If like I did, you grew up in the UK, or have lived here at any point since 1970, you will be familiar with the existence of Page 3 in The Sun and other tabloid newspapers. For many people, I imagine that Page 3 is a feature of British life that they do not question or reflect upon. Or if they do think about it, they file it alongside Carry On films and saucy seaside postcards as an eccentric but ultimately benign quirk of our national identity.
Something that intrigues and amuses me is to imagine what non-British people must make of Page 3 when they encounter it for the first time. How completely baffling and perplexing it must be to learn that there is a British newspaper – indeed, the newspaper with the largest circulation of all – that every day, prints a full page photograph of a young, attractive, glamour model showing her breasts, for readers to enjoy during their commute or tea break.
Since its inception, Page 3 had starkly divided opinion. During her time as an MP Clare Short famously campaigned against it, and was duly vilified as a fat, ugly, jealous killjoy by The Sun. That particular movement was unsuccessful, but for those who oppose the daily objectification of women in the media, the discontent has never completely disappeared. Just lately, there have been rumblings from a new generation of feminists, launching an internet campaign to petition the editor of The Sun, Dominic Mohan, to abolish Page 3 for good.
Information about the campaign can be found here, and I urge you to go and read it. In this post, I want to persuade you that if you are a reasonable person who is committed to equality between the sexes, then you ought to support this campaign – at the very least, by signing the petition. I’m going to try to do this by addressing three very common objections you often hear to campaigns like this, and show you why all of them are mistaken.
1. The models aren’t complaining, so why are you?
This is a standard response given to any feminist who tries to object to things like Page 3, pornography, or the so-called “lads’ mags”. The response goes something like this: the women do it voluntarily; nobody’s holding a gun to their heads and forcing them to bare their breasts; they enjoy it and get paid loads of money; the readers of The Sun like looking at them; everybody’s happy. Nobody’s harmed, so what’s your problem?
This is often followed by a sly comment insinuating that the objector must be in some way envious – perhaps she is not attractive enough to be a Page 3 model or to be lusted after in this way, and is resentful of those who are. Or, slightly less derisory is the suggestion that since nobody is harmed by these pictures, the only possible motivation anybody could have to object to them is prudishness. Feminists are humourless, behind the times and puritanical, out to spoil everyone else’s fun by imposing their archaic and priggish dislike of the sight of women’s bare bodies.
These responses are based on a serious – and I think often deliberate – misunderstanding of the nature of our (or at least my) objection to Page 3. Most feminists are very clear that our concerns about Page 3 are not primarily grounded in worries about the welfare of the models themselves. (This is despite some rather disturbing stories about some tabloid practices, such as The Sunday Sport newspaper grooming a fifteen year old girl for Page 3 and including a countdown in their pages until the day they could legally show her topless.)
Rather, the main reason I object to the continued existence of Page 3 is that I think it is harmful to all women, not just the women who choose to appear. I am sure the models are fairly remunerated for their work, and in the absence of evidence of coercion, I don’t deny that they do the job freely and willingly. But the real damage caused by printing pictures of topless women for men to leer over every day is done to all those women who didn’t choose it. The rest of us were never asked whether we wanted to live in a world where Page 3 exists; and if asked, many of us would withhold our consent. I believe that Page 3 has a profound and detrimental effect on all women, and on relations between the sexes more generally. As I argued here, this time in response to a particularly misogynistic piece of Sun journalism, this newspaper and others like it reproduce and promote a world view wherein women are regarded first and foremost as sexual objects. Printing a daily photograph of an attractive young woman baring her breasts for male appreciation creates and reinforces the idea that the primary role of a woman is to be beautiful and sexually available. All other aspects of women’s identities – their talents, abilities, achievements – are secondary. The message constructed and repeated day in, day out, is that women exist primarily for men’s sexual arousal.
For me, the most toxic element of Page 3 is not actually the photograph itself – I am not in the least offended by the sight of bare breasts. The thing I find most hateful and objectionable is the little text box next to the photograph – the piece that has come to be called ‘News in Briefs’. This is a line or two of insight or observation about the big news story of the day, attributed to the model, such as:
Chloe was devastated to hear that Picasso works have been stolen. She said: “I’ve long been an admirer of his bold expressions of cubism and am particularly keen on his Analytic and Synthetic periods. He really knew how to slap the oils around.”
The financial ruin hitting Greeks earns sympathy from Rhian. She says: “It’s a tragedy of epic proportions – but Greece’s budget deficit of 12.7 per cent is fiscally unsustainable. The government fell for the myth of European monetary standardisation and the Acropolis is facing apocalypse now. Homer would be horrified. Even Bart could do better.”
This instance was especially popular, being repeatedly forwarded and retweeted for days after its publication:
It’s quite clear what the joke is supposed to be here. Obviously a glamour model couldn’t possibly have said such things! Can you imagine it – a young, beautiful woman knowing about economics or science?! How hilarious, pretending that a blonde, pretty woman with big breasts would understand quantum mechanics. What a funny joke. Chortle.
You don’t need to be particularly insightful, or engage in too much reading between the lines, to understand the message that’s being presented here. Science, art, economics, politics – these things are not for women, and certainly not for young, attractive women. These are big boys’ issues. Leave it to the men and their superior intellects to worry about the Higgs Boson and the Greek economy – you girls just concentrate on sticking your tits out and looking pretty.
Seeing that picture, every day, and reading that message, every day, it seems inevitable that many people – both men and women – will absorb the ideology it promotes: that women’s primary role is decorative, not intellectual, and that they do not deserve equal respect. Whether or not Chloe, Rhian or Danni object to being presented in this light, damage is done to all women by Page 3. And so yes, I have pretty good reasons to object to Page 3, even if those who participate do so freely and are handsomely compensated.
This brings me to the second common response, namely:
2. If you don’t like The Sun, don’t buy it!
Given the arguments made above, this response is just not going to cut the mustard. Of course I don’t buy The Sun. I never have. That’s not really the point. I’m not objecting to Page 3 because I don’t like looking at breasts, so that the whole problem could be avoided if I simply stopped opening the front cover. Rather, I consider that Page 3, and the sexist ethos of the newspapers like The Sun more generally, are harmful to me and to all women, regardless of whether we ever pick it up.
Painful as it is to acknowledge, The Sun has the largest circulation of any UK newspaper, and therefore its impact is significant. Millions of people read that newspaper daily, unavoidably imbibing its ideas and values. This is harmful not only to how men view women, but also to how women come to view themselves. As those behind the latest campaign argue, the existence of Page 3 is one of the biggest factors contributing to the continued objectification and commodification of women and their bodies in British society. For those of us who are concerned about this, simply not choosing to buy a product we never bought to begin with is never going to be sufficient.
3. This is censorship!
At this point, many people start to worry about the effects of these arguments on freedom of expression. Even if everything I have said is true, surely calling for an end to Page 3 is an attempt to censor the freedom of the press?
I think this is a legitimate worry, so it’s important to be very clear that this is not what this campaign is about. If you head over to the petition here you will see that it is not an attempt to ‘ban’ Page 3, or an attempt to restrict the freedom of The Sun in any way. Rather, it is a request to the editor of The Sun that he stop printing pictures of topless women in the newspaper from now on.
This is a crucial distinction. I am a liberal as well as a feminist, and I am fully aware of the central role played by ideals of free expression, and by mechanisms such as a free press, to the maintenance of a liberal society. I do not wish to speak for the other members of the campaign, but I can positively state that if this campaign were about restricting freedom of expression – if the ultimate aim was to pass legislation preventing the publication of topless women on Page 3 of daily newspapers – I would not support it. I place a high value on liberal rights of freedom of expression, and recognise that this only has any meaning if I extend it to forms of expression of which I do not personally approve. The liberal virtue of toleration is meaningless unless one is prepared to extend it to those with whom one disagrees – indeed, that is what toleration is. So while I dislike Page 3, and believe it to promote distorted and damaging gender stereotypes, I do not think that this is a serious enough reason to restrict the freedom of expression of The Sun newspaper and its editors. In my opinion, the harms caused to women’s social standing and to gender relations are too indirect, mediated through a myriad of other social, economic and cultural phenomena, to meet the heavy burden of justification that would be required to restrict the press’s freedom of expression.
But this campaign is not attempting to restrict anybody’s right to free expression – it is not calling for any form of legal censorship. What it is doing is exercising our own right of freedom of expression to call on the editor of The Sun, and ask him to exercise his right more responsibly. Just because you have a right to do something, doesn’t mean that you should do it, and doesn’t mean that others can’t ask you to reconsider whether it is the correct thing to do. That is why I support this campaign. It is not aiming to ban Page 3, and does not represent a call for censorship of the media. Instead, it is a call to newspaper editors to recognise the influence they exert when they exercise this right, and to ask them not to exercise it in ways that are damaging to their fellow citizens. It is also asking consumers of The Sun to reflect upon the view of women they are being offered, and to reject the sexist and archaic ideas about the place of women in society it promotes.
I see this campaign not as a form of censorship, but as operating in the best feminist tradition of consciousness-raising. The aim is to illustrate to Dominic Mohan, and other tabloid editors, that there is a growing, vocal number of people – both men and women – who reject the distorted view of women they present to their readers, and who oppose the daily commodification and objectification of women in the media. The aim is also to raise awareness of the distorted and damaging effects of such imagery and journalism on women’s equality and on gender relations; and to encourage both men and women to make their indignation known, and stop buying The Sun and newspapers like it until their promotion of such harmful views ends. The hope is that if we speak loudly enough, we might challenge the widespread view that the picture of women presented by The Sun is acceptable.
EDIT – 12 September 2012
There’s a fourth myth about this campaign that it has just occurred to me it’s important to address. There’s another standard response you often hear, and that has already been raised in the comments on this Guardian piece about the campaign, namely:
4. The Sun will never get rid of Page 3, it will harm sales!
This reply is regularly trotted out, either in a defeatist tone by those who wish to inform us that we’re wasting our time, or by those who seem to think that the primary obligation of a newspaper editor is to satisfy the demands of the readership. This response assumes that Page 3 exists because there is such strong consumer demand for it, and therefore getting rid of it (NB – not banning!) would be detrimental to sales. From this, depending on your point of view, we either get the defeatist conclusion that it will never happen; or we get the argument that it ought not to happen, because the newspaper should deliver whatever its readers want.
It seems to me that this response is based upon a pretty dubious empirical assumption that I am not sure stands up to scrutiny, namely: that a significant proportion of The Sun’s readership buy the newspaper primarily for the photograph of a topless woman. Now, I don’t know whether that is true. But it seems to me to be highly unlikely. It would have been unlikely in 1970, but in 2012, with far more exciting things on the internet, it seems ludicrously unlikely to think that some people buy The Sun because without it, they wouldn’t know where else to go to see some breasts.
At the same time, each of the following scenarios seem quite likely to me to be true:
a) Some people buy The Sun in spite of Page 3, but dislike it, and would prefer it not to be there
b) Some people buy The Sun while being indifferent to Page 3, and would continue to buy it whether it were there or not
c) Some people do not currently buy The Sun because they dislike or are embarrassed by Page 3, and would buy it in future if they got rid of it.
Given that all three of these seem possible, I don’t see any good reason to so quickly assume that getting rid of Page 3 would be detrimental to the Sun’s sales.
Further, this response assumes a one-dimensional and simplistic account of the nature of consumer demand and market supply: the reader has the desire, the newspaper simply meets it. This entirely neglects the possibility that the newspaper might not only be responding to consumer demand, but also helping to create and reinforce that demand. It seems likely that if they stopped printing the photographs, readers would over time stop desiring to see pictures of topless women with their daily news. The Sun and its editors cannot retreat entirely from moral argument by claiming to be merely meeting the demand of their customers. They have further moral responsibilities, besides simply satisfying consumer demand. They have obligations not to contribute to social inequality, or to reproduce and promote a world view wherein half of the citizens of the country are demoted to the position of sexual objects and commodities.
If I have persuaded you, please sign the petition
You can also follow the campaign on Twitter: @NoMorePage3