"It's a newspaper's duty to print the news and raise hell," or so said Wilbur F. Storey of the goals of the Chicago Times in 1861. Most British newspapers do not fit this romantic fantasy of plucky reporters digging up facts, uncovering corruption and exposing the wrong doings of those in power. Newspapers are a product as much as anything else and one that exists in a very competitive market place. Beyond this they are part of our public psyche and form a key part of how we view the world. Most of us still get our news from newspapers, it may be in the form of articles published online, or downloaded onto smart phones but still newspapers are powerful players in the news market. They decide what is news or not news but deeper than that they decide what is normal or not normal.
When headlines denouncing 'Booze Britain' and the dangers of binge drinking were splashed across front pages, they reinforced the idea that most people drink excessively on a regular basis. Through the foggy lens of journalism we look at ourselves as a nation and we find out how we behave and what our hopes and fears are - mainly our fears. When newspapers are outraged at politician’s expenses or light penalties for sex offenders, so are we as a nation. As such it follows that when newspapers are casually sexist, we become a bit more casually sexist as a nation.
Sexism is rife in newspapers - especially tabloids. Women are constantly assaulted for being ugly, fat, having too much power, crying wolf in rape accusations, not breast feeding their children enough, having bad taste in clothes, for speaking out of line, for breast feeding their children too much, causing cancer and making house prices fall.
However, one aspect of all the misogynistic rubbish printed in tabloid papers stands out above the rest: The Sun's Page 3. Since 1969 The Sun (Britain's most popular and least trusted newspapers) has printed a picture of a glamour model on its third page. Initially clothed and later topless, these photographs show a misogynistic image of women as young, good looking, sexually available and silent.
Recently an online petition on the website change.org, No More Page 3, has sought the removal of Page 3 from the Sun. At the time of posting this campaign has picked up 46 thousand signatures, as well as press coverage in The Guardian, The New Statesman and on News Night. Social media is buzzing with the very real possibility that this No More Page 3 could be a success. The campaign is well managed, has picked up support from several public figures, including MPs and is targeting The Sun's advertisers such as Lego, Tesco and Sainsbury’s in an attempt to put added pressure on the tabloid. This campaign has attracted criticism from those who go out of their way to defend casual sexism. Unsurprising as this is, I wanted to take a moment to address a few of the misconceptions shaping the arguments in favour of Page 3.
The first strand of criticism mainly comes from a position of middle-class broadsheet superiority. Some argue that Page 3 does not really matter, as the Sun is not a newspaper but a news comic. It is difficult to argue that the Sun is not taken seriously as a newspaper. Certainly it's the main source of news for the 13.6 million people who pay to read it every week. Its power to affect the opinions and actions of the general public was evidenced in the infamous 1992 election day front page, which allowed John Major to narrowly secure a majority. The Sun is clearly a newspaper and what it prints – both news and otherwise – clearly has an effect on its readership.
The problems caused by Page 3 go beyond those who read the Sun, as any newspaper so widely read sets a standard. Page 3 is often the largest picture of a woman in the newspaper. Those other images of women in The Sun are used to shame women for their failings in either being ugly, overweight or having an opinion differ from The Sun's right wing agenda. Page 3 sets a standard of how women are treated, i.e. either ogled or mocked.
The campaign simply seeks the abolition of Page 3 and invites people to support for it for their own personal reasons. People of many different ideological backgrounds have signed the petition. My own objection to Page 3 does not come from any perceived negative psychological damage caused by looking at naked women. Nor does it stem from a puritan desire to cover up women’s flesh. It comes from a desire to liberate women from the casual sexism in our society that Page 3 epitomises. I feel my goals are very much in line with petition’s creator who has demonstrated a desire to bring society to a place where casual sexism of the Page 3 variety is no longer acceptable.
Reading a daily paper is a very normal, very British thing to do and putting casual sexism in a daily paper clocks the misogyny in normality. It reinforces the idea that a sexist attitude to women is the normal way of behaving. It also fixes in the general psyche the view that women exist only to appear sexually desirable to men and when they do not fit into this neat bracket they are worthless. This the normality of of female objectification and the views it support hold back women across the world from gender equality. The campaign wishes to end the normality of female objectification in part through abolishing Page 3 and the way it normalises sexist attitudes.
Another argument used in favour of Page 3 is that it is a harmless hangover from a bygone area, much like Benny Hill or Naughty Nuns postcards. In some ways this is true. Page 3 is from the past, it would not be started today; it would be considered crass and sexist - which it is. The fact that Page 3 would not be started today indicates that it does not reflect the values of our modern society. It is worthy of note that the Daily Mirror used to have Page 3 photographs but stopped the practice in the 1980s because it was seen as demeaning to women.
Some wish to protect Page 3 because they naively yearn for a mostly fictional past age that was free from political correctness. An age where sexism was rife, traditional gender roles were strongly enforced, and any deviation was met with social exclusion. Although most people who look back to the past with fondness will acknowledge that it was sexist, they argue that sexism has been abolished from our modern society. To them, Page 3 is a harmless relic of the past to be preserved so that we do not lose all contact with tradition.
This argument holds little weight as sexism has clearly not been abolished from our society. In place of Benny Hill, Family Guy is making weekly rape jokes. Women have made social and economic progress since the 1970s but the playing field is still not level. Women are poorly represented among heads of state or chief executives of large companies. Where women have risen they have had to endure the ridicule and low esteem in which they are held. This is mainly a result of the institutionalised sexism that Page 3 normalises.
Page 3 reveals how deeply ingrained sexism is in our society. The fact that some wish to defend it is sexist in itself. It shows there is still work to be done in rooting it out misogyny. So long as Page 3 continues the objectification of women will be normal and natural. This in turn maintains the uneven playing field on which women compete for jobs and political power. In the past individual's racist behaviour went unchallenged because broader racist attitudes in society appeared normal. As the idea of racism being the normal state was challenged it allowed individual's be challenged for their racist behaviour. The same is true for sexist. The standard bearers for sexism need to be brought down before sexism can be challenged on an individual level. In the battle for gender equality Page 3 is Tank, ploughing its way across the field, shielding sexism from oncoming fire with the armour of normality.
Page 3 is complexly unacceptable in today's modern news market place and I cannot imagine the writing of Woodward and Bernstein next to the image of a topless woman. Tabloid newspapers use their power to create a culture that publicly shames women. The above example of the public outcry against binge drinking is a perfect example of this as the criticism falls more heavily on women who drink excessively than men. This sexist tabloid culture cannot be stopped until Page 3 and other examples of ingrained sexism are abolished. When the Chicago Times were doing their duty in printing the news and raising hell, I doubt they thought the quality of their work would be increased by daily images of topless women.