With the formal process of leaving the European Union due to begin Wednesday when Theresa May triggers Article 50, Britain stands, for good or ill, on the edge of a historic decision.
The once-mighty union of Great Britain is divided as never before, with nationalism on the march across the land, and a powerful Scottish independence movement demanding the right to split off from the U.K. and remain part of the EU.
The Daily Mail’s response to this most momentous times?
A front page photograph of the female leaders of England and Scotland, Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, both seated and wearing above-the-knee skirts, with a headline reading, “Never Mind Brexit, Who Won Legs-it!”
Phwoar, as the British blue-collar worker of popular imagination might say.
The Daily Mail—sometimes mocked by its critics as the “Daily Male” for its often-misogynistic tone—has come under fierce attack and stands accused of “outrageous sexism” on Tuesday for the headline, which accompanied a photograph taken during a highly charged meeting between the two leaders Monday.
Inside, a column from Sarah Vine dissects the issue of the pair’s legs in great detail, claiming that Sturgeon positioned her legs in a “more flirty, tantalizingly crossed” way, in a “direct attempt at seduction” toward the Scottish electorate.
Sturgeon, the nationalist Scottish first minister, has been criticized by the largely pro-Brexit U.K. media after she called for a fresh independence referendum in Scotland in recognition of the fact that the vast majority of Scots voted Remain, but will likely be leaving the EU anyway as they are part of the U.K. May—citing the need to focus all energies on “making Brexit a success”—has refused to countenance what is being tagged #indyref2, following the referendum in 2014 that saw Scotland vote to remain part of the Union.
The reductive headline, which, as former Labor minister Yvette Cooper pointed out, focused “on the lower limbs” of the “two women” whose “decisions will determine if United Kingdom continues to exist,” incited a range of emotions from bemusement, to disgust and dismay this morning. Discussion of the headline was a leading topic of conversation on mainstream and social media this morning, with almost universal condemnation for the “absurd” and “offensive” attitudes it encapsulated.
The former leader of the Labor Party, Ed Miliband, showed a neat turn of phrase when he tweeted this morning: “The 1950s called and asked for their headline back.”
The front page of the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail used the same photograph but with a headline that read: “Oh so frosty! Secrets of Nicola and PM’s talk-in.”
Later editions of the paper appeared to attempt to water down the editorial line, describing it on the front as: “Sarah Vine’s light-hearted verdict on the big showdown.”
The article sought to cast the meeting as a catfight, with Vine writing: “While May’s fingers, elegant with their classic red nails, were relaxed and open, Sturgeon’s grip appeared somewhat tenser, her right thumb at an awkward angle, bearing down on her left index finger in a vice-like grip, as though having to use every ounce of self-control to stop herself poking her rival in that gimlet eye.”
Vine then adds: “But what stands out here are the legs—and the vast expanse on show. There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed.
“May’s famously long extremities are demurely arranged in her customary finishing-school stance—knees tightly together, calves at a flattering diagonal, feet neatly aligned. It’s a studied pose that reminds us that for all her confidence, she is ever the vicar’s daughter, always respectful and anxious not to put a foot wrong.
“Sturgeon’s shorter but undeniably more shapely shanks are altogether more flirty, tantalizingly crossed, with the dominant leg pointing toward her audience.
"It’s a direct attempt at seduction: her stiletto is not quite dangling off her foot, but it could be. ‘Come, succumb to my revolutionary allure,’ she seems to be saying. ‘You know you want to.’"
Social media, on the whole, did not.