A long, long time ago—back in 1970, if you're counting—some editors at a British tabloid called the Sun had a thought: Hey, what if we put some topless women in our paper? Would people like that?
It turned out they did, and from that day forth the Sun (soon followed by its competitors) began running photos of topless ladies on the third page of every issue. "Page 3 girls" were presented as ordinary young women, nubile products of the sexual revolution. The idea, Padraig Reidy wrote this week, was "that sweet-natured young women with absolutely no qualms about sex were out there, just needing a wink and a Sid James cackle to persuade them into a bit of slap and tickle... They were 'healthy' and 'fun,' perhaps a little 'naughty'; always girls and never women."
But what might have been a bawdy, if lecherous, feature four decades ago looks both old-fashioned and gross in the 21st century, which is why No More Page 3, a grassroots campaign to get the Sun to stop its sleazy displays, has gained so much traction in recent years. This week the Sun seemed to abruptly cave when it published a breast-free edition on Wednesday, sparking a storm of thinkpieces in other media outlets—before the editors announced that ha ha they were just kidding, Page 3 is alive and well, and here is a half-naked winking woman to prove it.
There seemed to be something both nasty and immature in this bait-and-switch. The tabloid was acknowledging that these spreads had become controversial and that people now found them to be boorish, misogynist, or simply lame—and the editors were sending those people a very obvious message: Fuck you.
"In the Sun's childish taunting of any woman who expressed alignment with the No More Page 3 campaign's arguments, the newspaper has eclipsed the initial debate surrounding whether it should exist or not almost entirely," VICE's Eleanor Morgan wrote yesterday. "That is what has happened today. No woman I know was talking about whether Page 3 should exist this morning—they were talking about a national newspaper provoking a reaction against the very idea of women having opinions."
If there's an American analogue to the Sun, which has a circulation of over 2 million, it's probably the New York Post. The Sun publishes articles about unfaithful boyfriends' STDs killing their unborn children, which sex position is the riskiest, and women who go into comas after botched dye jobs—the sorts of stories that are tabloid staples the world over. But Page 3 might be the Sun's biggest contribution to British culture; some women, like Jodie Marsh and Katie Price have used it as a springboard to fame as "glamour models" and reality TV stars.
"It's become synonymous with what we would call ' white van men,' builders, plumbers, odd-job men," said Eleanor when I called her up and asked her to explain what Page 3 meant to British culture. The Sun is a cheap paper, she added, that "caters to a working-class audience," and Page 3 is of a piece with that. "The whole shtick was, 'Here's an everyday girl with her tits out.'"
Some of Page 3's detractors have argued that the Sun is sending the message that women are objects to be gawked at, that the most important thing about them is their bodies. But others object to it on simpler grounds: In 2015, is it really all that exciting to see a sorta-naked lady? Surely even the most technophobic Sun reader can figure out how to fire up some porn on his phone if he really, really has to check out some nudity in public, right?
"Today it's much less powerful or titillating than it ever was before," Eleanor told me. "Honestly, it's become such a tired thing. The whole No More Page 3 campaign was quite polite and peaceful and saying, 'God, c'mon guys, this is so tired now.'"
Even Sun owner Rupert Murdoch (whose company 21st Century Fox also owns 5 percent of VICE) thinks Page 3 is "old fashioned," as he tweeted in September, though the papers' readers seem to still love the models, at least according to editor David Dinsmore. (Sun readers presumably also love such fine entertainments as racist comedians and those pens that have naked women on them.)
The debate isn't about whether the offending mammaries are tasteless or lame or a freeing expression of female sexuality anymore, however. "It's not boobs that are priceless to the brand," wrote the Guardian's Gaby Hinsliff, "but being the paper that won't be told what to do about having boobs in it; that sticks two defiant fingers up to what readers regard as joyless feminists and sanctimonious lefties and the bossy, nannying PC brigade—all the people now so neatly suckered."
That contrarian, up-yours attitude that the Sun seems to have adopted was in full effect on Thursday, when the paper's head of PR, Dylan Sharpe, mocked Page 3's critics on Twitter, an act he got so much heat for that he later issued an apology. "Guilty of gloating I most certainly am. Icarus has well and truly plummeted to earth," was how he phrased it to BuzzFeed News—which should give you an idea of the rhetorical realm this debate over breasts has entered.
So what happens now? At the Telegraph, Rupert Myers wrote that the "loud, sustained campaign [against Page 3] has failed," and suggested that the No More Page 3 crowd should stop pressuring the Sun and allow the feature to die a natural death. Of course, that would make it look like a crew of laddish tabloid editors had successfully "beaten" the feminists, and neither side has much to gain from backing down or reducing the volume. A full day after the Sun's re-breastification, the story was still making its way through the news cycle, with Twitter users sending the paper photos of male nipples as a joke, a "feminist libertarian" denouncing Page 3 in the Belfast Telegraph, and a Guardian profile of a glamour model turned Labour politician opened with her reaction to Thursday's Sun. And if you run a paper like the Sun, you rarely stop doing something when it's getting that much attention.
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