The Sun dropped Page 3 earlier this year after 44 years of the daily feature, so what’s the big deal? Why such a big fuss about what was just an image in a newspaper?
We live in an image-saturated culture but this is a very recent development within print media; over the last few decades we have gradually moved from a text-based to an image-based media. The images themselves have moved from black and white to full colour, increased in size and, with advanced professional photography techniques, have become more sharply defined and carry greater visual impact.
We receive information continuously from the text and images we see around us, but images have a far deeper impact on us than words: seeing is believing. We may consciously know that an image has been photo-shopped, for example, but our brains, at a very deep unconscious level, don’t believe it. We process images 60,000 times faster than we process text because understanding words is a conscious function of the executive brain whereas we absorb the message of images automatically and unconsciously through the primitive brain, at an emotional and psychological level. Our emotions influence our beliefs and our beliefs shape our attitudes and behaviour.
Alan Ginsberg, poet and author, said that whoever controls the media controls the culture: media not only reflects but also shapes society, with a reach and influence today which is unprecedented.
Back in the Fifties, women were overwhelmingly represented in magazines and newspapers as happy housewives and we can be in no doubt now, looking back, that media representation played a large part in pressurising women back into the home after the war. To reproduce and bring up children is a purely biological function and the pressure on women to reduce themselves to this role led to huge levels of depression and a generation of women on Valium.
Women are now overwhelmingly portrayed throughout the media in a purely sexual role, there only for the arousal and titillation of men: the message is that women are for sex, which is again a purely biological function (this time, ironically, without the children).
As we saw in the Fifties, prolonged exposure to the same image normalises it; not only do men start to expect women to fulfil this role and begin to term it ‘natural’ or ‘innate,’ but women begin to self-identify into the role, and defend it.
Portraying one group of people through a reductive and limiting stereotype is a propaganda technique used to influence negative public beliefs about that group in order to keep them in a subordinate position or cause them harm. The process of dehumanisation leading to abuse is well documented throughout history. It is well understood, both in propaganda and in advertising, that a picture is worth a thousand words; an image creates instant myths and narratives in our heads which words can only describe.
Stereotyping takes human characteristics – behaviour, character, beliefs, habits – to create a picture, and our media stereotypes all sorts of groups: benefit scroungers; feckless single mums; inept dads etc. Objectification dehumanises further by reducing a human being to purely physical characteristics, and sexual objectification reduces the physical body down to its purely sexual function. Sexual objectification happens almost exclusively to women. There may be the occasional objectified image of a man in a newspaper, but very rarely is he sexually objectified.
We do not recognise sexually objectified images of women as propaganda because the images in themselves are benign – the image ‘celebrates’ women’s beauty and sexual allure.
Although images of sexual objectification are all around us in advertising, Page 3 went one step further by combining the visual indicators of sexual readiness and invitation (through facial expression and body language) with the display of naked breasts; on Page 3 women were displayed explicitly in a stage of sexual foreplay.
This visual narrative creates a fantasy of willing female sexual subjugation within the context of a news media which represents men as fully-clothed active participants and agents of society.
If a newspaper is used as a newspaper it will be freely opened in public, so Britain’s largest circulation national newspaper was therefore sending unsolicited soft porn images into the lives of women and girls across the U.K. on a daily basis, constituting a culturally acceptable form of sexual harassment.
The link between exposure to such sexualised images and abuse and violence towards women and girls, together with the acceptance of rape myths and victim-blaming, has long been recognised: the images of women we see in our media have great power in influencing societal attitudes towards women. How could it be otherwise?
The original, most iconic, infamous and gratuitous of these images in the press, The Sun’s Page 3, has now gone and that is cause for celebration.
It was never ‘just an image in a newspaper.’
Originally published in For Our Daughters