MPs, celebrities and feminist campaigners say ‘No More Page 3’ – but apart from making a few blokes feel a bit miffed, just what will a ban on topless models in The Sun achieve? Zoe Thomas investigates.
In the winter of 1970, news got sexy. It had been a tough year full of black-outs, public sector strikes and rising costs. People needed a good reason to spend hard-earned cash on newspapers full of doom and gloom. Larry Lamb, then-editor of The Sun newspaper, had an idea up his sleeve. How do you get the hard-up public to buy something? Simple: naked flesh.
Bikini-clad women had been a staple of the paper since its re-launch the previous year, but Lamb decided it was time to step things up a notch. The first topless model to go to print was German bombshell Stephanie Rahn, in what the paper called ‘her birthday suit’. Some called it degrading, others called it cheap – but for Rupert Murdoch and the gang, Page Three was pure gold. Within one year of making bare breasts a regular feature, The Sun’s circulation figures grew by a hefty 40% to 2.1 million.
The public’s desire for nudity in the news hasn’t waned a bit over the last four decades, despite rising pressures from feminists. In 1986 MP Clare Short, or ‘Killjoy Clare’ (The Sun’s words, not mine) tried to introduce a House of Commons Bill banning topless models from national newspapers, clearly to no effect. In this year’s National Readership Survey, the infamous redtop was found to have more readers than any other newspaper, at 17.8 million a year. It beat The Times by more than 12 million readers, The Guardian by 8.9 million and The Daily Mail by 1.3 million.
Despite the paper’s popularity, Ms Short was not the only person to take offence to what she believed was the sexual objectification of women. Today the campaign is heating up again and this time there’s a significant following. A few weeks ago I found myself at the heart of the debate when I went to see ‘No More Page Three’ campaigner Lucy Anne Holmes speak at The Brighton Dome’s Feminism 3.0, part of the Brighton Digital Festival.
“It’s time to speak for those who feel disempowered by a newspaper that feels the most important thing about women is how sexy men find them in their pants when they’re about 20,” she told the audience. “I noticed The Sun was full of photographs of men in suits doing important things, while the biggest picture of a woman was Emily from Warrington in her knickers.”
The former actress and author’s argument has clearly resonated with a lot of people; it’s already gained an impressive following of celebrities, teaching unions, feminists and even 143 cross-party MPs. So far, almost 120,000 people have signed the e-petition, which asks Sun editor David Dinsmore to: “Stop showing topless pictures of young women in Britain’s most widely read newspaper, stop conditioning your readers to view women as sex objects.”
One big-name signatory is Glamour Magazine – which is, incidentally, currently running a feature called ‘Sexiest Man 2013’ where readers are asked to rate the physical attractiveness of male celebrities. I can’t help but feel that this is a bit hypocritical, given that the campaign it supports says: “In a society where so many women a day are sexually assaulted, perpetuating a belief that women are there for men’s sexual pleasure doesn’t seem right.” If the Page Three ban were to go ahead on the grounds that objectifying women is wrong, should competitions like these be banned too?
I also couldn’t help but wonder how the models themselves would feel about Ms Holmes’ desire to ‘speak up for them’. Page Three models can earn up to £100,000 a year with potential to amass multi-million pound fortunes if they’re business minded like former Page Three girl Katie Price. Many of these women have assets, confidence and money. What’s disempowering about that?
In a recent Guardian interview, former Page Three model Hannah Pool said: “If a man is going to see a woman as a piece of meat, they are going to anyway. It’s the way people perceive the industry. I’ve always been comfortable with taking my clothes off. I don’t see why it’s different when Kate Moss gets her top off. It’s just that I have big boobs, so it’s a different image.”
This is in interesting point: would Page Three be acceptable if the images were more ‘artsy’ and technically interesting? Keen to explore this argument further, I arranged a brief interview with an artist and former life drawing model from Surrey to see what she thought about the potential ban.
“I think give people what they want. But then again you don’t get a Page Three full of naked men, not that I know of anyway,” the 26-year-old said.
When I asked how she felt posing naked in front of an audience, she said:
“I felt scared at first but I did feel it was just for art’s sake, I guess the fact that both women and men were drawing me made it easier too. I definitely felt sort of empowered and a sense of freedom as well, because you kind of have to shift your way of thinking. It’s kind of weird to explain. A lot of people actually thanked me after saying they loved drawing me. I was a bit curvier back then.”
She went on to explain how audience and context made a big difference. In life drawing, the model is appreciated for his or her aesthetics – the quality of light, the contours and the scope for experimentation. Is Page Three art? I’ll save that question for another article, but in the words of Larry Lamb himself, it may offer: “An image of beauty in a world where there is much unpleasantness.” In terms of who’s seeing the images, The Sun actually boasts an impressive female readership, with 43.6% at the most recent count (unless they’re all feminists buying it to burn it).
I’ve heard a lot from the campaigners, but I also wanted to know what fans of The Sun thought. Matt, a 27-year-old police officer and body builder from Sussex said: “Personally I like to keep fit and healthy and can see how being confident in your own body can make you feel happy as a whole. Page Three models look proud and happy with their appearance. It would seem more wrong to take it away from them. For me it’s no different to the body building magazines.”
Phillip, from West Wales, said: “A discrete ogle makes for a perfect start to the morning. May the institution never end. It’s part of British culture like top shelf mags!”
Swindon-based physiotherapist Emma, 28, said: “I say keep Page Three, but only size 12+ models. None of these skinny barely there lasses. Wouldn’t last a winter.”
This in itself opens up another debate. As a number of critics have already asked, what about the unattainably skinny figures of the models in women’s magazines? Surely they foster more body insecurities than the curvier women featured in The Sun?
Susan from London said: “Much as I despise The Sun, I don’t think taking Page Three out of it would change things. Time and effort would be better spent addressing the seriously sick ideas portrayed in other media.”
Earlier this year Rupert Murdoch Tweeted that he might replace the controversial page with “A halfway house of glamorous fashionistas,” i.e. models in clothes. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m far less offended by ‘Emily from Warrington’ in her knickers than ‘glamorous fashionistas’ parading around in outfits I can’t afford, joining the overflow of media messages saying a woman’s worth is in what she buys.
While I do believe that Lucy Holmes is admirable for starting such a prolific campaign, I also think it’s a shame she’s chosen Page Three to target. Sex appeal isn’t the antithesis of intelligence, and The Sun, whilst popular, isn’t exactly reliable (it was recently voted the least trusted newspaper in the UK). People enjoy it for its puns, its gaudiness, its lack of political correctness and its 40p price tag. The writing is accessible, emotive and sensationalised. Nobody in history ever bought it for a sensible view of current affairs. So shouldn’t Page Three be viewed in the same light? Is it not a bit of fun, like a Chippendale show on a hen night?
Sexual objectification is not a sexist issue: it’s human nature. When pictures of actor Joe Manganiello emerging from the sea (all arms and abs) were published, I don’t think anyone was fantasising about his views on the population crisis. Women don’t read Glamour Magazine to vote on the ‘Kindest man of 2013’ award and I’m willing to bet not all women who tune in to watch Toby Buckland on Gardener’s World are in it for the potting tips. Both sexes have a propensity to objectify, and it’s certainly not just a ‘man thing’. I’m worried that ‘No More Page Three’ could open up a debate that’s bigger than Emily from Warrington’s bare breasts.
If Page Three gets banned, what’s next?
Words by Zoe Hazel Thomas