Reading the papers (ok, not the papers, the news apps on my phone!) last night and this morning, it seems as though we may be celebrating the end of page 3. This is no small thing, but not a blanket victory for feminism/women’s activism (whatever you want to call it – don’t even get me started on the minefield that is terminology). According to the BBC article I read on the subject, The Sun has apparently “quietly dropped” the topless models, but has featured celebs in their undies/bikinis. There have also been some former page 3 models commenting that they thought page 3 was fine (well go figure) and one saying that “so called ‘feminists’ really annoy me. Telling girls they shouldn’t do page 3 is NOT being a feminist; women should do WHATEVER they want!!” Um… no. Sorry, but whatever your definition of “feminism” (and I would have to read several scholarly books and probably hundreds of articles before I could even frame an answer as to what, exactly, constitutes “feminism” in modern Britain) it certainly is not, simply, women doing WHATEVER they want.
If a woman chooses to be a porn star, or a glamour model, or a prostitute, then yes, technically, that is her choice, but it does not automatically follow that this is an empowering choice. The choices that some women make within a sexist and male-dominated culture may work for them, but that does not preclude other women (and men) from challenging the dominant culture. The dominant culture is not inherently good, right, or acceptable just because it is dominant. The fact that it is the dominant culture and “the norm” is about the balance of power within society. To those who disagree with me, I would say: it is your choice to be on page 3, to buy The Sun for page 3, or to have no strong feelings about it one way or another; it is my choice to see page 3 as representative of a sexist and inherently damaging media culture and to think that said culture should be challenged.
That some women gain a sense of satisfaction from baring all on page 3 does not mean that the media culture is not sexist and damaging. We all (men and women) make choices within a culture that frames available choices for us. So, for example, a man could not “make the choice” to be on page 3 of the Sun showing off his penis, because that choice is not available to him. Nor is (was) it available to women deemed by the Sun’s editorial team to be too old, fat, flat-chested, or otherwise outside of the parameters of what constitutes a “page 3 girl.” Women who choose to be glamour models, strippers, prostitutes, porn stars and page 3 girls are exercising a choice, but it is a choice that is made within the constraints of a society that portrays women as sex-objects.
I therefore reject the argument that whatever women choose to do is empowering/feminism. No. It isn’t. It is a choice to to be a glamour model and women should be free to make that choice, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the media and the culture in the UK (and elsewhere) is overwhelmingly sexist. Whether or not individuals consider that to be a problem has everything to with early life experiences of living in our culture.
To grow up in a sexist culture without strong role models who challenge the dominant culture leads to unquestioning acceptance of the culture. Whether or not people choose to “see” sexism seems to be a matter of debate and of personal choice (I got Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates for Christmas and she makes the argument that most people refuse to acknowledge or see that there is a problem even when it is staring them in the face) but just because some (most?) people refuse to see it does not mean that it isn’t there.
The Sun will no doubt refuse to acknowledge any reason for getting rid of page 3; they may well reinstate it and revel in what turns out to be a publicity stunt. The editors of a “newspaper” whose marketing strategy is to sell the objectification of women are unlikely to give credit, or a platform, to the women and men of the No More Page 3 campaign.
The lesson here nonetheless is that action gets results. Not all of the time; but sometimes. Sometimes, enough people think that something is wrong enough to take a stand and that stand makes a difference. Sometimes success is informed by and buoyed by the failures that came before. My favourite period of US history (I studied US history; alas I need to brush up on British history) is the period of the civil rights movement and of second-wave feminism. Civil rights activism and women’s activism/feminism predated this period of course, but it was then that the media paid attention and things really gained momentum. The story portrayed in the media and in popular history is not the whole story, but there is no doubt that during this period in history, enough people came together to say “this is not right and it has to change” and through their words and actions, they forced change.
Change does not just happen; people have to make change happen. Sometimes a small vanguard can grow into a mass movement. By changing the culture, we change what our kids learn from the media and from the culture around them (of course, a lot of people bring their children up in opposition to the mainstream, sexist, culture, but wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to?). By changing the culture, we make it so that things that were once “the norm” seem ridiculous/horrifying in retrospect. Who, now, would argue (in public) that segregation was a good thing, or that gay men should be imprisoned? Not many people, because a) attitudes have changed and b) overt racism and homophobia is no longer given a platform in the mainstream media. That’s not to deny that it still exists (of course it does) but to say that it is no longer socially acceptable.
There is no reason that sexism cannot go the same way. We need to get to a point where it is not acceptable to portray women in the media (or anywhere in public) in a sexist and derogatory way. The end of page 3 (if that is what it actually is) is not an end but a beginning. A beginning for young (and old) women (and men) everywhere to stand up and say “this is not how it has to be.”
*And yes, I know that page 3 is normally written with a capital, I am not (completely) grammatically clueless, I just didn’t feel like giving it the validity and status that a proper noun would convey*
[Also, read Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. I am only two chapters in but so far I think the book is brilliant. It makes me seethe with anger but also almost cry with relief that someone is questioning everything the way that I do/have done my whole life].