The End of the Page 3 Girl?

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Jukes

One woman takes on Rupert Murdoch to end half a century of topless pictures in Britain's bestselling tabloid.

It was the height of London's euphoric Olympic summer last year. The usually cynical and dismissive British public were waking up to an unfamiliar feeling--sporting success on the track and national celebration in the press. Lucy-Anne Holmes, a 36-year-old actress and novelist, was looking through the daily papers, and noticed that even The Sun newspaper was reflecting the fact that female athletes were at the forefront: Jessica Ennis, already established as the iconic face of the Games, had just won gold in the heptathlon; Victoria Pendleton another cycling gold.

But when Holmes got to page 13, there it was again--The Sun's regular topless feature--larger than life, and larger than the images of female sporting prowess: it had just been moved back 10 pages for the occasion. "It really pissed me off," Holmes says. "The paper is always showing pictures of men in suits doing things, while women just stand around in their underpants."

It was that night, lying awake and annoyed, Holmes resolved to start the No More Page 3 campaign. But taking on a national institution isn't easy.

For the past 43 years, if you turned over the front page of Britain's bestselling newspaper, you'd invariably be confronted by a pair of naked breasts. Their appearance might change. In the past, the girls on the page were often teenagers with breasts that looked augmented and improbable; more recently, there's been a move toward a more "natural" and less adolescent look. But every daily edition of the tabloid has, for almost half a century, promoted an idea of female availability. So prominent is Page 3 that satirical magazine Private Eye accorded the paper's proprietor the moniker "Rupert 'Thanks for the Mammaries' Murdoch."

In the early '70s, the novelty was a succes du scandale. Murdoch had already bought the world's bestselling English-language newspaper in 1969, the now shuttered News of the World, which thrived historically on murder and salacious sex exposes. But the daily Sun, which he acquired soon after, had a staid reputation. So Murdoch ordered a redesign to mimic the more successful Daily Mirror, and added a topless model on the inside page--an innovation actually started by a rival Australian paper in 1966.

In the subsequent furor, The Sun was banned from some public libraries, but peddling soft porn didn't exactly hurt sales. Combined with canny TV advertising and stories focused on football and soap stars, The Sun became Britain's most popular selling newspaper within a decade, selling more than 4 million copies a day by the time of Margaret Thatcher's election in 1979.

Though often referred to as "a bit of fun," Page 3 has been an icon of Murdoch's tabloid project. Like The Sun's famous headline when the Argentine cruiser, the Belgrano, was torpedoed by a British submarine during the 1982 Falklands war--"Gotcha!"--the daily pin-up helped sum up the chirpy shock-jock tone. Page 3 appealed to a male constituency of working-class conservatives, who still enjoyed the social permissiveness of the '60s. Those who disapproved were killjoys, snobs, censorious feminists.

When during a parliamentary debate in 1986 over a law banning sex-education materials the Labour politician Clare Short suggested Page 3 would be a better candidate, she was ferociously vilified. The YouTube video showing her being jeered by male M.P.s is a lesson in how what purports to be a celebration of the female form quickly lurches into misogyny. Nearly 20 years later The Sun was still on the attack, with an editorial: "Fat, jealous Clare brands Page 3 porn." When it comes to breasts and the British press, the personal is political.

So Page 3 is a peculiarly British battleground in the culture wars. It's prominent in one of the most famous editions of The Sun. …