The Daily Mail is no stranger to allegations of being uncouth. But the British tabloid's front page on Tuesday, which jauntily accosted readers with a photograph of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and British Prime Minister Theresa May — arguably Britain's two most powerful politicians — next to the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” prompted many to call for a boycott.
The story itself was written by a woman, Sarah Vine. It was intended to be a “lighthearted verdict on the big showdown” between the two leaders on the eve of May triggering Article 50, initiating “Brexit,” the process by which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. Sturgeon and a majority of her Scottish constituents did not support Brexit, and she has promised to hold another referendum on Scottish independence (and by extension, E.U. membership) next year after one held before the Brexit vote failed.
In the Daily Mail, Vine wrote, “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.”
“May's famously long extremities are demurely arranged,” she wrote, while “Sturgeon's shorter but undeniably more shapely shanks are altogether more flirty.”
Sturgeon's pose, wrote Vine, was “a direct attempt at seduction. ... 'Come, succumb to my revolutionary allure,' she seems to be saying. 'You know you want to.'”
Vine's “lighthearted” attempt at political commentary was ravaged by wide-ranging segments of British society, from angry mothers to leaders of political parties.
— Sharon McTeir (@sharonmcteir) March 28, 2017
Former leader of the Labour party Ed Miliband tweeted: “The 1950s called and asked for their headline back.” Former prime minister Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, called the Daily Mail “utter scum” and suggested that anyone coming across the paper rip it up. Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “It's 2017. This sexism must be consigned to history. Shame on the Daily Mail.”
May's office refused to join the debate. At a daily briefing for journalists, the prime minister’s official spokesman, James Slack, who was the Daily Mail's political editor until recently, said, “You would not expect me to comment on what newspapers should or should not put on their front pages.”
On social media, as was to be expected, non-politicians spoke a bit more bluntly. One user offered her “translation” of the Daily Mail's headline:
— francesca aczel (@francesca_aczel) March 27, 2017
Journalists offered their takes on the ways readers were responding to the controversy, too:
The fact that everyone starts their #legsit tweets with: "it's 2017!" shows how preconditioned we are to assume that the world gets better.
— Cordelia Jenkins (@CordeliaJ) March 28, 2017
Stop sharing the sexist #legsit Daily Mail front page. They do this to enrage their critics. It's free publicity and they know it.
— Rori Donaghy (@roridonaghy) March 28, 2017
Even Piers Morgan, who is the U.S. editor-at-large for the Daily Mail's website, chimed in. Though, as usual, he couldn't stop from putting his foot — or his leg, perhaps — in his mouth.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) March 28, 2017
The reaction jumped across the English Channel and farther, making its way to the West African nation of Mali, where the similarly named “Daily Mali” newspaper indicated it had been fielding numerous complaints from social media users who had mistaken it for the British tabloid.
— Daily Mali (@MaliDaily) March 27, 2017
By Tuesday afternoon local time, the story had gotten so big that even the Daily Mail, which syndicates a number of news services, such as Agence France-Presse and the Press Association, was running a version of a story accusing the paper of sexism.
— Prashant Rao (@prashantrao) March 28, 2017
And ultimately, amid the outrage, many took advantage of a situation ripe for humor.
— Emily Davies (@EmilyDTV) March 28, 2017
“We finally seem to have found a contest Jeremy Corbyn can win,” said The Washington Post's London bureau chief, Griff Witte. “The off-white socks really clinch it.”