Gendered Media Representations in International Relations - Part 3

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This is the final part of a three-part series that borrows excerpts from my master’s dissertation about heads of state and gender bias in the media. Here, I present British Prime Minister Theresa May as a case study. May seems to lack the “masculine” credentials for executive office. Chancellor Merkel (Part 1) and Prime Minister May experience greater media scrutiny for their appearance and stance toward feminism as opposed to Prime Minister Trudeau (Part 2). Merkel, Trudeau, and May make sense of international politics through a “masculine” and “feminine” understanding of power. Nevertheless, hegemonic masculinity informs how these world leaders perform their gender identities.

British Prime Minister Theresa May

Theresa May is one of the few stateswomen who self-identifies as a feminist. She has famously worn a “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt to support a charity’s campaign (Sanghani 2016). Her alliance with feminism has sparked ongoing criticism and debate. May’s physical appearance, for example, has fascinated the media because she makes fashion statements and participates in photoshoots with Vogue. Women leaders are viewed as a departure from the norm, and their abilities are constantly questioned, leading to scrutiny that may not appear gendered at all.  In media reports, May’s leadership qualities are met with criticism, casting doubts over her ability to navigate the new political landscape of Brexit and her status as an unelected prime minister (PM).

The “F” Word

May’s status as a feminist remains at odds with her leadership role. Considering that May’s feminist self-proclamations require defense (Clarke-Billings 2016), the media both criticizes her and argues that she invokes a new brand of feminism. Politico charges May as “female, but not feminist” (Walker 2016), rejecting the idea that May has the credentials to align with feminism.

In her Politico article, Walker points out the importance of considering that “not all women leaders are feminists,” (2016) and the impact of Brexit on “women was barely considered” (2016). May, it is argued, lacks the political will and feminist vision to improve women’s lives. Her feminism is portrayed in the media as symbolic rather than authentic.

For a female PM, women’s issues should be a priority. However, the hegemonic masculinity discourses in international politics do not provide stateswomen with enough flexibility to take feminist-oriented policy seriously. As the first female PM representing the UK, Margaret Thatcher operated in her role with the disadvantage of being a woman because masculine constructs and being male were, and continue to be, considered the main criteria to participate in world politics.

Because a woman leader is already considered an exception to the norm, any concerns about qualifications and ability are magnified.

The media compares May with Margaret Thatcher, but observes that “May is not Thatcher’s imitator” in musings of gender politics (Gottlieb 2016). For example, the “Iron Lady called feminism a poison,” and she felt “under no pressure” to advocate for women (Gottlieb 2016). On the other hand, The Huffington Post characterizes May as having “feminist-friendly credentials” (Gottlieb 2016). Despite May’s efforts to promote women’s political participation in the past (Cosslett 2016), and self-identifying as a feminist, she encounters sharp criticism and is considered under qualified to align with feminist values.

Qualities of Leadership

Shortly after her ascent to power, The Economist (2017) ran a piece assessing May’s first six months in office. Without an electoral victory, May had to assert her legitimacy to govern. In addition, she must negotiate Brexit without relying on established legal, economic and diplomatic precedents in leaving the European Union, which presents serious political difficulties.

Because a woman leader is already considered an exception to the norm, any concerns about qualifications and ability are magnified. In addition to noting the delicate political situation May inherited as an unelected leader, she is portrayed as somewhat lacking the necessary social skills to execute her role as prime minister. Journalists have probed her character and upbringing to draw correlations between her personality and ability to lead the country. May exhibits “a social distance” which some suggest stems from living with diabetes or her parents passing away when she was young (The Economist 2017). These personal inroads into her life attempt to establish, and evaluate, her credibility and ability to govern. Gendered criticism becomes customary and does not seem problematic until it is evident that the personal lives of statesmen are not investigated and criticized in the same way. Due to endless scrutiny, women have to prove their competence. Whereas, men are assumed to be competent leaders.  

In addition to the social distance she appears to display, May reportedly struggles with the small talk needed for diplomatic proceedings (The Economist  2017). It is reported that “close allies” refer to May as “a control freak” (The Economist  2017). From a feminist perspective, this characterization serves to subvert May’s leadership qualities and associates the idea of “control freak” to her personality. The Economist concludes that her leadership style “makes it worryingly easy to imagine the Britain of 2018 or 2019 in disarray” (The Economist  2017). The discussion of May’s leadership style, and the gendered lens through which the media reports its findings, create doubt and forecast bleak prospects about the UK’s future under a woman leader.

Physical Appearance

May’s leopard-print shoes, the color of her lipstick, and designer clothes create headlines because she embraces practices associated with femininity. According to Vogue, May aims to prove that “she can hold the top job and still be interested in clothes” (Conlon 2017). May is objectified and her femininity is put on display with descriptions such as “she can wear any shoe with those brilliant legs and elegantly carved ankles” (Pentelow and O’Connor 2017).

The media tends to trivialize May’s interest in fashion and fails to recognize the gender bias evident in reports about her clothes, shoes, and makeup. The relationship between fashion statements and a leader’s personality is perpetuated in media coverage and insists looking to “her feet for a glimmer of her personality” (Pentelow and O’Connor 2017). May might be described as the “most unusual politician of her time” (Wood 2017) because she defies a construct of hegemonic masculinity which is codified in international relations as a masculine dress code.

Due to endless scrutiny, women have to prove their competence. Whereas, men are assumed to be competent leaders.

According to The Guardian, May uses fashion “as a form of political communication” (Perkins 2017). May stands out because she “has never conceded her interest in fashion to the demands of political convention,” and seeks to normalize the “idea of serious women being serious about fashion too” (Perkins 2017). However, the construct of hegemonic masculinity make such attempts difficult to take seriously because feminine constructs continue to be marginalized. Women in the public eye, like May, challenge “the rules about what it means to look like a president or prime minister” (Friedman 2016). However, gender hierarchies and hegemonic masculinity remain relatively unrecognized in IR.


May’s leadership style has been characterised negatively with descriptions such as “control freak” and “micromanager,” and yet the media fails to mention any positive aspects of her leadership style. May is portrayed as lacking the competence, whether through her leadership style or appearance, to execute the “masculine” position of head of state. May, unlike Merkel (Part 1) or Trudeau (Part 2), encounters additional challenges in establishing her leadership credentials.

A feminist perspective renders hidden structures of gender binaries visible, but requires in-depth interpretations of the relationship between gender hierarchies and media discourses in international relations. Merkel and May experience greater media scrutiny for their appearance and approach toward feminism. Merkel’s leadership style is touted, whereas May’s lacks the “masculine” credentials for executive office. Trudeau is not subject to extensive criticism for his feminist values, leadership style, or appearance. To the contrary, his claim to feminism, style of governance, and appearance are revered. The analysis presented here attempts to establish both a theoretical and practical basis for scholars and practitioners to become critical consumers of media and improve gender literacy in media and IR. Feminist analyses are crucial to understanding how, and why, international politics function the way it does.

Clara Martinez completed her master's in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Clarke-Billings, L. (2016) ‘Ruth Davidson: ‘Feminist’ Theresa May Has ‘Helped Women at Every Turn’’ Newsweek [Online] 5 October. [Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Conlon, S. (2017) ‘Theresa May: The Vogue Interview’ Vogue Magazine [Online] 21 March.[Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Cosslett, R. (2016) ‘Theresa May Says She’s a Feminist. Let’s Ask Her to Eradicate Period Poverty’ The Guardian [Online] 13 December. [Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Friedman, V. (2016) ‘The New Age in Power Dressing’ The New York Times [Online] 27 July.[Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Gottlieb, J. (2016) ‘This May Be Tory Feminism: The Second Woman PM is Not Margaret Thatcher Mark II’ The Huffington Post [Online] 19 July. [Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Leftly, M. (2016) ‘Theresa May Gives Britain an Idea of What Kind of Leader She’ll Be’ Time [Online] 5 October. [Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Pentelow, O. and O’Connor, T. (2017) ‘Theresa May: A Political Life in Pictures’ Vogue Magazine [Online] 22 June. [Accessed: 2 July 2017].

Perkins, A. (2017) ‘Theresa May’s Vogue Shoot is a Smart Fashion Statement’ The Guardian [Online] 16 January. [Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Sanghani, R. (2016) ‘Is Theresa May Britain’s most feminist Prime Minister ever?’ The Telegraph [Online] 13 July. [Accessed: 1 June 2017].

The Economist ‘Assessing the First Six Months of Theresa May’ [Online] 7 January 2017.[Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Walker, S. (2016) ‘Theresa May: Female, But Not Feminist’ Politico [Online] 13 July. [Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Wood, G. (2017) ‘U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Leading Britain Post-Brexit’ Vogue Magazine [Online] 20 March. [Accessed: 1 June 2017].

Marissa Conway