Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Tits, out - The Economist

Accessed 27th August 2013



Tits, out

What a row about tabloid nudity says about sex and society

Aug 17th 2013 |From the print edition

AN ENGLISHMAN likes a routine: Marmite on his toast, warm beer in his glass, bad teeth in his mouth and, for a couple of million readers of the Sun, a squint at Kelly from Daventry’s boobs on Page 3. Such is the claim made by Britain’s biggest-selling tabloid: that since its topless photos were introduced in 1970 under the new proprietor of the day, Rupert Murdoch, they have become a harmless fixture of national life. Yet, cheekily venerable though it may be, Page 3’s days could be numbered. Its fate casts light on evolving attitudes to sex, feminism and the media; on what has changed in Britain since 1970, and what hasn’t.
People have always complained that Page 3 demeans and objectifies women. But the impetus for a rethink now is new. A year ago Lucy-Anne Holmes, an actor and writer, began an online campaign, No More Page 3, and a petition that has since attracted 114,000 signatures. Her success is salutary. Death threats made recently against female MPs and journalists highlighted the use that deranged misogynists make of Twitter and Facebook; Ms Holmes’s efforts demonstrate how valuable the internet has been for feminists, too. Suddenly women and girls no longer feel like the only person in the office or classroom who cares.
Previous opponents of Page 3 have been dismissed as puritanical killjoys. With the especial venom the tabloids reserve for those who threaten their own interests, the Sunlabelled Clare Short, a former Labour minister who advocated a ban, “fat”, “ugly” and “jealous”. Wisely, today’s campaign is not calling for legislation, nor even for the Sun’s banishment to the top shelf or a minimum age for buyers (the print equivalents of a television watershed). It is politely requesting that Page 3 be discontinued. The Irish version of the Sunrecently did just that. The word is that a revamp may be coming in the British paper, too.
But meanwhile fans of Page 3 are marshalling their arguments, as familiar as the new activism is nimble. One is that critics’ real concern is not sex but class: that the underlying anxiety is not for the women on the page but the (largely) working-class men who ogle them. The snooty prosecutor at the obscenity trial of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”—who asked if the jury would want their servants to read the book—sometimes gets a look in. This defence is itself a form of snobbery—as if Sun readers would not cope without a daily dose of nipples, or are irredeemably sexist.
Then there is the lazy appeal to the sovereignty of the market. That is the line taken by David Cameron and other senior politicians (though 138 other MPs support Ms Holmes). This is a matter for consumers, they say, sometimes proceeding to reject the idea of a ban, even though no one is proposing one. Like most papers, the Sun’s circulation has declined; it has been tarnished by a scandal over phone-hacking and the bribery of public officials, in which dozens of journalists have been arrested. Evidently, however, bigwigs still prefer not to alienate it, or Mr Murdoch. The prime minister’s blasé approach sits uncomfortably with his alarm at the spread of salacious images online.
That is something that definitely has changed. These days, raunch is everywhere—not only on the internet and television, but on advertising hoardings and the sides of buses. Another online campaign is aimed at sanitising the covers of sub-pornographic “lads’ mags”. In this context, Page 3 can scarcely be titillating for anyone over the age of 13. Like the saucy “Carry On” films of the 1960s-70s, or Benny Hill’s puerile comedy sketches, it is more cartoonish than erotic. Britons seem to have an enduring taste for coy, almost evasive smut.
Which is not to say that it is harmless. As with much nastier material, only more so, linking Page 3 to violence is highly speculative. But, given its brand and (despite the falling circulation) its ubiquity, it is silly to deny that the Sun plays a role in shaping views on women. In particular, the attitudes of boys to girls and girls to their own bodies: Page 3 supplies invidious comparators and narrow, retrograde stereotypes.
The paper itself seems to understand that tits are not for kids, and drops them in its family-friendly weekend editions. But children pick up the Sun at bus stops or kitchen tables during the week. In a way, the new, hypersexual environment strengthens the case against Page 3. In the emerging, rough-and-ready rules of the pornofied world, adults can look at what they choose, but children should be shielded where possible.
Turn the page
Besides the issue of whether Page 3 should be scrapped (it should, but voluntarily), there is the question why, in this age of wall-to-wall filth, readers might remain attached to it. Here the fallback plea of the Sun’s editors—that the boobs have become a tradition—may be helpful. Page 3 has been going about as long as the Super Bowl in America: not very, but long enough to become a staple for a couple of generations of men. It has spanned decades in which much of British life has been transformed, not least in off-the-page relations between men and women.
Tough. Traditions can die, and many are unlamented when they do. The time-honoured tradition of displaying girlie calendars in motor garages and other workplaces is now defunct. Even Page 3 itself is not immutable. It ditched surgically enhanced breasts and swore off girls younger than 18; ironic jokes at the models’ expense have gone the way of all flesh. Too prim to arouse yet too lewd for a modern newspaper, the flesh itself is a throwback to a cruder, simpler past.
Encouragingly, in February Mr Murdoch hinted in a tweet that the topless shots might be replaced by pictures of “glamorous fashionistas”. On occasion he has seemed ruthlessly aware that institutions have a half-life. The phone-hacking furore began in 2011 when theNews of the World, the Sun’s much older Sunday complement, was accused of raiding the messages of a murdered schoolgirl. Mr Murdoch closed the paper in a heartbeat.