Whenever feminists get involved in campaigns against depictions of nude or semi-nude women, the same accusations fly. They are old-fashioned prudes. They can’t appreciate that sex and nudity is a part of life. They are hypocrites who celebrate The Vagina Monologues or “artistic” nude photography because the depiction of female nudity or sexuality must be on their terms. They don’t understand that the woman chose to be nude, and because all choices must be feminist, it therefore is not sexist. The problem is that the people criticizing the campaign to ban The Sun’s page 3 girls don’t understand the importance of context (This is a general interest newspaper) or that their criticisms are far more hypocritical and conveniently sexist than they realize.
Recently, parents and commentators such as Amy Gerwing railed against the Victoria Secret “Bright Young Things” advertisement and PINK line, even though the models were in their 20s and the lingerie featured was not scandalizing to any degree. It isn’t news that young women sometimes buy thongs, especially ones emblazoned with flirtatious messages. In a letter to the company, an angry father said that young women would be discouraged from becoming doctors or lawyers because everyone knows that wearing neon colored underwear and challenging one’s mind is mutually exclusive. The people criticizing the advertisement and PINK line seemed to think that young women couldn’t possibly want to buy pretty underwear unless a young man were there to view it. The underwear is worn equally, if not more so, for the judgment of the girls in the high school locker room as it is for a boy. There are so many gender assumptions wrapped up in this benevolent sexism dressed up as parental concern, that it would take an entire article to point them all out. But the differences between the Bright Young Things advertisement and the campaign against page 3 girls are stark.
Young women need underwear and Victoria Secret provides it. It is a company that targets women of all ages, including teenagers. The Sun is a newspaper sold to everyone, and as a Bloomberg Businessweek article points out, women constitute 45 percent of its readership. The inclusion of a page 3 girl suggests that the consumption of news is for men, plain and simple. Getting rid of it is not a puritanical move. The Sun could include a man and a woman on Page 3 or provide a photo of a man on a separate nearby page. If the newspaper wanted to attract readers on those terms, it could.
I suspect Rupert Murdoch would have never entertained such an idea, as the same men who argue against prudery would likely find a half naked man wearing tight boxer shorts (placed expressly for the purpose of being leered at as a perfect cut of meat) distasteful and offensive. Their gaze has been catered to for so long that the mere suggestion that women and gay men’s objectifying gaze should have equal real estate is repellant to them. If they won’t cede any ground in the public square that is the general news source, they should stay quiet when feminists ask that the page 3 girl be abolished.
To be clear, it is always wrong to make people feel that their worth is tied up with their physique, and it would be better for everyone if men and women were not objectified in our media. But I think it’s interesting to consider why corporations would rather abandon the objectification of women if they can try to have their cake and eat it too by catering to all sexual tastes. The reluctance to do so seems to be wrapped up in the idea that it is inappropriate or damaging for women to have sexual longings to the same degree men do. That is the thread that connects Victoria Secret’s “Bright Young Things” ad and the page 3 girl ban. The same people who believe it is okay for women to exist as sexual objects in a general interest newspaper for the satisfaction of half its readership, ignoring women’s sexual interests, probably believe young women should be protected from their own sexuality.