Why the Sun dropping Page 3 models is a victory for feminists
‘Women whose nipples are covered on Page 3 may no longer be deemed “topless” but they still might as well have no heads for all they have to say’
‘The symbolism of Page 3 of the Sun is potent. That it has been toppled is a joy. And the best joke on Twitter? “Why stop at Page 3?”.’ Photograph: EPA/ANDY RAIN
There has been much hilarity about the cover-up at the British edition of the Sun, from the London Times headline, “The Sun has got its top on . . .” to “Je suis Page 3” to Graham Linehan’s, “This week bras. Next week, see if they can take a woman in a jumper.” The “soap dishes” in yesterday’s Page 3 wore bikinis, while on Page 4, Katie Price explained how her ex had sex in a onesie and why she’ll never wear one again. (The sex was with Katie’s best pal, since you ask.) Which just goes to show that, yes, women do, in fact, get to express opinions in the paper.
This is a sweet victory for feminists – even if it doesn’t last (the Irish edition dropped the images two years ago). It is, obviously, also a marketing ploy for the British tabloid’s online edition in which bare breasts still loom large. Here readers – or rather, let’s be honest, oglers – are still invited to “get to know” a line-up of “topless hotties”.
I was working in the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre when the then Labour MP Clare Short started her campaign against Page 3 photos in the early 1980s. She described the photos as saying, “Take me, use me, dispose of me.” The tabloids responded by sending busloads of “lovelies” round to the house she shared with her elderly mother. There were “Stop Crazy Clare” car stickers. The Sun got MPs to pose with their favourite Page 3 girl.
One paper used mocked up photos of Short as (in her words) “a very fat page 3 girl” and wrote that she was just jealous because she was “too ugly to be raped”. Yes, raped. We supported her. We knew from the experiences of the women and girls we counselled that pornography was part of the culture of sexual violence. Sometimes when women we knew got to court, the story of what had been done to them would be reported with much explicit detail on Page 1 of papers which had, overleaf, Page 3 type images.
Models frequently posed as “sexy schoolgirls”. One tabloid story suggested that a teenage girl had been raped because of her large breasts. Plenty blamed women for being “provocative”. The aggressive ridiculing of feminist objections did not relent. The sexism is overt in the tabloids – but it is not confined to them. However, it was only last year, in court for other matters, that Rebekah Brooks finally apologised for having, in 2004, called Short, “fat and jealous.”
The Daily Telegraph yesterday harumphed, quoting a Page 3 model who blamed “comfy-shoe-wearing no-bra- wearing man-haters”. A new generation of women who have to contend with the covert the likes of “upskirt shot” and the “bra slip” made this breakthrough. In 2012, Lucy Ann Holmes started the No More Page 3 campaign with an online petition, signed by over 200,000 people, after she read the Sun and saw that the Page 3 photo was bigger than that of British athlete Jessica Ennis who had just won a Gold medal at the Olympics. A jubilant Holmes said yesterday that there was a way to go, and that the Sun had not suddenly decided that women “say, think and do incredible things”.
The wise commentator Polly Toynbee noted that “It will take much more to blow away the idea that women are bodies, men are people.” Women whose nipples are covered on Page 3 may no longer be deemed “topless” but they still might as well have no heads for all they have to say. The top shelves of our newsagents are heavy with the exposed breasts of “readers wives”. But the symbolism of Page 3 of the Sun is potent. That it has been toppled is a joy. And the best joke on Twitter? “Why stop at Page 3?”
Susan McKay is a journalist and author. Her documentary on Inez McCormack is on BBC Northern Ireland at 10.35 tonight