Friday, 23 March 2012

Sian, 27, has some thoughts on Page 3

Ok, so i totally stole the title of this post from Helen Lewis-Hasteley's New Statesman article but it's just too good not to. It's a compliment Helen :-) 

On Facebook yesterday, Turn Your Back on Page 3’s status update informed me that Ben Westwood (son of Vivienne) had weighed in on the ban page 3 debate. He said:

"The reformation began in Germany 500 years ago and puritanical ideals are spreading from there once again. I agree with Dominic Mohan, The Sun editor, and believe that page three is a British institution that celebrates beauty and reminds every man that opens the newspaper that he is alive."

As you can probably guess, I don’t agree with his frankly infantile defence of topless women in daily newspapers. 

There have been numerous calls to end page 3 over the years, calls that have pretty much agreed that a newspaper that treats women as disposable objects to be consumed with toast and coffee just isn’t really acceptable or normal in a modern and equal society. Claire Short led the way a few years ago, with the Sun responding to her complaints like giggling year 9 boys. They Photoshopped her head on to a page 3 model. Towards the end of last year, a group of women’s organisations presented evidence to Leveson regarding media sexism included discussion on Page 3. The editor (Dominic Mohan) and other Page 3 cheerleaders answered the complaints with the weak arguments that topless models are a British institution, that the ‘girls’ are ‘empowered’ and that it’s a celebration of female beauty. 

There’s a pervasive idea, illustrated by Westwood’s comments, that an objection to the commercial sexual exploitation and objectification of women is somehow puritanical and prudish. But I believe that in fact it is Page 3 that is puritanical and prudish. Why? Because Page 3 isn’t about sex or sexuality or desire, and it certainly isn’t about women’s sexuality and desire. It is a commercially packaged-up version of women’s bodies that can be sold (admittedly at a small price) to customers. And in my view, that’s nothing more than a commercial view of sexuality, a man-made creation for profit. And it doesn’t get much more prudish than a restricting commercial view of sexuality. Because this packaged-up-commercial sexuality seeks to control and restrict what is actually a pretty cool and adventurous and unpredictable and exciting thing – human sexuality. Page 3 and everything around it (porn, lad’s mags) are actually incredibly boring and restrictive. They reduce the whole wonderful smorgasbord of human sexuality into a topless shot of a young pouting woman. It doesn’t celebrate anything, it doesn’t break down any boundaries, it isn’t daring or earth-moving. It’s about selling papers via women’s bodies. And, let’s face it; selling anything through women’s bodies isn’t exactly free love, it isn’t the sexual revolution. It’s generally something done by men in suits with an eye on their bottom line (ahem. Pun totally intended). 

I don’t object to Page 3 because I’m prudish or anti-sex. I object to Page 3 because I think women’s sexuality is too diverse and exciting to be reduced to something as bland and prudish as a topless shot of a woman. 

To understand how prudish Page 3 is, we just have to look at the tabloid outrage at women who ‘break the rules’ when it comes to sex and sexuality. These include shaming women who have posed for Page 3 (e.g. Geri Halliwell), nasty editorial about women’s sexuality, slut-shaming, biphobia and homophobia. Page 3 is only interested in women’s bodies when they can use them to sell a performance of sexuality. Actual lived and embodied experience has no place in this essentially commercial enterprise. 

On to Westwood’s second argument – that Page 3 is a British Institution. Well, there are a lot of British Institutions. Slavery was rather the institution for a while no? Burning witches? Imprisoning gay people? Football hooliganism? Ok, it’s a low blow, but just because something is old or happens in the UK does not mean that it is beyond criticism. Culture isn’t immutable, it is ever changing and moving forward and when a cultural ‘thing’ becomes outdated, or evolves to be offensive and archaic, well we tend to drop it. 

Isn’t it actually a bit embarrassing to be defending Page 3? I mean, topless women being mocked via ‘news in briefs’. Women being treated as disposable objects to make money for Murdoch. Aren’t you embarrassed that this is considered normal? Britain should be red-faced at having commercial sexual exploitation claimed as an ‘institution’. 

Finally, Westwood argues that Page 3 celebrates beauty and reminds men that they are alive. This argument is patently ridiculous. First of all, Page 3 does not celebrate beauty. Instead it showcases one very narrow definition of female beauty (young, topless, pouty, slim, generally white) whilst marginalising and reducing the spectrum of beauty across all men and women. Again, this is essentially a commercial and capitalist issue. Page 3 perpetuates the idea of a very narrow and male-defined beauty that women are then expected to live up to and aspire to. Rather than celebratory it is reductive. Boring even. And, of course it is harmful, as increasingly women turn to the surgeon’s knife to try to embody this narrow and one-dimensional idea of what it is to be beautiful. It also positions beauty as only and always female. 

And whilst beauty is positioned as female, the passive object of the gaze, men are positioned as the active gaze-r (I know, not a real word), the spectator who needs topless women to feel alive. 

Seriously, if you need a look at a young topless woman on some bad quality paper to feel alive, you need to get out more. Maybe talk to some women. Go to a gallery. Lie in the sun, eat a great meal, drink champagne, actually have consensual sex, breathe on a mirror – do something. Because I am not here to bare my tits so that you can get some kind of kick to remind you that you’re alive. Women aren’t your toys, we’re not your objects and your life does not depend on us being treated that way. 

Westwood betrays a real and embedded sexism in his comments. His argument that men need Page 3 to feel alive completely ignores and eliminates women’s voices and right to bodily autonomy. It places the completely untrue belief that men need to see boobs above women’s right not to be treated as disposable objects. 

Page 3. You’re not a British Institution. You’re not celebrating beauty. You’re not saving men’s lives. You’re a prudish, puritanical, capitalist venture that we could all do without. 

14 comments:

Richard Brennan said...

A really good argument which I totally agree with.

sian and crooked rib said...

thank you!

petitefeministe said...

"Seriously, if you need a look at a young topless woman on some bad quality paper to feel alive, you need to get out more. Maybe talk to some women. Go to a gallery. Lie in the sun, eat a great meal, drink champagne, actually have consensual sex, breathe on a mirror – do something. Because I am not here to bare my tits so that you can get some kind of kick to remind you that you’re alive. Women aren’t your toys, we’re not your objects and your life does not depend on us being treated that way."

YES. Exactly this.

Habitual Q. Rake said...

Great post, I especially liked the suggestion to "breathe on a mirror" if you need to feel alive.

Also, surely a commentator who took seriously their own argument-- that people are only against page 3 because of prudish and puritanical sensibilities-- would be pushing for an expansion of page 3 to include sexy photos of men and women of all ethnicities, the old and middle-aged, queer and transgender folks, and the disabled. I await these changes with bated breath.

kropotkin_alias said...

This topic rears its head every decade or so. You'll never ban glam pics. As Kate Moss famously said when being accused of selling her body, "I choose to do it. Where's the exploitation in that?" end of argument really.if the girls want to do it then your argument falls. Of course sex sells so its never going to go away. The controversy you people cause every decade or so just gives the impetus and momentum to something that left alone would wither away! Interestingly whilst I lived in New York I bought the Sun on occasion ( English papers were difficult to find there in the 80's) and my American colleagues were stunned, & shocked by page 3. But the men loved it! Page 3 ain't going anywhere. Save your energy. Also why should you folk impose your morals & ethics on to others? Nobody is forced to pose for Page 3 pictures. It's would suggest you're ashamed in some way of your own bodies.

sian and crooked rib said...

Kropotkin alias - hahahahahahaha! You're funny!

Will go into why at a later point...

whatemilydidnext said...

Great article! Especially this:

'I don’t object to Page 3 because I’m prudish or anti-sex. I object to Page 3 because I think women’s sexuality is too diverse and exciting to be reduced to something as bland and prudish as a topless shot of a woman.'

I'm sick of hearing about how Page 3 and similar things 'celebrate' females. Perving on a topless girl who fits a narrow definition of beauty is not celebrating females! Also, if the only way that we, as a society, know how to celebrate females is to look at their tits, then that's a real sorry state of affairs. I celebrate women by admiring the things that they have done and said, not just their bodies!

If a man needs to read Page 3 to feel alive, then that is absolutely tragic.

the other zine said...

RE: the so-called "beauty" argument, they are also air brushed and photo shopped, so they aren't even portraying a realistic image of the already narrow and reductive way women supposedly look. They are essentially --in more ways than one, both literally and figuratively-- cartoons or caricatures of women.

Lindsay said...

I completely agree with everything in this post. I would just add that Westwood's pathetic argument completely ignores the fact that women also read newspapers, implying that the male taste is the only one they need to cater for. I know Ben, shocking right? Us little ladies taking an interest in current affairs and the news of the day. Where will it end?!

Pete Jones said...

Spot on, great post.

quiteirregular said...

Great post. Had some fun joking around earlier on Twitter about the problems with using "the Reformation" as a peg to hand this ludicrous argument on (the idea of "life" being mediated via a printed image is an interesting one in the Reformation... the prurience of many Protestant prints depicting Catholic religious... the fact that the Counter-Reformation wasn't famous for its love of the unclothed female body, etc etc). But I think the geeky Church history angle is worth chasing here, because Westwood's confusion of "Puritans" with Reformation Protestants says a lot about his attitude to women and entertainment.

He doesn't mean "Catholic" vs "Puritan", he means "Cavalier" vs "Roundahead." What I think Westwood has fallen for is the Restoration Royalists' image of everyone who wasn't them as drab, joyless and prudish. With the return of Charles II, English culture rewrote the preceding thirty years as one of jolly Cavaliers, who loved wine women and song, who were misunderstood and oppressed by fanatical Puritans who wanted to stop everyone's fun. Instead of, as Howard Brenton's work graphically suggests, Royalist cavaliers as syphilitic sexual terrorists who were excited by Puritan women's notion of modesty as it gave them a feeling that violating it was somehow morally sophisticated. (Not arguing that Brenton's history is the right view, just it's one that's never presented.) The dominant image of the Restoration of the monarchy basically gave enormous power to a group of men who had convinced themselves that THEY were the ones being oppressed by people who wanted to take away their pleasure.

This rings a few bells with the modern situation. Anyone demanding access to women's bodies for their own entertainment ("women" appearing alongside "wine" and "song" as consumable fun) gets the same deal as the Cavaliers - the rhetorical right to tap into a narrative which paints their enemies as "Puritans", their own desires as "just a bit of fun" and the women as cheerful "wenches" who enjoy the attention (see contemporary portraits of actresses.) And underlying it all is a sense of grievance, that actually the men in power are the ones being oppressed... Westwood is wrong, but he's wrong in a way which capitalises on some strong existing narratives.

Anyway, sorry to go on, I thought your piece was spot on.

fallingblossoms said...

Superb article. Actually a hundread times better and more comprehensive than what I said (prior to Westwood's comments) here: http://feministmeup.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/the-sun-and-the-misrepresentation-of-women

Really wholeheartedly love your article - thanks.

Shabana Kausar said...

'And whilst beauty is positioned as female, the passive object of the gaze, men are positioned as the active gaze-r'

Well said!

sian and crooked rib said...

Thank you for all the lovely comments! That's v interesting re restoration, have not thought about it in those terms before (too busy reading forever amber!)