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.