The Guardian, 21 January 2015
The Sun claimed it was a pioneer when in fact it was reprising ancient gender roles. The trick couldn’t last
In November 1970, American troops were still in Vietnam, Salvador Allende was inaugurated as president of Chile, and former Beatle George Harrison released a triple album. It feels like a different world, an impression confirmed by another event from the same year and month, namely the introduction of bare breasts on Page 3 of the Sun. I don’t suppose anyone imagined that the pictures would become a cultural phenomenon – or that it would take 44 years to get rid of them.
Over the decades, Page 3 became the symbol of a culture that growing numbers of people no longer wanted to live in, and that is why its demise (in printed editions at least) is so significant. The problem with Page 3 isn’t just the sexism inherent in publishing photographs of the same type of woman – young, slender, large-breasted – every day. I’ve often wondered how men would feel, sitting on a bus next to someone staring at a photograph of a good-looking 20-something cradling his testicles.
My guess is that Page 3 is such a weird phenomenon, encouraging young women to display their breasts like something that doesn’t quite belong to them, that it will soon seem strange that it existed for so long. While it was always presented by the paper as a piece of harmless fun, the nasty assumptions underlying Page 3 became evident as soon as one or two brave women began campaigning against it. The Labour MP Clare Short was vilified in the most cruel and hurtful way, with the paper encouraging its “top glamour girls” to describe her as “fat and ugly”. The attacks may have been a reflection of the commercial importance of Page 3 to the Sun’s brand, but they also signalled the extent to which the paper had appropriated – and perverted – the ideology of sexual liberation.
Anyone who opposed Page 3 was characterised as sexually repressed and a “killjoy” (the word used about Short when Rebekah Brooks edited the Sun), as though the only arguments against it belonged in a puritan tradition. In that sense, the paper was shamelessly trying to link itself to a social revolution from which it had long parted company.
Page 3 began only three years after the summer of love, when thousands of young people descended on San Francisco to celebrate a whole series of messages, including “free love” and opposition to the Vietnam war. Suddenly, newspapers were full of pictures of women in their 20s with long hair and bell bottoms, astonishing an older generation which remembered Christian Dior’s New Look.
There is no evidence that anyone actually burned a bra, but a year after the summer of love, at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, around 400 protesters threw bras, corsets, make-up and copies of Playboy magazine into a dustbin in a symbolic rejection of traditional femininity. It was an exhilarating gesture for young women who didn’t want lives like their mothers. Crucially, access to the contraceptive pill was becoming widespread, placing the possibility of having sex on the same terms as men within their grasp for the first time. These young women threw away their bras and embraced sexual liberation, even if the continuing inequality of the sexes would one day be the cause of bitter disillusionment.
An unintended beneficiary of this upheaval, for a short time at least, was Page 3: if rejecting bras was a political act, how could anyone object to photographs of women who seemed to be proud of their (almost) unclothed bodies?
Thus Page 3 was able to bask, for the briefest of moments, in its almost accidental association with hippie culture and the sexual revolution. It soon became evident, however, that it was part of an old patriarchal trick, just like Playboy magazine and its flagship club in London’s Mayfair. Playboy and Page 3 piggybacked the sexual revolution, persuading women that they were sexual pioneers when they were actually reprising ancient gender roles. One of the reasons they got away with it was the almost total exclusion of women from senior roles on newspapers and boards, allowing a chummy male atmosphere to flourish.
The message of Page 3 was never “strong” and “assertive”. It was “available” and “passive”. Short and her Labour colleague Harriet Harman weren’t afraid to say so, but the scare tactics worked on other women. Many remained silent, fearing they wouldn’t appear “fun-loving” if they objected to “topless” pictures. (Perhaps the end of Page 3 means we can also get rid of that euphemism, which deliberately desexualises pictures of women’s bodies.)
What made the difference was the internet, which allowed a new generation of women to articulate their opposition to Page 3 and support each other in the face of a backlash. It also seems likely that the numbers signing up to the No More Page 3 campaign had an effect, creating bad publicity for a newspaper group which had already been rocked by the phone-hacking scandal.
Page 3 always had a sell-by date, a fact reluctantly acknowledged by Rupert Murdoch in a tweet in which he called it ‘old-fashioned’. The reality is that a society evolving towards greater equality could never tolerate Page 3 in the long term, especially now we know so much more about the extent of violence against women and girls.
Rape and domestic abuse are widespread, and it is clear that boys’ ideas about sex are being warped while they are still at school; their fathers and elder brothers may like Page 3 but they can no longer pretend it exists in a vacuum. The presence of what is effectively soft porn in popular newspapers was singled out for criticism in Lord Justice Leveson’s report on the culture and ethics of the press.
In a little-noticed irony, Page 3 was not the only cultural phenomenon that made its entrance in 1970. In the same year, an Australian academic called Germaine Greer published a surprise bestseller called The Female Eunuch. Greer’s argument that women had become separated from their libido and sexuality was confirmed every day by the smiling, eager-to-please mannequins who appeared in the pages of the Sun. At the time, feminism seemed even more shocking to some people than Page 3 – but feminism won in the end.