A man sits in a cluttered room. Tasks of infinite consequence lie, shimmering, before him. With a few clicks and drags he creates work of unparalleled importance, work that bristles and crackles with the shock of the new*. This man has toiled and striven relentlessly to bring to the world truth, justice and a photoshopped picture of the space between a woman’s legs.
So the Sunday Sport, purveyors of gratuitous nudity, breezily delivered objectification and slumbering reportage have been called out again. This – oh, how it catches in the throat! – ‘newspaper’ previously superimposed Holly Willoughby’s head onto a naked female body. Last Sunday they decided that only one thing could supersede such an act of necessary, integral journalism: a photo of her thong bedecked bottom, taken from a ground-level vantage point. Like the journalistic equivalent of waving a sexual conquest’s pants in the air the Sport seemed to claim they now somehow owned Willoughby, and freely owned the right to share this stolen intimacy; to share her private space, her body. Only it wasn’t, apparently, her bottom. Like some kind of virulent, stalkerish, mass wish fulfilment the Sport photoshopped the image and emblazoned it across their front page. On Monday it was revealed that Holly Willoughby has reported this nattily titled ‘fake up the skirt’ incident to the Press Complaints Commission.
I like Holly Willoughby. She has a lovely smile and a juvenile appreciation of the double entendre. She makes me like Phillip Schofield more. I felt, in part, violated on her behalf, even if that violation was only simulated, only created electronically. And, no, I don’t think the fact she allows herself to be referred to as ‘Holly Willoboobie’ and laughs at sex jokes means she is fair game. The same as I don’t think short skirts or a lack of street lighting can be held up as credible ’causes’ of rape. The same as I don’t think answering back causes domestic violence. This narrative of blaming the subject, and in this horribly constructed context the object, of predatory, violent or harmful sexual behaviour (real or imagined) is far too prevalent.
The ickiness of our press is, of course, a hot topic right now and if Leveson hasn’t suffocated under the weight of testimony and expectation we will soon hear the results of his inquiry. I have spoken before of my respect for the submissions made by Object and Turn Your Back on Page Three to this inquiry. These groups tirelessly campaign against the routine, almost institutionalised, sexualisation and objectification of women in the popular press. And we’re not talking here of only the most obvious, salient examples; the page threes and the whisper thin stories centred around the presence of a semi naked woman. We are also talking of the more insidious, of the trivialising and eroticising of violence against women. Object and Turn You Back On Page 3’s submission included this headline from the Sport: “party girls thumped for having lesbo sex”. Incidences of violence against women filtered through the lens of a Carry on Film. It is insulting, degrading and symptomatic of a larger malaise. The popular tabloids project antipathy, if not hostility, through their utilisation of the female form in a merely decorative manner, limiting female importance to a selection of chosen body parts. And there is certainly no space for you – apart from in their ire – if you are of a certain age.
These ‘newspapers’ have been an abrasive presence in my life for a while. But, what first began as a gentle niggling and scratching ended with excoriation, ended with me tearing my skin off: big gaping wounds of anger and defiance. For I do believe that the derogatory treatment of women in the popular press is so prevalent, so commonplace, so all-consuming that it appears innocuous. An involuntary shift in your brain means you forget that there is something more than a little off with the fact that Geoff and Brian from accounts are gawping, bug-eyed at a naked woman whilst you try to quietly sip your coffee and keep your mind on your novel. You forget that there is something very definitely not OK with the concept of young children seeing boobs in daddy’s newspaper and thinking that maybe this is what women do, that this is all women are. The reality is that the tactics and lexicon of such ‘newspapers’ are in themselves a hostile act. The cutting and the pasting, the superimposing, contorting and lying, feels like some sort of misogynistic art class. There is something viscerally sinister about our press electronically decapitating and disarticulating women and then creating something else out of the parts. The accusation that the Sun and the Sport see women as a construction of limbs and glands, or a constellation of erogenous zones, and nothing else finds it’s starkest manifestation in the recent treatment of Holly Willoughby. Cutting off a woman’s head and placing it upon the body of another feels like sexualised vandalism. It feels like the kind of thing you do to someone you don’t like, to ridicule and to humiliate them. It feels like the journalistic equivalent, the public dissemination, of defacing a photo in a jealous rage. It reminds me of my pre-teen anger and jealousy towards the partner of whoever was my latest crush. It reminds me of drawing a ‘tache and demon eyes on the woman currently dating Dexter Fletcher (I apologise profusely to Julia Sawalha, and to anyone who did not grow up in the ’80s). Yet this is our press.
I know that the Sport is like the spotty, nose-picking, marginally less intelligent younger brother of the Sun. I know that it is an easy target and, arguably, makes no pretensions to be anything other than a skin mag cut from cheaper cloth. I also know that a blessedly small amount of people actually buy it. Yet it operates as a newspaper, and is shelved at eye and hand level of children. However the Sun, which shares more than a few genes with the Sunday Sport, is Britain’s most popular newspaper. It uses women as decoration. It diminishes them by reducing any achievement to the shape of their thighs or the size of their breasts. It objectifies the female from with page three. But not only this. It then ridicules these women by placing giant pearl necklaces around their neck (the hillarity), or concocting ridiculously erudite quotes and attributing them to the woman who couldn’t possibly know who Satre is, because she has her boobs out.
I know that there will be some who will level the accusation that I have a problem with page three because I have small breasts, or am puritanical, or uptight. Just think of the treatment of Claire Short when she tried to stand up to all of this way back in the 1980s. She was coerced by puerile bullshit until she gave in. But think on this, and see if it makes sense. You cannot show breasts on TV until after the watershed, yet you can pick up the Sun from a newspaper shelf any time of day. The wonderful triad of anti page three activists Object, Turn Your Back on Page Three and No More Page 3 staged a protest outside of News International last Saturday to mark the 42nd anniversary of page 3. A huge birthday card had been made, a ‘spot the difference’ card showing the differing representations of the male and female form in the Sun. This obviously featured a lot of breasts. Object put this onto Facebook, and it was subsequently removed. So lets recap. Facebook took down photos from page three yet groups on Facebook like one celebrating the space between a woman’s thighs or mocking domestic violence and rape victims somehow turn themselves sideways and glide through the decency standard by waving the caveat ‘controversial humour’. Images from page three were censored at the Levenson Inquiry yet they are OK for public consumption in a national newspaper.
I genuinely believe that the representation of women in newspapers such as the Sun is damaging and limiting to women. Page three is only a part of the problem but probably the largest visual signifier of the need for things to change. I do have small breasts but I also have a pretty large intellect. You see, breasts and smarts can coexist and women are more than the sum of their body parts. And yes, I know there are acts of devastating atrocity occurring in the world. I know this. But what I’m saying here is important, funnily enough because women’s breasts are so unimportant, so usual, natural and unremarkable that their presence in a newspaper is entirely unnecessary. Night follows day. Women have breasts. The sky is blue and the pope is catholic. Please, The Sun, find something useful to say.
*Apologies, in memoriam, to Robert Hughes.