As the feature continues to disappear and reappear again, Aimee-Lee Abraham wrestles the ‘British institution’ that is (or was!?) The Sun’s Page Three in a tale of boobs and news.
Model: Drake Steel
Photography: Sam Wild
The Sun, the best selling newspaper in the UK, hasn’t run a pair of naked breasts on its third page for a record twenty-six days. This is a significant period of time if we are to consider the fact that it published a nude shot every single day before that since 1970. This is an insignificant period of time if we are to look back at the last time The Sun stopped printing Page Three as we know it (20th January 2015) and replaced it with clothed images for a grand total of two days before it reappeared again in what looked like one big PR stunt at the expense of ‘comfy shoe wearing’ fun-spoilers everywhere. No official statement has been released to confirm if it’s gone for good, and it’s unlikely that this will materialise any time soon (if at all). For now, we can only wait to hear of its fate.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, it’s unlikely that you would have found shelter from the mammary shaped missiles that have been flung back and forth in a relentless debate over the morality of The Sun’s most distinctive unique selling point. Almost a quarter of a million people have signed Lucy Holme’s petition, a plea for editor David Dinsmore to ‘stop conditioning readers to view women as sex objects’ and to reconsider the relevance of boobs as news in 2015, but many questions remain unanswered. Is page three really that bad? Is glamour modelling always inherently exploitive? And why do media commentators keep making bizarre comparisons between Charlie Hebdo’s right to satirise extremism and The Sun’s right to show off Nicole from Bournemouth’s youthful assets?
Perhaps the most prominent argument in defence of Page Three has been ‘Surely it’s not the worst example out there in terms of objectification?’ And yes, it’s incontestable that the daily Page Three feature in The Sun can be seen as the lesser of several evils in a highly sexualised digital age. If we are to remove ourselves from the connotations of its existence and look objectively at the content, then it’s pretty tame. Even Nicole from Bournemouth, the poster girl for the feature’s brief but triumphant return, looked a bit lukewarm in her beachside garb. If the tweets of Sun PR chief Dylan Sharpe are anything to go by, her wink was no doubt intended as a sexy, suggestive middle finger to all the haters. But it fell disappointingly flat. There was something almost slapstick about it, and in a stylistic sense, it was so distinctly Page Three – all wink-wink, nudge-nudge and cruise ship innuendo. There was not a hint of sexual deviancy in those glassy baby blues of Nicole’s, and the meadow in which she stood looking unconvincingly wistful was more ‘fancy a frolic through the hills?’ than it was ‘fuck me on the floor’.
Perhaps it’s this vanilla girl-next-door aesthetic that fuels the notion that it’s just a bit of old-fashioned fun. Even Germaine Greer said so in a recent Newsnight interview, admitting that it had always struck her as ‘innocent’. In a rapid and rabid sexual landscape, Page Three has stood still, frozen in time for almost half a century. As a result, the predictable series of shots featuring interchangeable girls with identical head tilts and vacant expressions which were once considered stimulating are now about as arousing for most people as walking in on your mum in the bath.
For many, Page Three appears to cater to two distinct stereotypes in its outdatedness: the nosy neighbour peeping over the fence as you sunbathe and the construction worker who assures you that it might never happen. For others, Page Three is something more malign, like the mole on the hypochondriac’s arm – a ticking time bomb, unchanging but unnerving. It occupies an unknown familiar space in British culture, simultaneously harmless and volatile. Defenders of free speech at all costs may note that it’s an innocuous British ‘institution’, just another of our eccentricities. Some have compared it to the cup of tea and the art of sarcasm, arguing that it’s embedded in our cultural fabric. Meanwhile, those who call for it to be banned may note that colonialism was also once a British institution. I’d argue that both sides are being a little too binary in their comparisons. We cannot possibly compare the plight of Page Three to slavery without completely undermining the entire argument against printing it, and we cannot pretend that sexism in the UK is a degree of sexism comparable to that in certain other countries, where women dream of having even a fraction of our liberties. At the same time, until gender ceases to be grounds for institutionalised discrimination on a national scale (equal pay, anyone?), we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves just yet. Nor should we make the mistake of thinking that sexism exists in a vacuum. Bare boobies printed in a newspaper are not the cause or catalyst of complex societal ills like sexual assault and rape, but they are contributing to a wider dialogue about what it means to be a woman today that is proven to influence sexual decision making processes. When we examine how democratic a society is, we are quick to turn to the media as an indicator of societal attitudes. We should interrogate the media we consume whenever we can, and demand debate when it fails.
The reason Page Three feels familiar is because every day, the content has followed the same formula – a pair of (typically white, typically large) tits accompanied by a brief description of the woman they belong to. Sometimes there is the occasional ogling description of said ‘t*ts’, asterisk and all. The word itself is censored in print, and in an age where the C’s and the F’s are thrown about without caution in most forms of popular culture, this is somewhat mystifying. It seems that what is used in playground conversations without so much of a raised brow from observing adults is too risqué for the best selling newspaper in the UK.
Perhaps it’s censored because it makes the editors come over all shy and flustered. Is ‘tit’ reserved for special occasions at News International? Maybe they have an office ‘t*t-tip’ jar (like a swear jar with nips) and collect change whenever someone in the newsroom suffers a slip of the tongue. Maybe they’ll notice the black lace beneath Jennifer from Marketing’s white shirt one day at the water cooler and bring ‘tit’ out from under linguistic lock and key then. It’s unlikely but not impossible that they’re wary of IPSO intervention if they use the word ‘tit’ in a ‘family newspaper’, despite the fact that they still claim to use boobs to sell news. Whatever the reason, treating the word ‘tit’ with the hushed caution of the word ‘Voldemort’ sends mixed messages. What we have here is perverted prudishness, an oxymoronic attitude that has little relevance in liberal twenty first century Britain. The idea that nude breasts are worthy of column inches but unworthy of uncensored acknowledgement just serves to fuel the argument that the content is misplaced. If there’s nothing inherently wrong or odd about serving up half naked women with your current affairs, then why put an asterisk in the word ‘tits’?
This is especially true in reference to tabloid publications regularly printing sex scandals as front page news, often at the expense of more pressing global issues which get left on the back bench as a result. The Sun was a regular fixture at the Dinner table when I was growing up. I can’t overstate how working class my South Walian upbringing was, and I feel this is relevant as a response to the cries of ‘Snobbery!’ that have come from Murdoch himself and many media commentators, who have taken to assuming that the Page Three battleground is some kind of class war in disguise. I remember that as a seven-year-old, I read a page that disclosed as series of salacious texts exchanged between David Beckham and Rebecca Loos. One sentence in particular – that described Beckham wishing Loos’ body was his bar of soap as he bathed alone in hotel rooms – tested my logic, even as a seven year old. How could a soap lady be better than a real one? I also vividly remember waking up next to my partner and feeling sick at the image of a bikini-clad Reeva Steenkamp, whose body was barely cold before the media started dissecting her; she had appeared on The Sun’s front cover after being murdered by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius. Her gleaming body was juxtaposed with by-lines that were indistinguishable from Hollywood dialogue (‘3 shots. Screams. 3 more shots’), and for days the insensitivity behind this editorial decision tested my nineteen year old logic. I am now twenty-one, and I am sick of this bullshit.
When I quizzed friends for their opinions on the sex appeal of the feature, most of them felt passive and indifferent. “What’s the point of it, really?”, they sang in unison. Regardless of your moral stance, Page Three was sexy once upon a time. Now, it merely blends into the background. It pales in comparison to lad mags and is practically translucent when contrasted with the oil-slicked, acrobatic underworld of porn. There, bodies as malleable as dough are frequently rolled into pretzels.There, every fetish and fantasy imaginable is catered to in HD and is available at the click of a button. This is something that Sun spokespersons are keen to remind the public of, reassuring concerned parents in particular that they are ‘on side’ in the fight against the sexualisation of Britain’s children, squeaky clean and saccharin in a cum-stained, gritty media landscape. Awkward PR scripting aside, they may have a valid argument. If Page Three were to vanish off the face of the earth for good, people would still exercise their right to get off. They’d just stop wiping up the mess with Mystic Meg’s crumpled face. Perhaps the world would be better for it. There are few things more tragic than an indifferent wank, but that’s probably beside the point.
So, in light of all the jokes about how PG Page Three is, why is it that so many care so passionately about seeing the back of it? Well, context is everything, and this is precisely why the persistent presence of the feature warrants our attention. I spoke to Cynthia Carter, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies and an expert in media representations of gender. When I asked her if the removal of Page Three would make little to no difference to women’s position in society, she bore light on the difference between seeing a half naked woman in a newspaper and seeing her in another media form:
‘”The difference is that the Sun purports to be a newspaper. Other forms of media and culture do not; they are entertainment publications where one would expect different sorts of representations.
Newspapers are supposed to represent the important issues and debates with which we engage in a democratic society. Therefore, a semi clad woman on Page Three sends the message that women are largely there to be looked at in a democratic society; their value judged on their appearance instead of what they have to say.
As such, it supports the idea that men are the decision makers and citizens and that women are primarily included in the news for men’s pleasure.”
Dr. Carter’s point about the absence of voice in the feature grows pertinent if we look at its recent history. Up until 2013, Page Three shots were accompanied by ‘News In Briefs’ boxes. Consisting of short, (frequently politically charged) soundbites, these boxes featured commentary from the model on display. They were engineered, however, with past models admitting they had no input into the words the paper claimed came out of their mouth. This allowed News In Briefs to tackle the current editorial line, with past examples ranging from opinions on foreign policy to football, all delivered through an attractive mouthpiece. Some of these were subtle and had did not concern matters in the public interest, appearing almost like office banter that had spilt over onto the page. We can speculate that maybe Anna was expressing her love of Man United, for example, just because James from Showbiz was an avid fan and wanted to use the page as a platform to rub the victory in the faces of staff supporters of the team they defeated. Others were glaringly obvious to anyone familiar with the political allegiance of The Sun and its then editor Rebekah Wade (now Brooks of Leveson notoriety). A prime example of this can be found in a series of News in Briefs pieces from 2004, where the feature was used to publicly defend then home secretary David Blunkett (a close friend of Brooks) in the midst of a media shit-storm following an extra-marital affair gone public. One example, dated 16 December 2004, saw Katie highlighting Blunkett’s achievements while expressing her ‘devastation’ at his alleged resignation, stating : ‘I think it’s terrible that a man who has done so much for the country has felt it necessary to leave public office… Blunkett was one of the few Home Secretaries prepared to get tough on issues that matter to ordinary people – asylum, terrorism and law and order’.
All along it was heavily implied, though never directly addressed, that News in Briefs was meant to be satirical, with the assumption that most readers knew full well that the model had not said what they claimed she had. Those who didn’t get the gag were perhaps too simple to warrant worry. This is troubling because it not only mocks readers who don’t know better, but it also fuels the discourse that the opinions of attractive women are invalid. It says (albeit it in softer terms) ‘women capable of exciting you downstairs have nothing going on upstairs’. It’s a few centimeters wide, while the half naked image dominates a full page spread. We could say that this is representative of the value we place on beauty over intellect, seeing it as some sort of bonus add-on that does little to improve the bigger picture. After all, how could nineteen year old Beth from Swindon, fresh out of college with an NVQ in beauty therapy, possibly know about the economic cost of investing in more sustainable energy sources? And what about Katie, all doe-eyes and DD’s, fresh out of school? What makes her an authority on intervention in Syria?
These women may not possess knowledge in these areas. They may not have opinions based on solidly grounded expertise. They may not have an opinion on the subject in question at all. Frankly, they might not give a fuck. All of these things are beside the point. It doesn’t matter if these women are nail technicians or barristers. All women deserve our respect, and putting words in their mouths in a way that is intended to belittle and tease does them a disservice.
I’ll admit that watching footage of the debate unfold on live television a few weeks ago, I too was guilty of putting these women into boxes. I squirmed as Page Three regular Chloe Goodman tried to defend Page Three by comparing it to classical art, as if Michelangelo and Murdoch were brothers in arms somehow. ‘What did we think of women AND men one thousand years years ago when you see statues written all over the walls in the nude?’ she asked, as Jon Snow tried to keep a straight face and Harriet Harman gave him a knowing side-eye. Statues written on the walls? What is this sorcery? But mocking these women on this basis is a cheap shot. It serves no purpose in tackling the root of the problem, just as telling models they were exploited in their jobs when they felt in control (as much of the left wing press has done throughout) fuels Murdoch’s claims that opponents are ‘elitist’ and patronising in their approach. Dr. Carter pointed out to me that we need to interrogate the notion of choice in a society where women continue to fight for equal pay and are noticeably a minority in positions of power, but we must also bear the individual in mind. All of the women featured during the reign of News in Briefs were undoubtedly the butt of an ugly joke, and although this particular element of the feature has been scrapped, it must not be forgotten. Just two years gone, it can teach us a lot about how the paper has chosen to portray women. Feminist studies of the media have extensively proved that women predominantly make the news in certain ways. They are the whores, the clothes horses, the victims and the girlfriends. Female politicians have a particularly hard time, as the Daily Mail’s ‘Downing Street Catwalk’ feature last year so grotesquely demonstrated. Of course, all politicians are frequently the subjects of ridicule. Many would argue that Ed Miliband’s perceived incompetence has more to do with his vacant expression and nasal tone than it does with his policies, for example. The fact that his brother is an irresistibly charming fucker with a perfect jaw doesn’t do anything to dispel claims he’d be a better candidate.
What makes our treatment of female politicians particularly telling is the fact that women rarely make the headlines for their achievements. When they do, we often fixate on irrelevant details of their lives (i.e ‘I know you’re a world class athlete and warrior in your own right, but who are you sleeping with and which diet are you on and when are you having babies?!’). Women’s magazines are perhaps ironically the biggest perpetrators of this. For women, Page Three is arguably less damaging to their perceptions of themselves than the backstabbing best friend who materialises in the women’s glossy. If the average woman’s glossy were to materialise in human form, she would be a vicious handbag-fixated creature of the highest calibre. She would mutter that your ‘bum looks big in that’ while stroking your hair and denying all knowledge with a strawberry scented smile. You would never know where you stood with her. One minute she could raise you up, armed with advice and products to transform you into the best possible version of yourself. The next, you might catch her spiking your overpriced cosmopolitan with ipecac and doubt.
Moreover, we have to ask what Page Three is communicating about men. There is something depressing about the assumption that men will part with their pennies in exchange for a little nip slip, as implied in the ‘sex sells’ argument tirelessly used by editorial staff at The Sun. It fuels the archaic and offensive notion that men are simple creatures driven by desire, and this has far-reaching negative effects. It’s both binary and heteronormative, failing to represent masculinity in all its complexity and breadth. Instead, it presents us with a caricature of a white van man who lives and breathes for upskirt shots and a cuppa with three sugars. Sure, these men exist. Sure, they are statistically likely to be found in the Sun’s key demographic, but they are in no way representative of an entire gender or class. The sooner we embrace fluidity and abandon black and white thinking when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, the healthier and more tolerant we will be become.
Tim Samuels, a radio 5 Men’s Hour presenter, summarised this perfectly in a think piece for The Guardian back in January, noting that:
‘The “exploitation” of daft male tendencies is hardly the greatest peril facing society – but it’s part of a wider trend, especially in advertising, to portray men as fools who are barely able to use oven cleaner or are liable to come back from shopping expeditions with a puppy instead of a pint of milk (happens all the time – it’s like 101 Dalmatians in my kitchen). Gracefully retiring Page 3 to its rightful bin of outdated 80s naffness would be a decent step towards giving men a bit more credit – recognising that we are emotionally nuanced characters who can’t (always) be bought off with a boob.’
Similarly, when I asked a friend to share his views on how his masculinity is perceived by others, he too felt that the laddish culture perpetuated by The Sun alienated him. He said:
All-around, not uniformly but very prevalently, is the assumption that as a sexually active man I’m in a constant state of animal lust. On the one hand I’m some stuffy killjoy because I don’t share male friends’ and colleagues’ inability to be near attractive women without defaulting to ape-humour or resorting to a collective ‘I’d give her one’. On the other, and I think as a direct consequence of this idea of who men are and how we often present ourselves, I’m not able to approach women without either being perceived as a flirt, adulterer or one of those creepy little Michael Cera-types that collect female friends as insurance policies in case their current thing doesn’t work-out. And here I am with a great love of socialising and drinking and conversation and fucking, but painted as something other than this because I’m not at ease with a particular type of banter. And its the mainstreaming of this culture, whether or not its what most men actually think of the world as individuals, that I think causes this.
What we are left with, then, is not an argument about boobs, but an argument about news values and responsible representation of the sexes. Of course, the editorial staff at The Sun are no strangers to sensationalism, and this extends far beyond sex scandals and coverage of grisly murders. Tackling concepts of what is newsworthy and why is an incredibly complicated process. There are certain factors, such as timing, significance, proximity and prominence which can generally be applied to most of the news we consume, with human interest stories proving more complicated in their frequent deviation from these usual constraints. Page Three is hard to justify in terms of its raw news value. It’s certainly not new or unusual, and it’s difficult to argue that it carries any sort of human interest besides the appeal to basic inherent sexual impulses. But, on that note, we would be elitist puritans if we thought we could or should just rid our news of items we don’t deem newsworthy. For a start, the value of a piece of information is very much subjective. Our society is a melting pot of tastes and world views and we cannot dictate what the masses should or should not show an interest in without resorting to dictatorship. Secondly, if we were going to do this, we’d have hardly anything left. Newspapers are no longer mere information subsidies – they are platforms for informed debate; they are entertainment sources; they are vehicles for storytelling. If we were to ban boobs in news on this basis, we’d also need to ban stories about babies dressed up in cute costumes and that would be a terrible tragedy for all.
Regardless of how this situation develops, one thing we can take away from the media hoo-ha surrounding the disappearance and reappearance of the increasingly elusive Page Three feature is a need for constant interrogation and inquisition over censorship. If we can start a dialogue about media discourse and the ways in which it impacts our citizens, the battle for equal and fair representations for all is half-won.