Newspapers both reflect and create mainstream cultural values – what we allow in our newspapers is what we accept as a society. A newspaper is not a niche publication aimed at one group, but a national public source of news and views.
Over the past four decades print media has moved from text-based to image-centred communication. Advertisers have long known that the most effective way to sell products is not through stories but through images that appeal to basic human needs and emotions, and we know that the power of advertising lies in its influence on not only buying habits but underlying values and aspirations. Through images, advertisers sell to the consumer not a product but a ‘lifestyle choice’.
The human brain sees images as the truth – despite knowing that an image is airbrushed, for example, our brain cannot ‘not believe’ what it actually sees. We know now that advertising images are designed to manipulate our emotions, but because this process happens on an unconscious level we are still susceptible to its messages.
A newspaper’s images have an even greater power of influence because – despite the inclusion of more frivolous areas of celebrity and entertainment news – the role of newspapers is still to inform on the serious political news of the day.
On 17th November 1970, The Sun’s editor Larry Lamb celebrated the tabloid’s first anniversary by publishing the first topless model on Page 3. This was the time of the sexual revolution in the U.K. with the advent of the pill and the influx of porn from the continent and it was proclaimed as the era of sexual liberation for women.
Deliberate or not, it was a well-judged time to slip into a newspaper an image that had previously been called ‘porn’ and hidden away in age-restricted top-shelf publications. In reality the ‘swinging Sixties’ only hit the general public in the early Seventies, and by rebranding porn as ‘glamour’ The Sun sent out a clear and unequivocal message to women, worthy of the best ad-men in its nailing of the prevailing zeitgeist: ‘The modern young woman can be fully sexual, she can be proud of her body and show it off! She is liberated from the old Fifties constraints which made her ashamed of her body and her sexuality. She can break away from the prudish morality of her mother and be free!’
The word glamour is specifically attractive to women in its implication of stylishness and sophistication and The Sun linked it to a titillating image of a woman baring her breasts in a sexually inviting way.
It was impossible to object to if you wanted to be seen as a modern liberated woman rather than an old-fashioned prude, and it remains so even though over the decades a few brave women have tried.
Page 3 never had anything to do with glamour, and everything to do with the exploitation of young women as sexual entertainment for men, a cheap thrill with your news, a ‘look at the tits on that!’ moment in your day. It was brought in purely as an attempt to increase circulation and sell newspapers, a fact which the current editor David Dinsmore still admits.
Interviewed about the aim of The Sun, the first editor Kelvin McKenzie stated honestly ‘We wanted The Sun to reflect two people having a chat in the pub… well, blokes actually… you know, about sport and sex..’ The official line was that it was simply ‘reflecting a more laid-back Britain.’
The ‘glamour’ lie has been exposed in the recent deliberations about the future of Page 3, brought about by increasing public support for the No More Page 3 campaign. Jules Stenson, PR man with connections to The Sun, tweeted recently that the plan is to make the images ‘less tacky and less 1970s’, a tacit admission of the cheap thrill it was intended for, rather than the sexual empowerment of women.
This is not a judgement on men who choose to look at porn, nor on the women who choose to pose for it. The specific issue with Page 3 is the conditioning power of these images on the whole society by representing women in this way in the national press. The debate is not about the ‘empowerment’ of an individual woman posing for these shots, but the effects on women as a group, on how women see themselves and how men view women.
The young woman pouting and baring her breasts is placed on the most visible page of a newspaper which represents men as wearing clothes, doing jobs and running the country. She is the largest image of a woman in the newspaper and she is placed next to the serious political news on Page 2. The difference between men and women and their roles in our society could not be more starkly represented.
To deny that this daily contrasting representation of men and women shapes society’s view of their roles is irresponsible. An advertising agency would pay millions to have their ad taking up two-thirds of the first page on opening the newspaper, promoting their product every day.
Two generations of women have now lived in a society which sees fit to serve up on a plate a dose of soft porn to their partners, fathers, sons and brothers on a daily basis. For these men it has become an entitlement, a right to judge and comment on women’s breasts and sex appeal in public, which extends to other women in the street. There is now a ‘lad culture’ which prides itself on viewing women as disposable sexual commodities.
For that first generation of women, we can see the effects of self-objectification most publicly in ‘women’s mags’ which police other women in the degree to which they can attain the ‘Page 3’ body (which is 86% D/DD cup and above and 95% 26 – 34” back measurement, in other words a tiny frame supporting large breasts, a shape which less than 5% of women can boast ‘naturally’).
In the second generation of women, the decades of promotion of ‘glamour model’ as an empowering job has lead to a large proportion (in one study 63%) of young girls citing it as their number one career choice. The glamour model ‘ideal’ has seeped into our culture: the highly made-up, groomed and waxed, skinny, large-breasted young woman can be seen everywhere in the media, and in online porn where these qualities are exaggerated further.
In the Fifties the portrayal of women in the media emphasised the domesticated wife and mother as the ‘feminine ideal’ and droves of young women gave up career aspirations in order to fulfil this culturally-approved role. A young woman had to give up broadening her mind and fully growing up in order to fit society’s demand of her, and this lead to the well-documented ‘housewives’ disease’ (depression) and copious amounts of valium consumption in order to cope with being confined to a purely biological role.
We now see a similar spread of psychological problems in our young women, we are witnessing the rise of eating disorders, depression and helplessness together with a fixation on physical appearance which is evident in the high degree of expensive and time-consuming grooming and the demand for plastic surgery (especially breast implants).
We should not be surprised that women, just as in the Fifties, are experiencing illness as a response to being reduced to their purely biological role and represented as objects within our public culture. The only difference now is that the sexless housewife whose life’s meaning came from serving her husband’s needs domestically has become the purely sexual commodity whose role is to serve his needs sexually. We have now spent decades grooming our girls into this role and priming our boys for the acceptance of harder online porn.
Alistair Campbell has stated: ‘The quality press has always had influence through reach to the elite, not to be underestimated. But it is at least arguable that the influence of tabloids has been greater, certainly culturally, perhaps politically too.’
Until we see equal representation of women as full human beings in our tabloid press we will not see real equality for women in other areas. The No More Page 3 campaign is about so much more than one image in a newspaper.
Originally published in Wales Arts Review