If American feminists think that U.S. media leads the way in objectifying women, they might be surprised to learn that buttoned-up Britain has been receiving a dose of naked breasts with breakfast for 42 years now. The tradition of 'Page 3 girls'—whereby a full-page photograph of a topless young woman appears on page 3 of The Sun, one of Britain's biggest-selling newspapers—began in 1970, and despite various campaigns to end it, no one has yet been successful in dismantling this retrogressive media 'institution'.
However, the latest 'No More Page 3' campaign, launched by U.K. feminist Lucy Holmes, seems to have captured the British public's imagination in an unprecedented way. Her polite request to Dominic Monahan, editor of The Sun, to stop showing "the naked breasts of a young woman in your widely-read "family" newspaper" has gained 52,000 signatures and has sparked a flurry of support on Twitter, Facebook, and across the blogosphere. Both women and men are signing, with comments ranging from the concise—"Because women contribute to society in many ways that do not involve a man's erection" to the poignant "Because I want my daughter growing up in a world that respects her for ALL she is, instead of treating her like meat". Although the lack of diversity on Page 3 has largely gone unaddressed, it's also worth mentioning that The Sun has always promoted the most prescriptive version of 'sexiness' imaginable—a white, slim, able-bodied, cisgendered young woman served up for male consumption. Of the thousands of women who have modelled for Page 3 since 1972, only four of them have been black.
But not every woman is willing to condemn Page 3. The Huffington Post's Rita Pal labels the campaign "emasculating," and argues that "we cannot control the biological sexual imperative of men"—that imperative being, presumably, to ogle the naked breasts of an 18-year-old while eating breakfast with your children. Elsewhere, Sarah O' Meara argues that the body-critical culture of celebrity magazines is far more harmful and offensive to women, and dismisses the idea that "removing [Page 3] would have a significant impact on gender politics."
The campaign does raise issues for feminists, some of whom might defend the right of glamour models to 'exploit' male weakness in return for monetary reward, and consider it patronizing to assume that the models are necessarily victims themselves. Like Rita Pal, sex-positive feminists may feel bound to defend Page 3's "message that women should be confident for who they are, in or out of their clothes" and reframe it as a celebration of female sexuality. However, I'd posit the notion that most women don't see their full and complex sexuality reflected anywhere in the Page 3 version of womanhood– "its passivity, its lack of demands on the male, and above all its perpetual availability" as U.K. feminist writer Joan Smith describes it—especially if they happen to be nonwhite, non-slim, non–large breasted, disabled, or transgendered. Which may explain why women are signing in their thousands.
As Joan Smith also pointed out as far back as 23 years ago, opponents of page 3 are doomed to be accused of "motives of envy and prudery ... particularly if they happen to be women." The 'prude' argument has repeatedly reared its head in opposition to the campaign as commenters sarcastically ask "Are you planning to campaign against all classical art featuring naked women?". Campaign supporters might respond that this argument deliberately conflates the reasonable notion that there's a time and a place for naked breasts (and a newspaper isn't it) with the myth that feminists wish to shut down all instances of sexual expression.
Nowhere were antifeminist silencing tactics more clearly demonstrated than in the treatment of MP Clare Short, who in 1986 attempted to introduce a bill into British Parliament to remove Page 3 girls from newspapers. Short's campaign received great support from British women "who finally felt encouraged to express their frustration about what they saw as a daily insult". However, she was also ridiculed in the British media, accused of jealousy by other MPs, and condemned by gay-rights groups and parts of the women's movement for encouraging censorship. Another attempt to introduce an anti-Page 3 Bill in 2004 resulted in hotpant-clad Sun models staging a 'photo protest' outside Short's house. Being a young and conventionally attractive feminist certainly hasn't protected Lucy Holmes from getting such a torrent of abuse online that she has already had to contact the police—sadly, 'twas ever thus when challenging media sexism—but this time, the campaign is standing strong.
The Sun remains tight-lipped on whether it will heed the demands of the campaign. In the meantime, more than 52,000 British women and men are united under the notion that, as UK comedian Jennifer Saunders puts it, "tits aren't news".
Image from 'No More Page 3' campaign page