to disarm a misogynistic attack, should expect to have those comments turned back against her in a sexist and derogatory way? If the last week has shown us anything it is that, for far too many people, the answer to this question is still yes.

Image: Screenshot from “Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) – 3 November 2021” (17:15)

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