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.