Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Time to turn page 3?

A new campaign is under way against a hallowed British tradition, that of the ‘page 3 girl’, an institution blessed by 42 years of existence and very little else. For those not fortunate enough to be familiar with the tabloid press of this country, the page 3 girl is the photo of a bare-breasted woman that appears daily on the first inside page of the Sun newspaper.

Well worth reading the piece by
Caroline Criado-Perez (Week Woman)
and the Guardian blog covered the campaign too
I use the word ‘newspaper’ loosely. ‘News’ is the contemporary equivalent of history: it covers the great disasters and occasional triumphs that make one day different from another. It deals with the events that will bore the children of the generation after next when they have to learn about them by rote.

The main concern of the tabloid papers is the story of Everyman: the murders, infidelities and domestic disasters described in the paper today are indistinguishable from those it covered over 40 years ago, when the page 3 girl first began to appear.

Indeed, if the Sun had been around in antiquity, it would have found exactly the same grist for its mill, and would have treated it in precisely the same way: ‘Exclusive: cheating charioteer’s wife stands by him despite naked romp in Rome’.

The page 3 girl is exactly part of that Everyman tradition. It isn’t telling us anything about what makes today different, only about what makes all men exactly the same.

The debate also brings to my mind an old personal experience of my own. Decades ago I worked for a couple of years as a National Insurance Inspector, a licensed busybody making sure everyone was paying their contributions to the State. Hard though this may be to believe, it was enjoyable work, mainly because it got me out of the office about as often as it kept me in it.

On one occasion I had to call on a young woman who’d been doing self-employed work and had got deplorably behind in paying her contributions. I think she was about nineteen though she may have been younger.

I turned up at her family’s large house and was let in by her mother.

‘She’s still in bed,’ the mother told me. It was 10:30 in the morning, but, hey, at 24 I wasn’t at all averse to staying in bed until lunchtime and was only up myself because I had to work. ‘You can go up and see her.’

Again, at 24 the idea of visiting a nineteen-year old in bed didn’t strike me as unduly odd, and the experience certainly wasn’t erotic: she was in a nightdress with a wool cardigan on top (this was an English summer after all) and kept the bed clothes demurely wrapped around herself throughout our interview. Certainly, I had no trouble playing the whole encounter exactly by the book: I asked a few questions, wrote down the answers in a statement, and had her sign it. It took a few minutes.

Back at the office, I was amazed to discover that word of my meeting had spread and caused a considerable buzz. It turned out that her self-employed work was as some kind of minor model and, in particular, she was due to appear in the near future as a Sun page 3 girl.

Coincidentally, the day her picture appeared was the day she came to see me in the office. The interview room had a glass panel set into the door and even I, unobservant as I was, couldn’t but be struck by the number of my male colleagues (including two gays) who trooped past during the meeting.

What surprised me was that the young woman was far from extraordinary: she was simply pretty and pleasant. She behaved towards me courteously and as cordially as one could expect, given that (a) the first time we met she was in bed with a stranger in the room, and (b) I was in a position to create some minor inconvenience in her life over a small offence (but I'm glad to say that didn’t happen). Though I loathe using it, the word that best qualifies my memory of her is ‘nice’ and everything about her was, well, wholesome.

The picture in the Sun (of course I looked: what do you think?) was unrecognisable. Above all, what was wholesome in the flesh became aseptic on the page. The photograph could have been of someone moulded from plastic and had all the allure of an illustration from an anatomy handbook. And whatever life 
I’d seen in the woman I met had been drained from the picture.

In fact, it stood to her just as the story of Everyman stands to news: a little abstract, divorced from actual experience, with none of the grit that makes life puzzling and irresistible.

By today, she will be in her fifties, if she’s still alive. She may be a young grandmother, peacefully married to her husband of thirty years, she may be going through her third divorce and fighting a drink problem, or she may be anywhere else on the scale of human happiness and misery. She may have known great joy or great bitterness or, more likely, the mixture of both which is our general lot.

She will have taken into all that mess and confusion the niceness I saw in her when she was young. It will have been battered but I suspect it is likely to have survived. Then again, I may be wrong and it may have succumbed to difficulties I can barely imagine.

What I’m sure of is that her life was no more aseptic than mine or anyone else
s. It will have been full of pain and dirt and celebration and pleasure. In short, it must have been a great deal more interesting than that dull little picture 35 years ago.

She grew up. I grew up. Perhaps the campaigners are right and it’s time we all grew up.


Ribvanrey said...

What a nicely written piece. An appropriate word that seems. I wish that the glamour shots of Page 3 were all that today's young were exposed to. On balance, I think that there is a lot worse that needs cleaning up before I will give any concern over Page 3. Whether from female exploitation or young eyes viewing naked newsprint, the constant stream of hardcore porn that today's youth are daily fed by computer, phone and the like is a pernicious disease that is infesting the minds of those emosionally too immature to deal with it. Daily, experts in Child Mental Health and various welfare support services are dealing with severely damaged children. Often males of 11 and 12 having experimented with girls of 9, 10 and 11 yrs old.
Page 3 never created these problems. Not even in the puritanical minds of its opponants. R vanRey

David Beeson said...

Many thanks. And I certainly agree that page 3 is far from the worst available, but perhaps its real perniciousness lies simply in its being the most broadly available.

A low grade, widespread corruption may be more damage than more intense but more localised ills.

In any case, I feel slightly awkward trying to take a position on feminist issues - there are many women doing it far better than I ever could. But page 3 does seems an unnecessary objectification - or at the very least a trivialisation - of a person. We're no better for having it, and I feel would be better off if it went.

Best wishes