On Monday, it was reported that British newspaper The Sun had finally bowed to pressure and scrapped their controversial ‘Page 3’ feature, a page featuring naked women posing alluringly for the pleasure of the reader. It was unprecedented and widely celebrated- if only momentarily. Two days of speculation later, with the paper neither confirming nor denying the allegations, Page 3 made its grand return to our newsstands, with a resounding two-fingers up to the hundreds of thousands of people who had fought for its abolition.
Put frankly, the existence of Page 3 is a national embarrassment, as was the outrageous stunt pulled by the paper. It is task assumed only by the foolish to justify the feature, which contributes towards the hypersexualisation and objectification of women in an oh-so-degrading and disrespectful manner. It places portrayals of women as sexual objects alongside news stories and weather reports, as if they provided just another mundane service to society and had no other kind of instrumental value. Yet, it exists, and its proponents rely mainly on two justifications; that of media tradition, and of freedom of speech. Here is why both of these justifications are beyond false.
So, addressing the defence of Page 3 being a ‘Great British Tradition’. I have several responses to this assertion. It should firstly be noted that a country grounds part of its national identity upon a tradition of systematically objectifying women, this may possibly contribute to an undesirable national identity; I am a first-generation immigrant myself, but I am confident there must be other aspects of British identity more worthy of celebration. I would tentatively suggest we focus on protecting those elements. But secondly, and more importantly, justifying retrogressive media practices on the flimsy grounds of ‘tradition’ is rationally, and morally, unfounded. Traditions are often held onto not on the basis of their merits, but rather, because of, say, conservatism, nostalgia, or the existence of Rupert Murdoch. None of these bases are cause enough.
And next, more crucially, onto the defence of ‘free speech’. I find this deeply problematic.
To howl that the abolition of Page 3 would amount to an attack on free speech is not only completely false, but demonstrates an offensive miscomprehension of why we have free speech at all. We hold freedom of speech so highly because of its instrumental value within the framework of a democratic society; in order to advance society culturally, politically, economically and so forth, we must be free to criticise and be criticised, to participate actively in a dynamic marketplace of ideas, to articulate our individual or collective conceptions of the good life.
It is impossible to draw a link between any of the material benefits freedom of speech provides and the contents of page three of the Sun. If anything, it is the opposite. Let us take the Sun’s News in Briefs (how very droll) feature as a case in point to demonstrate this. By juxtaposing images of overtly sexualised women with legitimate political stances, the entire feature becomes a parody of the idea that women, in addition to being sexual objects serving at the leisure of the gentleman flicking through the pages, may be capable of formulating their own opinions. This is the USP, novelty element of the feature: it is such an absurd notion, so far-fetched from the truth, that women can be simultaneously smart and attractive, that we’d best hyperbolize it to the point that everyone knows just how funny it really is. Hah. Good one.
We don’t use freedom of speech to provide a liberal and pro-democratic mask for a thoroughly illiberal and anti-democratic tradition. To assert otherwise is to warp what it means to live in a democratic society in order to push an anti-democratic agenda, namely, the consistent subordination of a marginalised group that happens to comprise half the demos. Invoking the protection of free speech in order to justify sexist media practices involves the language of human rights being co-opted for nefarious ends, in an attempt to shut down reasonable criticism from liberals. Note that human rights language is also manipulated to defend the “freedom” to make racist, homophobic and transphobic remarks. At this point, human rights are delegitimised, which is dangerous- unsurprisingly, in order to exist, they ought not be used as a basis to deprive other societal groups of rights.
Of course, the existence of Page 3 is not all that is wrong with tabloid media, nor would it be correct to think that “the battle is won” when it is replaced by articles. It is doubtful that those column inches would be filled with stories celebrating the achievements of prominent and successful women, with harrowing reports of the experiences of women in conflict, or comments on the policies of female cabinet ministers which did not involve an assessment of her wardrobe choices that day. This is a struggle that exists throughout the media industry and is not easily solved. But nonetheless, it is surely not an unreasonable request that the editors of a bestselling paper pay lip service to common decency by making their inherent misogyny less explicit.
The editors of The Sun, by duping the general public and through a hoax they shockingly referred to as a ‘mammary lapse’, made a laughing stock of women, of printed media, and of themselves.