Friday, November 19, 2010

The effects of 40 years of Page Three

Some people say the Sun's most popular feature is 'harmless fun' at best and 'unimportant' at worst. But is it really that simple?

It's forty years since the Sun began sporting tits on Page Three on a daily basis.

When then-Sun editor Larry Lamb first made his gamble in November 1970, few expected the idea to deliver such a massive boost in sales and popularity.

The Sun is today the most popular paper in the country. By far. If newspaper circulation is the yardstick by which a country's obsession is defined and, for instance, Italy's most popular La Gazzetta dello Sport typifies a nation of football fanatics, one would conclude that Britain is literally obsessed with tits, gossip and sex scandals.

Rupert Murdoch's title sells well in excess of three million copies a day, completely dwarfing the circulation of any other broadsheet or tabloid.

Which is why the red top's celebration of their "watershed moment" has triggered a minor debate over whether this type of tabloid behaviour represented a turning point in British popular culture.

Did it help an insanely prudish country shed its sexual inhibitions and hang ups or did it just kickstart a race to the bottom with a more crass and cheaper society?

In other words, is it ok to stick pictures of topless ladies so unrepresentative of womanhood at large for the sole benefit of arousing the base instincts of certain geezers? Is it ok for that to become absolutely normal? Is it prudish, pedantic, middle-class or feminist to wonder - even if just for a second- whether most women would find that debasing or offensive?

Of course, like gossip and scandals, naked pictures had obviously existed before but, with Page Three pummelling bare-chested ladies down the country's throat on a daily basis, this became run-of-the-mill stuff.

Defenders of Page Three see it as a simply cheeky, naughty and fun idea. It's just harmless fun, a billion-making machine that illustrates the country's sense of humour and love for a bit of tacky. In the words of a blog called Mediasnoops, for instance, it's just "a bit silly, a bit immature but largely of great unimportance", stuff that "only middle class feminists with too much time on their hands" care about.

Others, instead, contend that it's "about as funny as the Black and White Minstrel show" and that the normalisation of naked female bodies (of the type idealised by a male-dominated society only), is the epitome of "[S]exual objectification as a part of neoliberal social conditioning" and the symbol of "[women's] unequal status" (Laurie Penny, New Statesman).

So who's right? Are the "harmless fun brigade" correct that Page Three has nothing to do with the normalisation of vulgarity, or is it true, to quote Francis Gilbert's book Yob Nation, that "[the Sun] set the template for modern media culture [by making] topless girls, sex scandal and celebrity gossip a staple of the breakfast table"?

Perhaps we should consider how "harmless" it is when Page Three girls get routinely used as mouthpieces for the Sun's editorial (and political) line -- think of those speechbubbles where topless Giselle, 20, from Essex, expresses her admiration for David Cameron's war on scroungers, or whichever political crusade the Sun is involved in on the day.

What would they say if tucked between a dance off, a panel's opinion and a Bruce Forsythe catchphrase, Strictly Come Dancing also contained a regular feature were leggy dancers made cheeky swipes at the immigrants?

What if popular Premier League matches were also perused to play dog whistle politics, perhaps by having Wayne Rooney, Steve Gerrard or other stars lifting a banner that says "sack public sector workers" , "bomb the crap out of Iraq" or "single mum scum" each time they scored a goal?

Would they still believe the effect would be "totally unimportant"?

Isn't whipping up baying-mob hysteria under the cloak of tits and various lairy stuff actually more disturbing and more poisonous than it if was plain and simple politics?

And, finally, while I cannot judge how women would feel on the subject, I find it so unnecessarily shallow and geezery when concerns regarding the effect of Page Three on sexist attitudes are laughed off as stuff for "middle class feminists with too much time on their hands".

Just look at what happened when a female politician tried to do something about it.

When Clare Short launched a campaign "to remove the degrading images of women as available sex objects [...] circulated in the mainstream of society through the tabloid press", the former MP for Birmingham Ladywood was literally torn to shreds and bullied into submission (of course, in a "fun and cheeky way") until the subject was dropped.

Like Clare Short wrote in her autobiography in 2004:
"A woman journalist asked me at a lunch whether I was still opposed to Page 3. I said I was and this led to busloads of Page 3 girls parked outside my house all day in the hope of setting up embarrassing photos, and mock-up pictures of me as a very fat Page 3 girl. They even sent half-dressed people to the house I share with my 84-year-old mother in Birmingham and had people hiding in cars and chasing me down in the street in an effort to get embarrassing photographs. I dealt with such attacks by not looking at the paper, but it's oppressive to have a double-decker bus plastered with Sun posters outside the front door from seven in the morning".
"Unimportant or not", for that reason alone, I wish Page Three a very unhappy birthday.


Jackart said...

One of the perennial joys of Page 3 is the paroxysms of rage it causes a certian type of lefty.

No. I don't read the sun, but Page 3's the equivalent of a naughty seaside postcard.

If that's what you're worrying about, then the Government has nothing to fear.

claude said...

"The rage it causes a certain type of lefty?"

You should see the endless list of petty crap that causes the paranoid glaze-eyed right apoplexy day in day out... What's that think I may have heard once or twice only...political correctness gone mad?

That's why UK tabloids were invented!

I'm not worried about Page Three. At least it gives some speciman new material to satisfy their quest for The Hairy Palm.

What amuses me is how the stereotypical Sun-reader is completely unaware of the masochistic undertones of his 'reading' material, as he flicks through a paper that is actually calling him subhuman from front to back page.

So oblivious those Sun geezahs, so bamboozled by those pert nipples and the SHOCK-HORROR headlines that, to quote something I read not long ago, "they can't even notice the turkey staring back at them in the mirror of a Christmas Morning".

Paul said...

'What amuses me is how the stereotypical Sun-reader is completely unaware of the masochistic undertones of his 'reading' material, as he flicks through a paper that is actually calling him subhuman from front to back page.'

I agree entirely with you Claude, you're amused but not surprised I bet.

I do detect more than a hint of condescension towards the working class male in your writing Claude. But then liberal lefties and libertarian righties are equally disdainful of such 'salt of the earth' types in general.

I hate page three, I don't want to see it banned though. Interestingly the US Forces would ban all such things (FHM magazine etc) on their bases in Iraq. They have a puritan streak, which is not shared by Brits in general. Ironically page three would probably never sell in the US. You can get 'Guns n Ammo' though in the PX!

claude said...

Hi Paul and welcome back.
How's life treating you?

About Page Three. For the record, I don't want to see it banned either, something that could only happen under a police state. I do dislike it though, and I have the right to say it loud and clear.

Important point: I refuse the equation working class male=Sun reader.
My condescention was directed at the latter, not the former, obviously.

Lori said...

'Page 3's the equivalent of a naughty seaside postcard.'

No it's not. Those naughty seaside postcards are cartoons. The Page 3 woman is real. Perhaps we should consider that if the two are being compared, isn't there something wrong with Page 3?

You are all saying that you don't like Page 3 but wouldn't ban it. In my experience that's the same for most men I know, but I think men really need to be asking themselves why they don't like it. I'm sure it's not because you don't like looking at women (if you're straight), but don't you feel there's something just a bit 'wrong' about it. (And I don't mean wrong in a puritanical way)

One of the (many, many) deeper issues involved is the fact that objection to Page 3 by a woman is immediately dismissed as just ugly, jealous, lefty, feminist nonsense. Women even bringing the subject up are dismissed just as easily as the Page 3 woman herself.

Page 3 isn't the specific cause of this but it is part of a much bigger social issue for women. You all seem to appreciate that Page 3 is masochistic. But by extension you are saying that perpetrating that masochistic viewpoint in the national press is ok.

claude said...

I'll be fucked if anyone's going to say I'm (even mildly) in favour of Page Three.

I don't know if you've read the OP, but I despise the thing. It's the worst display of geezeriness and manliness at its lowest level.

I also maintain that is low, superficial and sexist to dismiss any criticism of Page Three as "middle class feminism" or similar banter.

I said I wouldn't ban Page Three because, realistically, how do you go about it without infringing freedom of the press?

They'd have to close down the Daily Star for starters. They'd have to review and ban entire chunks of the country's TV listings.

Not bad as such, but it's not something ever likely to happen without causing immense controversy and raise legitimate questions about democracy.

Ideally, David Cameron could tell his master Rupert to make a step in the right direction and show good will and a new era of media responsibility. Fat chance.

Let's face it, there's more chances of a mansion tax going up or tuition fees being abolished than any government ever taking on Rupert Murdoch.