Page 3 Girls and porn-again feminists

It really is sad that so many feminists get their knickers in a twist about the Sun’s topless beauties.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Feminism

What can you say about Page Three of the UK tabloid the Sun? Having just celebrated its fortieth anniversary, the topless model in this popular newspaper is something of an institution. Nearly 3,000 young women have been photographed in their bikini bottoms, and nearly three million people (men and women) read the paper on an average day.

Page Three is as much a part of British culture as a cup of tea. It may not be your cup of tea, in which case you don’t have to buy the Sun. End of? If only.

There’s something about Page Three that makes some people – generally women who describe themselves as feminists – really get their knickers in a twist. ‘Killjoy’ Clare Short MP famously campaigned against topless models in the 1980s; on the fortieth anniversary Laurie Penny, writing in the New Statesman, fumed that ‘Page Three is far more harmful than any tawdry top-shelf skin mag because, without saying a word, it informs the millions of Sun readers who are not straight, adult men that the world is arranged for the social and sexual convenience of those who are’.

The veteran feminist writer Bea Campbell, whom I debated on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 19 November, regards Page Three as illustrating everything that is ‘horrible’ about the politics and values promoted by the Sun. Beyond the Sun, mainstream female semi-nudity – generally described by its critics as ‘soft porn’ – has provoked a stream of bile from otherwise sharp and sensible commentators like The Times’ Janice Turner, who has declared war on the ‘casual sexism’ of modern British culture, epitomised by the ‘unreconstructed laddishness’ of magazines like Nuts and Zoo.

And the new breed of younger self-proclaimed feminists can generally be relied upon to seize on images of women and sex as a reminder of how women aren’t as equal as we might think we are: we’re still ‘objectified’, whatever that is supposed to mean.

‘Don’t you get it?’ demanded an angry Bea Campbell on Today. But here’s the thing: I really do not get why soft porn should be an issue in twenty-first century Britain.

It is true that titillating images of topless women have their history in an uptight sexual culture, in which women were oppressed. Whether such images actually helped to oppress women is debatable, as is the question of whether they helped to challenge a sexually repressive culture or merely reinforced it. But a lot has changed since 1970. Women outperform men in education and participate equally in employment – there are still disparities in income and status, but these largely apply to women with children, and represent the ongoing problems of childcare provision rather than a culture of sexist attitudes.

Semi-nudity has gone entirely mainstream, and explicitly titillating images of both women and men grace the pages of newspapers, TV screens, and billboard ads. I can honestly see no difference between adverts for men’s Calvin Klein briefs, for example, and Page Three photos – if there is ‘objectification’ going on, it includes young men and their lunchboxes too.

You may argue that there is nothing particularly liberating about today’s overtly sexualised imagery; certainly, I am struck by the ambivalence towards sex and intimacy that contemporary culture increasingly reveals, even as it talks about sex at every turn. But in gender terms, it is hard to see evidence of ‘male power’ at play – particularly when people also bemoan a modern ‘ladette’ culture, in which young women apparently behave as coarsely and rapaciously as young ‘lads’ of the recent past.

Feminism has always had a contradictory attitude towards sex, combining demands for sexual liberation with a prudish, pursed-lips disapproval of heterosexual relationships. The focus on the problem of men has always concealed two fundamental truths: that men and women have far more common interests and problems than those that divide them, and that men and women like each other.

Some feminists argue that images of attractive, nude young women perpetuate low aspirations among women, encouraging an obsession with their appearance; and perpetuate among men the idea that this is what women ‘should’ look like. But again, if nubile young women make us podgy or flat-chested mortals feel inadequate, chiselled young men have a similar impact on their portly or pock-marked brothers. Wanting to look like a Page Three girl (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?) doesn’t mean that you have ambitions to be a Page Three girl.

It’s insulting to clever and ambitious women to assume that they feel so threatened by lads’ mags that they will fail to lead full and successful lives. As with many of the claims made about Page Three, this represents the current vogue for victim feminism, which seeks to ‘empower’ women by protecting them from offensive words, images, or forms of behaviour.

Victim feminism can have censorious implications. Women’s groups at universities periodically attempt to ban the Sun (and other publications) from campus shops because Page Three is offensive and demeaning to women. According to The Student Room website, one feminist society at a prestigious university has recently argued for a ban on the following grounds:

    1) The homogenous representation of women’s bodies illustrated in FHM and the Sun is misogynistic;
    2) The images within both publications are heteronormative, in their assumptions of what constitutes ‘normal’ sexual relations;
    3) The images assume that women are sexually passive objects and that relationships between men and women are equivalent to the relationship of predator and prey;
    4) The images are often airbrushed and encourage unrealistic and unattainable expectations of women’s bodies. Such expectations contribute to the proliference of eating disorders and negative body image.
    5) Any industry which promotes the objectification of women inevitably has an impact on the sexist attitudes which underpin violence and sexual abuse, and as such cannot be said to be harmless fun.

These ridiculous initiatives reveal campaigners’ disdain for the masses, and for their fellow students. Male students are presumed to be so easily led that they will base their views of women on pictures in the tabloid press, rather than on their feisty, intelligent female classmates; and female students are seen as so fragile and pathetic that they need their egos protecting from images of big-breasted beauties. The idea that it might be possible for people to look at Page Three and then go and think of something else is simply written off.

Like it or loathe it, Page Three really is just harmless fun. The world would not be a better place without Page Three – but it would be a much better place if people stopped worrying about topless models and thought about more challenging issues instead.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Feminism

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