The Page 3 model is offered up as an ideal, but is she really? Photo: Getty
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The Sun is offering a date with a Page 3 girl as a prize – women and men deserve better than this

It’s the logical outcome of countless messages regarding what a woman is supposed to be: beautiful, available, smiling, bending to the will of men and existing only to reflect men’s glory.

Most of the news can be put into four main categories: “men doing important things”, “men doing violent things”, “men kicking balls” or “men justifying doing violent things, with or without balls, on the basis that such things are important”. If women get a look-in, it tends to be because we are incidental to the narrative. Perhaps a woman is married to someone who does important things, perhaps she has been a victim of male violence. Maybe she has slept with a man who kicks a ball. Every now and then, quite by accident, a woman may have ended up in the position of “doer of important things”, but in that case her clothing, demeanour and family status must be constantly scrutinised, lest we become immune to the incongruity of it all.

The Sun does at the very least have a space devoted to women doing something else: having large breasts. Of course, not all women have large breasts and some do not have breasts at all, but that’s beside the point; at least it’s a woman doing her own thing, albeit entirely in the interests of satisfying the heterosexual male gaze. Even so, I do sometimes wonder how one might explain all this to a visiting extra-terrestrial: yes, male and female human beings really do consider themselves to be equals. Yes, I know it looks as though women exist only to serve the needs of men but that’s just pure coincidence. I know that if the situation were reversed – if I were to find a planet upon which all Category A aliens were assigned the status “doers/experiencers”, and all Category B aliens found themselves in the position of “carers/accessories” – I’d be drawing some pretty harsh conclusions about hierarchies, equality and inclusion (or perhaps I’d just assume Category B aliens were a lesser species? Either way, the “it’s all equal, it just doesn’t look that way” narrative really wouldn’t wash. Category B aliens could talk about empowerment until they were blue in the face – unless they were naturally blue in the face – and I wouldn’t be convinced).

It has been argued that given the extreme nature of internet pornography, getting in a flap about Page 3 – a woman with her top off – is somewhat naïve. I think this misses the point. While I’ve seen many women with bare breasts (it happens when you’ve been a breastfeeding peer supporter), what matters here is context and the context here is not really sex, but sexism. Internet pornography has its limits. However versatile and (hopefully) willing, a woman only has so many holes to penetrate and her skin will only stretch so far. Besides, sex is demanding and messy and imaginations get jaded. Page 3 gets us back to basics: woman as object, as salve for the male ego, without any of that pesky effluvia nor the risk of friction blisters.

The ultimate demonstration of this comes with the Sun’s decision to allow readers who sign up in its Fantasy Football Dream Team to “enter a prize draw for a date with a Page 3 model”. According to the small print, the lucky winner will get to choose between either Rosie or Kelly (obviously I cannot imagine what criteria will be used in the decision-making process):

Travel not included. Date will be at a location agreed with the Promoter. Choice of Page 3 Girl is subject to availability and schedule of Page 3 Girl. Date must be arranged and agreed with Promoter by no later than 6 October 2014 otherwise date will be forfeited.

Romantic, huh? One wonders whether there are other rules, perhaps regarding physical touch, personal space or topics of conversation. I don’t believe it is a comment on the dateability of Rosie or Kelly to say that the whole thing sounds rather grim, one long, dehumanising photo opportunity: stand next to a woman who wouldn’t come near you, had your name not been picked out at random, and insist to yourself I AM A MAN. To me it seems unspeakably lonely and antagonistic, a million miles away from the soaraway fun it is supposed to be. Nonetheless, it is the logical outcome of countless messages regarding what a woman is supposed to be: beautiful, available, smiling, bending to the will of men and existing only to reflect men’s glory. That this is not what we are really like – neither me, you nor Rosie nor Kelly – makes it all the less surprising when the men who supposedly adore us turn on us. It is humiliating to stand beside a woman who would not want you were it not for the enormous weight of patriarchal expectations upon you both; even more humiliating when both of you know that she is a human being, just as complex and authentic as you are, tits or no tits.

The Page 3 model is offered up as an ideal, but is she really? Relationships between men and women ought to be better than this: more fluid, more real, more open on both sides, with more willingness to expose not just flesh, but ideas, feelings, weaknesses and passions. Perhaps the existence of Page 3 would not matter were it not that this sexless, bloodless woman-as-object ideal seeps into our wider consciousness, increasing men’s reluctance to see women as human and women’s conviction that what men expect from them is not love but artifice. She contributes to a narrative of festering resentments and dashed expectations where there could be warmth, humanity and lasting connections. She implies a dull dependence – you’re only a real man if you want me – that inevitably topples over into rejection.

Both women and men deserve better than this. There are far more stories than the ones we are currently told and far more ways to connect with one another, whether we are using sight, touch or words. You can’t win a person; it’s only through getting to know them that your life will be enriched.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.