It shouldn’t need stating that many social conservatives have a big problem with nudity.
Mankind did, of course, start out naked – and in the benign climate of the African tropics where we began, there was little reason to change that. But human expansion into colder regions required the invention of clothing (the needle and thread were invented in Europe around 15,000 years ago), and once invented, taboos began to develop around nudity, especially in Europe. It’s no coincidence that chilly Britain (and its diaspora in North America) still has problems with the public baring of female breasts.
When the British were finally reunited with their African cousins, 70,000 years after their ancestors had originally left Africa, they noted that nudity was commonplace. They of course concluded that this was due to Africans’ lack of civilisation, and set out to “civilise the savages” by persuading them to cover up. Later, the Victorians hid away nude artwork (or pornography, as its detractors might have called it), and the sight of a female ankle was met with disapproval.
The social and sexual revolutions of the late-60s to early 70s challenged British attitudes to nudity. The youth of that time challenged the attitudes of the conservative post-war generations; in 1970, The Sun newspaper began to print a daily topless photo on page 3; today, the very phrase Page 3 is synonymous with topless photography.
The Sun’s move was cleverly timed to capture the zeitgeist. The decision to publish topless photos was a radical one, and of course it was designed to cause controversy, which in turn would create publicity and drive sales. But the old British fear of bare breasts was never far from the surface, and Page 3 generated a moral backlash. Campaigners in the 1980s tried (and failed) to get it banned.
Now, in this newly conservative era, yet another campaign to end Page 3 has surfaced. This time, it comes armed with new language. Instead of screaming that the morals of Britain’s youth are under attack, the campaign wields its favourite buzzword: “objectification”. The benefit of objectification (from its advocates’ point of view) is that it’s effectively meaningless. The idea is that someone who opens The Sun and sees a topless woman thereby becomes corrupted to view all women as “sex objects”, and incapable of viewing women in other roles.
The problems with this idea are numerous: for a start, who says that a woman who poses topless is a “sex object”? The “objectification” brigade seem to have little respect for the women they pretend to defend. And do they really believe that the men (and, yes, women) who enjoy Page 3 are so stupid that, having seen one woman pose topless, they think all women must therefore do so?
“Objectification” only applies in sexual situations; it is a coded attack on sexuality. Just as the conservatives of Victorian times feared sexuality, and tried to suppress it, so the conservatives of today try to suppress sexuality, and rationalise their irrational fears by trying to find harm… harm that only exists in their fearful imaginations.
If there’s irony in “feminists” allying themselves with the religious right’s quest for “morality”, they fail to see it. They claim to disapprove of the way women are covered up in conservative Muslim societies, yet their own beliefs stem from the same basic idea: their reasoning may vary, but their dogma is the same: female flesh must be hidden from weak, stupid men.
The arguments used against Page 3 are beyond moronic. I haven’t yet seen a single intelligent attempt to explain the backlash, just angry shouts that “Page 3 is a backward relic of the 1970s” and similar (the depiction of naked women, by the way, has a far older pedigree than the 70s). And as for objectification – I’ve tried for several years to get a coherent explanation of how it’s actually supposed to operate, and have yet to see one (if you think you can remedy this, please do write it in the comments below).
The campaign has attracted pro-censorship morons from both left and right. When so-called Marxists find themselves in agreement with religious conservatives, they should perhaps decide whether their views are really about “protecting women from objectification”, or whether they’re not quite as radical as they think.
I should point out that I think The Sun, purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1969, is a detestable rag, and I’m pleased to say I’ve never purchased it in my life. It has been guilty of frequent racism, homophobia and sexism. It helps spread right-wing, nationalistic propaganda through British society, and has been at the forefront of disseminating anti-EU lies. Nor do I find Page 3 interesting – its photography is dull, and its choice of models is narrow and predictable. But do breasts damage society? No more than ankles were a threat to the stability of Victorian Britain.
Sure, it would be nice if there was more diversity on Page 3 – why not feature men as well as women? How about trying out larger, older or disabled models? If The Sun still had the radical edge it did in 1970, it might be brave and try these things out. But The Sun, like its feminist opposition, has stagnated and become conservative over the past four decades. The inescapable fact is: Page 3 sells papers. If it didn’t, it would vanish.
We British find breasts fascinating only because our society has a taboo about the baring of them in public. When we finally outgrow that infantile fear, we will cease to find Page 3 interesting. Until then, nipples will equate to sales, and Page 3 will live on.