The “No More Page 3” campaign (NMP3), now boasting over 117,000 signatures to their online petition, asks for the Murdoch-owned British tabloid rag The Sun to remove the topless women from Page 3. Natasha Sorrell of the Sheffield Marxists analyses the NMP3 campaign and asks: will such a campaign achieve its desired aims? And if so, will this mark a real step forward in the fight against sexism and the objectification of women?
The “No More Page 3” campaign (NMP3), started by the actress and writer Lucy Holmes in 2012, and now boasting over 117,000 signatures to their online petition, asks for the Murdoch-owned British tabloid rag The Sun to remove the topless women or “bare boobs” – as the campaign phrases it – from Page 3. But will such a campaign achieve its desired aims? And if so, will this mark a real step forward in the fight against sexism and the objectification of women?
The NPM3 campaign believes that Page 3 promotes: the sexual objectification of women; misogynistic attitudes; a limited attitude towards body types; the evaluation of women though their bodies; and the social normalisation of a host of other negative attitudes as a consequence of their inclusion in the mainstream media.
NMP3 hope that by putting pressure on The Sun – through boycott campaigns, pressurising advertisers to withdraw their funding, flash mobs, “raising awareness” online and through TV and radio, etc. – that Sun Editor David Dinsmore will remove images of naked breasts from Page 3.
So far the campaign has experienced mild success, with the removal of “bare boobs” from The Irish Sun. However, despite winning these concessions, such small victories remain just that. Despite NMP3’s efforts to eradicate institutionalised sexism, the campaign is fighting for insignificant reforms that will have little-to-no impact on the fight against sexism.
As demonstrated by the example of The Irish Sun, which continues to display scantily clad women on Page 3, covering up nipples will not stop the objectification of women in the press, nor of women in wider society.
In fact, a campaign that limits itself to the covering up of nipples is a fig-leaf that conceals the bare fact that, if you do not raise the class question of who controls the media, you cannot adequately fight against the objectification of women. As Marxists, we must look at who owns these publications in order to understand whose views they really represent.
Limits of ‘No More Page 3’
The campaign opposes the persistence of naked breasts on Page 3 as a drive against the presentation of women as sexual objects. But the objectification of women is inherently linked to the oppression of women in society, which has existed since the dawn of class society.
In this sense, to believe that the wider attitudes towards women in society will be significantly affected by removing nudity from national media outlets is naïve, and we should seriously question whether the removal of Page 3 from The Sun will actually do anything to alleviate the problems that NMP3 attributes to it.
We need only to look to publications such as Heat magazine, Cosmopolitan or Chat to see the prevailing aesthetic of perfectly perky female bodies that allegedly represents the idols of male desire. These publications are filled with articles commenting on the weight loss and gain of celebrities, how to look prettier and skinner, etc. The pressure put on women from these magazines is equal to that implied by the glamour models on Page 3 and can be seen as equally impacting on self-worth and body image to female readers. The message that these types of publication convey to any reader is as body-centric and objectifying as that conveyed by young topless models.
Furthermore, consider the impact of pornography and the increasingly sexualised perception of the female body through outlets such as “lads-mags”. As well as this, there is the worrying level of threats of violence that online forums are encountering towards women, such as the recent media coverage of rape threats on Twitter.
But what these examples show is that whilst they could be considered as symptoms of the attitudes of sexism fostered by Page 3, they can equally be considered as reinforcing such attitudes. Surely if this logic is followed, then a much more wide-ranging petition to remove all media that portrays women as sexualised or objectified should be forthcoming from NMP3?
The campaign has a fairly passive approach to achieving their very minor goal. The predominant strategy of the campaign is to gain signatures for their petition whilst seeking the support of large organisations and their ‘pledged’ support. Notable bodies and organisations that have pledged support to the campaign include trade unions such as Unison, the NUT and the National Association of Head Teachers, as well as organisations such as The Girl Guides.
Together with a number of small public protests these strategies form the main effort of the campaign. However, simply using the petition and the acclaim of the ‘pledged’ support of certain trade unions and other organisations in order to put pressure on the editors – as well as a way of raising awareness of the campaign and the issues that it raises about sexism in a wider sense – is an extremely limited effort. These ‘pledges’ are nothing more than an offering of support and at no point do NMP3 mention any concrete method to take the campaign forwards, to put real pressure on The Sun or to do anything about the wider problem of sexism in any other form. The pledges are, in a sense quite meaningless.
Though the intentions of such pledges from notable organisations such as the trade unions may be well intentioned they offer no concrete action. As long as The Sun and media outlets are in the private, profiteering hands of big business media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch, they will continue to operate in a manner that serves their own interests alone, ignoring the plea from a small campaign to remove images of naked women.
The actions suggested by NMP3 are putting very little pressure on the editors of The Sun, despite the fact that there have been some instances of boycotting the paper.
Boycotting has occurred predominantly in and through student unions (SUs) across the country. In comparison to the trade unions who have simply ‘pledged’ their support to the NMP3 campaign, student unions in about 20 places have banned the sale of The Sun on their campuses. According to the NMP3 campaign, such boycotts have occurred in SUs such as LSE, UCL, Manchester Met, Manchester University, Chester, Abertay (Dundee), Dundee University, Edinburgh, Stirling, Cardiff, Durham, Sheffield, Newcastle, Cambridge, Oxford and most recently Essex.
The bans on the sale of The Sun on these university campuses will have a larger impact than simply ‘pledging support’; however, these boycotts are uncoordinated with the main campaign, and the proposals to ban The Sun are not linked together as action through a National Union of Students as a whole.
In Sheffield, as in many other student unions, the proposal to ban The Sun from campus was put forwards by the Women’s Councillor (the elected women’s representative in the student union), and a motion to ban the paper was passed by the student union council, who simultaneously voted against putting the decision to a referendum amongst the wider student body.
Similar activity has occurred in almost all other cases of student unions banning The Sun, with very little engagement or involvement of the wider student body and very little discussion occurring regarding the effect and aims of banning The Sun. But for any boycotting campaign to have a real effect, it must attempt to involve the mass of students and not simply pass motions without the knowledge of the majority of the student population.
Although boycotting The Sun in the SUs is more in the spirit of the action needed to tackle gender inequality, it is still limited in its effect. Students can still buy The Sun – or any other reactionary, sexist paper – off campus. In addition, the way in which the proposals for boycotts have been passed, behind the backs of the students, suggests an undemocratic and not fully supported motion.
Importantly, banning the paper in this way has failed to bring any attention to the actual issues being raised, the reasons for a boycott, or what a large scale boycott could achieve. In fact, in Sheffield, an anti-boycott petition was launched in anger by one student who disagreed with the initial proposal.
Interestingly, Lucy Holmes and the No More Page 3 campaign do not agitate for a ban of The Sun, or for boycotts in any organised manner; in fact they often state that they don’t want to ban The Sun outright. Despite this official position of the NMP3 organisers, the campaign still celebrates and publicises the boycotts that the SU councils are enforcing.
Despite the fact that boycotting The Sun will put some pressure on its editors, unless organised on a large scale, boycotting on an individual bases or as a handful of student unions is still a limited plan of action. Furthermore, student readership of The Sun is relatively low, meaning that failing to link these boycotts with a wider boycott further limits its effects.
It should also be stressed that focusing the boycott on just The Sun ignores the fact that there are plenty of other publications with nude content and equally objectified female bodies that can still be purchased, filling the vacuum left by the removal of The Sun. In addition, boycotts such as these that have not sought wider engagement with the student body not only fail to raise the question of the boycott with the student population, but also fail to raise the question of who owns and controls the media and the consequences of this on its’ content.
These points are inherently interlinked: as long as the media is in private hands, it will exist to make a profit for its capitalist owners, and the objectification of women within the pages of such outlets will be used as a means to sell more copies. The Sun is not special in this regard – banning it will simply lead to another paper filling the void. In order for a boycott to have any impact it must be wide-reaching, and those proposing it must highlight and stress the issues behind the need for the boycott.
For the campaign to have any effect on The Sun, or on sexism and female objectification in the media in general, it must link up with the workers in the media industry, in order to organise an effective boycott in which journalists and printers refuse to print the sexist, racist and generally anti-working class content of these publications.
Through such organisation and struggle, the campaign could raise the need for the nationalisation of the press, under workers’ control, in order to effectively remove the sexist content and allow the media to be representative of the working class, regardless of gender.
For nationalisation and workers’ control of the media!
Even if NMP3 was successful in removing such sexist content, would attitudes towards gender equality have been altered at all, considering the underlying material conditions that are at the root of sexual objectification of women? We think not. These conditions arose long before online media or The Sun. What the NMP3 campaign needs to understand is that Page 3 is a part of a wider culture of female objectification, which in turn is part and parcel of class society and capitalism.
Any victory for the NMP3 campaign, therefore, would be limited at best, and would not represent any genuine progress in the fight against the objectification and oppression of women, no matter how well intentioned some members may be in fighting inequality.
Marxists support and fight for any reform that genuinely challenges oppression and improves the conditions of the oppressed. But as Marxists, we must measure the fight for such reforms through what kind of blows they land on the ruling class, and most importantly, through how they help raise the consciousness of the working class. If NMP3 really wants to fight sexual objectification its aim cannot simply be a modification in the form of objectification in the capitalist-owned press.
The biggest news outlets, including The Sun, The Times and Sky News, are all owned by a single media conglomerate, which is in turn owned by one man – Rupert Murdoch. All other major newspapers and media are equally under the control of private wealthy owners. Under such control, the main concern of these media owners is to sell more papers and make bigger profits. This frequently depends upon the use of sex and sexualised, objectified women in order to sell media as a commodity and nothing more.
Further more, the major media bourgeois rags are unrepresentative of working class interests and are frequently anti-working class by nature, not only objectifying women, but also demonising the working class. Consider the constant attack on claimants of any form of benefit from the state and the scapegoating of immigrants.
When the main concern of those who own the press is to make a profit, demanding the removal of topless models from one news paper cannot penetrate further into the problem of widespread media sexism. Instead, we need to take control of the media and bring them under public ownership and democratic workers’ control so that the media can represent real workers’ interests.
Workers have no interest in using to sex to sell commodities, instead, under workers’ control, the media in a socialist society could be used as a true communicational outlet for news and information, removing the drive for higher profits and competition with other media tycoons.
One only has to consider, for example, the newspapers run by the student unions, which are generally free from sexist, racist and anti-working class content because they are run for and written by students, meaning that the paper reflects their concerns and is unhampered by the profit motive. Such student papers do not print pictures of objectified women because they do not need to include content that they think will increase sales and profits. In the hands of the students, these publications reflect the interests and concerns of the student body.
It is therefore important for workers within the media industry to be organised and involved in any campaign about the content of the media, so that they can take industrial action, refusing to print sexist or anti-working class material. We cannot rely on the bourgeois press to self-regulate and remove such content.
Fighting sexism through class struggle
If we want to challenge gender inequality, we must also challenge working class oppression, something that the liberal feminists of the No More Page 3 campaign do not mention.
Gender inequality came about through class division and, despite good intentions, tackling sexism with small scale campaigns such as the NMP3 campaign will have little-to-no effect in the struggle for gender equality. If any success is to be had it will not be through “raising awareness” of the problems through small campaigns. The fight against sexism will be won through the struggle of men alongside women in the fight for socialism, against the common enemy found in the capitalists, the bosses, and the owners of these rag publications.
There is solid proof of this to be found in the experience of the miners and their wives, and their struggle for jobs, fair pay, and decent conditions in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. The miners in Yorkshire had a publication called The Yorkshire Miner, which had come under attack from feminists for publishing images of scantily clad women.
Arthur Scargill and the miners initially dismissed the women and their attitude towards objectified women in their paper. However, by the end of the strike the images had been removed from the paper.
This was not because women had raised the issue of objectification and talked about it until the editors of The Yorkshire Miner removed the images due to pressure. The removal of the scantily clad women was as a direct consequence of the miners’ wives entering into struggle alongside the male miners, causing a shift in consciousness amongst the male miners in their attitudes towards this kind of sexual objectification and towards women in general.
The WAPC (Women Against Pit Closures) was accepted into the NUM. Furthermore, the assistance of the WAPC meant that the attacks thrown at the miners by Margaret Thatcher -that dismissed the miners’ struggle as irresponsible and led only by men – were rendered invalid.
The bourgeois media frequently reported women as ‘victims’ of the strike action and as being opposed to the strikes. However, this was not the case and the WAPC proved it not to be. In fact, the women supported the striking miners, playing a large role in the struggle, setting up advice centres for other miners’ wives, organising the integral community based soup kitchens and standing side by side with the miners on the picket lines.
This example demonstrates how sexism is abolished in reality: not through “raising awareness” and simply talking about gender inequality more frequently, but through the struggle shared by both men and women alongside one another against the capitalists.
Fight objectification! Fight capitalism!
As long as there is class oppression there will be gender oppression. Only with socialism- a society without classes and without exploiters, can we put an end to all forms of oppression.
There is no answer to gender inequality or the objectification of women through talking shops and well intentioned, but ultimately directionless campaigns. Through the joint struggle of working class men and women the oppressors can be overcome. Such struggles will unite men and women in their common cause against capitalists.
Through such struggles we will bring about a society without profit-driven industries, in which the media will exist to convey the interests of the working class, free from the fetters of the drive for higher profits.
As Marxists we can see the limitations of the NMP3 campaign. Such a campaign might be supported if it was demanding far greater action, highlighting the anti-working class nature of The Sun – amongst many others – and raising the question of who owns these publications and whose interests they represent.
The Marxists call for a mass campaign, building upon the actions of the student unions, involving the participation of all students, the trade unions, and – most importantly – of the workers in the media industry itself. Only through such a fight of both students and workers, in struggle together for a socialist society, can these symptoms of capitalism, such as sexism and objectification of women, be eradicated. Forwards to socialism and a classless society, free from all forms of oppression!