Support 100 years of independent journalism.

17 November 2010updated 09 Feb 2015 4:19pm

Laurie Penny: What readers of The Sun swallow with their cornflakes

...and why it's about as funny as the Black and White Minstrel show.

By Laurie Penny

Page three, the pink and willing soul of British sexism, celebrates its 40th anniversary this week. For the benefit of the tender hearted, Americans and anyone who’s been living in a box for the past 40 years, page three is the inside spread of the most widely read newspaper in the UK, the Sun, and since 1970 it has replaced actual news content with large, sweetly-smiling pictures of topless young ladies. Some humourless feminist types have taken issue with this, but these feminists are mistaken. Page three should be celebrated for what it is: a Great British Institution, like bad teeth, class war and golliwogs…

Complaining about page three can sometimes feel a bit futile. Its Identikit model of nubile, taut-breasted, blandly performative femininity has been part of the background noise of sexist iconography in this country for as long as most of us can remember. Slipped naughtily into our daily papers between the stock market reports and the body counts, page three normalises sexual objectification within the quotidian mindset of British neoliberalism in exactly the same way that unregulated trading and wars of occupation have become normalised.

For 40 years, the Sun has served up a daily dose of military rhetoric and reactionary moral posturing masquerading as news, and it is significant that part of this propaganda explicitly panders to the assumed sexual fantasies of straight men. For the women and children who also read the Sun, the message is quite clear: not only that the proper role of women is to be young, naked and submissive, but also that the world of current affairs is geared towards the needs and desires of men.

Page three is far more harmful than any tawdry top-shelf skin mag because, without saying a word, it informs the millions of Sun readers who are not straight, adult men that the world is arranged for the social and sexual convenience of those who are.

Tits and bombs: that’s the imagery Sun readers swallow with their cornflakes. Whenever one does complain about Page three — asking, for example, that fellow commuters at least spare one from the pixellated titties — the retort is usually that the pornography is traditional, that it’s just a bit of fun, and that humourless, unaccountably clothed women like oneself should learn to “take a joke”.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

“For any straight woman,” comments the comedian Josie Long, “9am is too early for tits.” However, taking issue with the daily assault of sexually objectifying images will invariably get one labelled as “anti-fun”, where “fun” is synonymous with “impoverished young women taking off their clothes and making a sexyface for money.”

Content from our partners
How automation can help telecoms companies unlock their growth potential
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better
Feel confident gifting tech to your children this Christmas

To celebrate the 40th anniversary, the Sun has launched a feature for the web — “Page 360” — which offers Sun readers a new way to “interact with their favourite page three lovely”. Their definition of “interaction” is rather special: “simply click and drag your mouse and watch as she turns”. Some might consider this a bizarre interpretation of intimacy, but far be it from me to suggest that a culture that mistakes being able to manipulate a silent, naked, fake digital woman for actual human interaction has got problems that go far beyond any fiscal deficit.

It’s all OK, because as well as being traditional and therefore unassailable, page three is a joke, tongue in cheek, and above all, ironic — although personally I’ve never understood the difference between an ironic erection and an unironic erection. Daily tits with the daily headlines are ironic, and hence not really meant or genuinely damaging. Sexual objectification as a part of neoliberal social conditioning is supposed to be a “joke”, and if you don’t “get” the joke, if you can’t “take” the joke, then it’s your fault.

Not all humour is equal, however, and a certain strain of “joke” has always involved pointing and laughing at people who are less powerful than you.

Page three is this type of joke, and it’s the type of joke that doesn’t stay funny forever. It’s funny in the way that black and white minstrel shows were once funny. Western society has a long history of expecting women and minorities to “take” a joke in the way that one might be expected to take a punch.

We learn to take the jokes: we learn to shut up and smile. We shrink into ourselves until the blows stop coming. Unfortunately, every time I meet a woman or girl who has seen the dark side of sexual objectification, every time I meet a woman or girl who has been abused, battered, exploited or raped, I remember that some punchlines leave bruises.