When I was a young girl growing up in Italy, the typical TV show sported a main host (a man in his forties-to-sixties, suited and booted), surrounded by a group of girls in their late teens/early twenties, wearing bikinis. Not just any bikini of course, 'cos that would be crass. The outfits were themed to be in keeping with the show's content. So, for example, on Passaparola, a word-guessing show, the girls were called 'Letterine' ('Little Letters') and their bikinis were adorned with letters. On Striscia la Notizia, a satirical news show, the girls were called 'veline' (the Italian word for press release), and held newsflash briefs in their garters. See? Much more dignified.
Letterine picture: Mediaset
The girls' role was to look pretty, lip-synch to music and break into dancing interludes. Which weren't real dance routines (the girls weren't exactly selected for their dancing skills), and mostly consisted of swaying suggestively while a close-up camera traced their bodies from stilettoed feet to pouting faces, lingering on all the obvious places in between.
You might expect me to go on a tirade about how terrible all of this was. But the thing is, I haven't got to the worst part yet. Which is this: at the time, none of this struck me as sexist. Or at least as a bit of an odd TV pairing. It wasn't until I left the country that I saw it for the national embarrassment it was.
This is the problem with institutionalised sexism (or racism, or homophobia, or institutionalised anything) - it's insidious and works at an almost subconscious level. It takes an inherently wrong and damaging mentality and normalises it. Worse even, it makes it desirable. At its peak, Passaparola managers had to consider around 1000 candidates for the six Letterine places. After all, on Italian TV, bikini-clad showgirls vastly outnumbered women in other roles and often went on to better fortunes, transitioning into musical, acting or modelling careers. Boys wanted to date them. Little girls wanted to be them. And so the cycle went.
Page 3 is no different. It's not just the fact that it objectifies women. The real issue is that it makes female exploitation normal. Desirable even. Page 3 girls chose to take their tops off, in the same way as Italian showgirls chose to strut their bikini bodies on national television. Nobody's forcing them. And isn't feminism about empowering women to do what they want?
But is it real choice when you grow up thinking that's your lot? Is it real choice when everything around you reinforces the notion that you're only as good as your looks? When female singers are sexualised from an early age, female TV hosts (and even newsreaders) are unceremoniously dropped for being too old and every actress on Game of Thrones has to get her tits out to secure a career changing role? Is it real choice when society tells you that middle-aged men scrutinising your naked breasts on their work commute is just dandy, and not creepy at all, and you should be flattered to have made the cut?
It's not. It's brainwashing masked as empowerment.
Institutionalised sexism is dangerous because it assimilates into our culture to the point that we don't see it anymore, and conforming to the dominant narrative ends up being mistaken for a choice.
Of course, I'm not saying that page 3 is singlehandedly responsible for sexism in Britain. But it's part of the problem. And since this wall won't go down overnight in a glorious explosion of stereotyping and discrimination, the best we can do is to hack at it, piece by piece.
I, for one, am glad this brick is gone.