The Hidden Politics of Page 3
This article is part of Canvas’s International Women’s Week mini-issue
Since The Sun’s Page 3 announced itself in 1970 it has become something of a phenomenon within the British press, copied by other publications both here and abroad. Arguably an unusual feature to include within a newspaper, it is defended as ‘a bit of harmless fun’ by many of its supporters. Yet it has of course also encountered opposition throughout much of these 43 years. The on-going No More Page 3 campaign has played a significant role in widening the debate concerning its place in our society today, and what its presence says about attitudes towards women.
A number of arguments are frequently raised in defence of Page 3; of which there are two that are difficult to disagree with. I acknowledge that women who pose for Page 3 do so willingly, and make money from it. Secondly, it is also true that a number of women such as Katie Price, Linda Lusardi and Sam Fox have used it to establish very lucrative careers. However, it is a third argument that I object to: that women are taking their empowerment into their own hands by selling images of their beauty to millions of adoring and supposedly easily-pleased men who will pay money to see them.
The view that female emancipation can be derived from taking one’s clothes off to titillate men does not help anyone. It works on the basis that men are simple creatures, ruled by their sexual urges, and that a woman will always be defined by her looks and erotic capital. Those who support the argument also tend to believe that glamour models are much better paid than they actually are. While the most famous Page 3 models have been known to earn upwards of £100,000 a year, many of their colleagues have an annual salary of less than £10,000. For every woman who does make it onto Page 3, thousands will have been unsuccessful, earning even less and resorting to much more dangerous and exploitative work in order to supplement their income. Further, glamour models’ careers last two to five years on average. Many struggle to find work afterwards because in many cases employers discriminate against them based upon their previous profession. Once their breasts are too old to be worth anything, the rest of them is of no use either, it seems.
If we assume that print space is allocated in proportion to the importance an editor gives to a featured person or story, it would only be logical to conclude that The Sun’s editor Dominic Mohan and his predecessors feel that the role Poppy, 21 from Somerset (today’s Page 3 Girl at time of writing) plays in titillating men is more important than Jessica Ennis winning an Olympic gold medal, or Malala Yousefzai’s awe-inspiring battle for girls’ education, for example. The Sun is saying that as far as it is concerned, nothing a woman achieves will ever be more important than the reaction she gets when she takes her top off. Should she make it onto Page 3, she will not even be allowed to speak for herself; her words will be chosen for her by the writers of the ‘News in Briefs’ column. The language with which The Sun talks about its critics and even its own models is patronising, and at times incredibly spiteful. In 2010 it ran an article warning that their models would end up “on the dole” if Page 3 were to be shelved – without considering that they might be capable of other things besides posing topless. Former MP Clare Short has been repeatedly labelled as “ugly and jealous” for criticising Page 3.
Such comments are being printed in a publication that presents itself as a family newspaper, easily accessible to the children whose parents purchase it. In fact The Sun recently went as far as encouraging children to ask their parents to buy it in order to collect LEGO vouchers offered as part of a promotion. For children whose families buy The Sun on a regular basis, the objectification of women in a newspaper becomes routine, as does the language its writers use about them. Men are encouraged to ogle women who are the same age as their daughters. It could be argued that the attitude one newspaper – even the nation’s most popular newspaper – demonstrates towards women has little influence over the way society regards them. However, when it is estimated that The Sun is read by seven million people daily and is for many the only source of journalism they read on a regular basis, it is highly likely that certain ideas will take root and become normalised.
All of this is why the ‘if you don’t like it don’t buy it’ argument simply is not good enough. Such an approach offers no facility to explain why the views expressed in The Sun are problematic to so many. There is an unsettling sense of entitlement, an expectation that the third page of the nation’s biggest-selling newspaper will always be devoted to the sexual gratification of the men who like what they see on Page 3. Meanwhile The Sun’s arguably positive ‘Stop Rape Now’ campaign wallows in the women’s section, not even important enough to sacrifice one day of naked teenager for. Women are made to feel uncomfortable about breast feeding in public yet an under-24’s breasts will feature in The Sun every day unquestioned. In sum we must ask ourselves: how exactly does Page 3 and all it stands for empower women? The answer is that it doesn’t. Instead it has contributed towards the manifestation of a heinously misogynistic dialogue that reaches far beyond the third page of one newspaper.
Written by Natalie King
 These figures were given by The Sun’s Page 3 photographer Alison Webster, who spoke in Channel 4’s documentary ‘The Making of a Teenage Glamour Model’ as part of their My Crazy Media Life series in 2007.