Non-British readers might not know this, but our best-selling newspaper, the Sun (circ. 2.7 million), features daily a topless young woman on page 3. When I present the Sun newspaper as part of an overview of the British media in my journalism class, my international students are rather incredulous and many are deeply offended. Here, people are used to it and no one raises an eyebrow at the men who slowly study their page 3. on the tube. Young women apparently volunteer to figure there and boyfriends send pictures of their sweethearts to the Sun as a tribute to their beauty. But many women resent this blatant sexism in our media and have campaigned against page 3. for decades.
Last week, on the 42nd anniversary of the first topless woman appearing on page 3 of the Sun, the human rights group Object led a protest against the tabloid's sexism and objectification of women. Demonstrators prepared giant birthday cards – one with images of topless women from the tabloids and one with fully-clothed professional men from the same papers – and delivered them in front of the office of the Sun's editor, Dominic Mohan, at News International's headquarters in London.
Mohan defended page 3. as an "innocuous British institution" while giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry in February. And previous Sun’s editors, including Rebekah Wade (now Brooks), have always maintained that page 3. is part of the DNA of the paper and that people who object could simply not buy the paper. But that’s not the point: even if we don’t read the Sun, the images are there. What is the impact of continuously presenting women as sex objects and men as doers?
By the way, when protestors put a photograph of the birthday cards on Facebook, it was swiftly removed without warning, because the explicit images apparently violate Facebook's terms. Yet these images came from our national newspapers, fully available to all, sold in supermarkets and newsagents.
And it’s not like pages. 3 are a blip in media portraying women as capable and respectable. It would help if there were at least more positive images of women and more women's voices to balance this out. But as numerous projects have shown, this is far from the case. A report by Women in Journalism last month showed that women account for just 16% of those mentioned or quoted in lead stories. And when they were mentioned, they were often presented as victims. (See my previous blog post about this.)
Women have campaigned against page. 3 all along without much success, but let’s hope the Leveson inquiry will help bring a new focus on sexism in the media.