Since my life now consists only of childcare and displacement activity, it is not easy to get my attention. I will either be smoking, banging one out in the bathroom or changing a nappy. But this Facebook campaign and petition by the actor Lucy Holmes certainly broke through the miasma. It now has 7,000 signatures and concisely argues that the Sun should stop showing naked tits. There are three main arguments - that 'boobs are not news', that the practice belongs in the 1970s where it began, and that Page Three 'objectifies all women'.
Now, I don't regularly buy the Sun and I don't pretend to understand the mindset of people who do because I am, without wanting to be a dick about it, middle class and educated. But I do look at it in the local greasy spoon, because it's there and the only other choice is the grim, shrill, proselytising, it's-not-fair Mirror, austerely sans-boobs since the mid-1980s. Maybe, in the back of my mind I'm also thinking "Yay, tits". but on the whole I'm a private person who likes his pornography in strict context. I don't like to leer at nudie pics while eating a bacon sandwich. There's a place for everything, after all. And in this case it's the bathroom.
Still, I think I've seen enough of the Sun to know how it works. While working in the News International cuttings library I was on the next desk along from where the boobs were catalogued and compiled - by a very charming gay man selected in part for his ability not to get distracted by them. It is a marvel of human programming that, while the onslaught of internet filth ought to leave us heteros inured to simple bare bappage (I'm going to run through all the synonyms so don't bloody tut) those twin mesmers remain, somehow, as compelling and distracting as they ever were.
This, of course, is why they're still in the Sun. They are a distraction. Boobs are not news, but then neither is anything else in a paper comprised entirely of hearsay, gossip and trenchant opinion. To compare the Sun, as Lucy Holmes' petition does, to the BBC 6 o'clock roundup is hardly useful. The Sun is not the BBC; it is not maintained by public subscription and so does not owe anything to the society it panders to. It is - if anything - Granada Men and Motors, which, back in the Iron Age of digital television did once have a topless news service just after the News in Norwegian, if memory serves me right.
The Sun is not a 'family newspaper', it is a comic bought by men in white vans and directed entirely to their tastes. Family members may stumble upon it as they may stumble upon daddy's rifle and mummy's valium, but it's not for them and never has been.
Really, the tits are no great shakes. I've always thought that of all the unpleasant, saddening, civilisation-eroding, cretin-pandering, opportunistic, nasty, gloating things that have appeared in the Sun, the boobs are the least of its crimes. In many ways they've been a comforting constant. Backing Thatcher, then backing Blair, inventing the phrase 'gay plague'... well never mind, here's a girl who's fucked a footballer.
The matter of longevity is where Lucy's argument really falls down for me. Because the Sun is not decades out of step with Page Three. If anything, the Sun was way ahead of the curve on how pervasive female flesh would become. The Sunday Sport, the Daily Star under Mike Gabbert, the Wonderbra ads, the 1990s lad culture, Loaded (remember how circulation dropped when they put Baddiel and Skinner on the cover), the new wave of soft porn like Nuts and Zoo - all of this spurred by the redefinition of the Obscene Publications Act in 2001 and the spread of the Web which made all prohibitions immaterial anyway.
You can make a good case for Page Three being wrong, of course you can. But you can't stand knee-deep in this ever-rising tide of skin and say that, in 'normalising the objectification of women' Page Three is out of date. The passing decades have done nothing but make it utterly unexceptional.
Where sexual politics is concerned society has not, in fact, moved on that much. We middle class liberals have become more entrenched, more insistent, more frustrated, but the common man has simple tastes and they ain't changin'. I was amused by boodleoops, a feminist blogger who writes, in support of this campaign, that Sun readers cannot possibly be buying the Sun for the breasts since there's so much harder stuff out there. Readers, she summises, must surely fall into three categories. "Some people buy The Sun in spite of Page 3, but dislike it, and would prefer it not to be there; Some people buy The Sun while being indifferent to Page 3, and would continue to buy it whether it were there or not; Some people do not currently buy The Sun because they dislike or are embarrassed by Page 3, and would buy it in future if they got rid of it."
Hmm, no. People buy the Sun because it's the same as it has always been - with plump, smooth, comforting tits. In castigating the male sexual response, she forgets that our need for familiarity; to be mothered, soothed and cared for, is just as great and utterly entwined with it. Yes, there's 'proper' pornography out there. But the Sun doesn't demand the response that pornography does. The Sun's tits are a passive, analgesic thing. Thousands have died in an earthquake but mmm, pink nippy knockers make it all feel nice. Working men buy the Sun because it's home to them. It's their mum, their missus and their chair in front of the Alba widescreen. This is not something that will be changed without recourse to re-education and electric-shock aversion therapy.
Of course, they'll say I'm being patronising. There's nothing the liberal middle classes like more than being offended on behalf of the helpless, white sliced bread-scoffing horde. Boodleoops makes an interesting point though; that the hatred is actually in the text. She quotes from the Sun's News in Briefs: "DANNI says: "I've often wondered how quarks and sub-atomic particles gain mass. So I was relieved to hear of the discovery of a new sub-atomic particle.. that's one less thing to worry about!"
"It's quite obvious what the joke is," boodleoops rages. "How can a young, beautiful woman know about [things such as] economics or science? How hilarious, pretending that a blonde, pretty woman with big breasts would understand quantum mechanics!" First, yes, that is sort of the joke. But as a one-time Fleet Street sub-editor who has been given all the shitty puff jobs, I can see how this started as an illicit amusement for some poor beleaguered grunt and then stuck. Also, I think the joke is fair enough. It's not ridiculous to think a pretty, big breasted girl would understand Higgs-Boson. But it is ridiculous (and funny) to think that this particular pretty, big-breasted girl is interested in Higgs-Boson. Which is not quite the same thing. And it's mostly ridiculous because, if we turn the page, we can read her account of how she pissed herself in the dentist's chair of China Whites, or flashed a policeman for a dare, or fucked a footballer.
And this is the crux of the matter. It is actually nothing to do with gender. In taking an interest in this, Lucy and boodleoops have far more in common with me - a disgusting, leering, wanking man - than they have with their Sister, page three Danni. Because I am a middle class liberal disgusting, leering, wanking man who has the benefit of a good education and thus knows that giving a plumber a nine o'clock stiffy is just not ENOUGH for a human being to strive towards, for goodness sake. But in knowing this I am a prig, and so is anyone who would campaign for this. Plumbers have a right to their stiffies, and Danni has a right to supply them.
Campaigns that claim the debasement of one person is the injury of the group are so infused in our lexicographic groundwater that we accept them without question. We learn such mantras through the Bible, Eastenders, films about the Kray twins, civil rights protest songs, Milk, starring Sean Penn. "He that hurts the least of my number..." The problem is that women are not a group, or a minority or a specialism or a tribe. They are fully one half of all humanity, and nothing about this story surprised or depressed me more than it appearing in a special 'Women' section of the Guardian blogs, as if the Guardian, of all tainted rags, still thinks this sort of squaw line is necessary. (Actually, was I even allowed to read it??)
Maybe, until we reach the Third Age, women will need to maintain a sort of Dworkinite tribalism. Boodleoops says that the debasement of one woman is the debasement of all. And that this impacts on ALL PEOPLE, not just those who buy the Sun. A man called BlankReg agrees, commenting that Page Three "is a constant reminder that the fight for gender equality is only just beginning. It degrades both women and men by perpetuating a cycle of dehumanisation and exploitation which has a direct effect in inculcating the attitudes that legitimise sexism, misogyny and abuse." I would like to ask BlankReg, privately, whether he has ever banged one off to porn. Because, frankly, banging one off to porn even once in your life disqualifies a man from EVER taking so high and bloody mighty a position on the blurry CMYK reproduction of mammaries. And if he never has then, well, he's kind of outside the sphere of human experience where this argument is happening.
As a man I often objectify women, but I do it strictly in private, one woman at a time, and nobody knows I'm doing it. I'm fairly certain I don't objectify ALL women, at least not on purpose, just the ones who have, by appearing in hard or soft pornography, tacitly agreed to some extent of objectification. At least, I hope they've agreed to it. I'm disturbed, as so many in the middle class liberal disgusting-leering-wanking community are, by the thought that some of these people haven't, in fact, agreed to it; at least not as wholeheartedly as Danni has, because some of the stuff on the internet seems a lot more emotionally taxing than just standing there in bikini briefs with big hair and your norks out. I mean, for fuck's sake, we live in a world where women get TRAFFICKED for sex, in their thousands. Which is one of a million things more worthy of anger than this exhausted white-collar flannel about Page Three.
* NB This article does not necessarily reflect badly on ALL men and only impacts those few who have chosen to read it.
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