The news last week that the NUT has given its public support to the No More Page 3 campaign got me thinking a bit about schoolchildren and their exposure to sexualised images. The wonderful Charlie Free on the Unfinished blog did some research some time ago into the Sun’s archives. She came up with some uncomfortable images from the eighties, where Page 3 was given over to a ‘Back to School’ theme, featuring topless models in school ties and straw boaters and other schoolgirl paraphernalia. (There was no outcry about this at the time, and subsequently we have heard many news stories about child sexual abuse in the eighties, with the accompanying platitude that attitudes have changed since then).
When I saw these pictures, first of all I was shocked because I REMEMBERED THEM! (They must have left a lasting impression, especially odd when you consider that I have never bought the Sun…) And second of all, I remembered my college graduation yearbook picture from 1981, so I went and dug it out. Here it is :
My boyfriend at the time drew the picture of me, and helpfully added a caption cut out of the Sun’s Page 3, as a sort of joke I think… (We’re no longer together. Obviously). He doctored the caption slightly, by substituting a couple of words, to make it more applicable to me, but clearly the message is that this is supposed to be a schoolteacher we are looking at.
Here is the caption in full :
‘Helen’s in a class of her own! Huggable Helen is every schoolboy’s ideal Miss. And she nearly followed her parents into (…). But Helen soon realised that her classy looks score top marks in the Ooh-level ratings – and decided to turn to (…).’
In the original version she clearly decided to turn to teaching, as she is now the ideal ‘Miss’ for all those schoolboys… It’s a shame the original Page 3 girl is lost because, judging by the Sun’s imaginative depiction of schoolgirls, we would be in for a real treat with the school TEACHER! I like to imagine her in a mortar board, possibly with a ruler in one hand and a naughty glint in her eye, dominatrix-style.
The message is clear – it’s ok for schoolboys to view their teachers as sex-objects. In the same era that the Sun was sexualising school GIRLS, it was giving the message to school BOYS that any woman in their lives was fair game for sexual objectification, even their teachers. Never mind that a woman was a professional, deserving of respect, it was ok to assess her on the basis of her breasts.
When we say that the depiction of schoolgirls (or teachers) would not be acceptable now because times have changed, we are acknowledging that the media reflects and to some extent reinforces cultural norms. Back in the eighties the captions attached to Page 3 ‘stunnas’ were bits of nonsense filled with bad puns, because even then you couldn’t just put a topless girl in the paper with no ‘explanation’. The captions served the purpose of making these pictures ‘just a bit of fun’ rather than ‘soft porn’. I am interested now, looking back, to realise how normalised these images had already become to me at that stage in my life.
I realise I make a very unlikely Page 3 girl, what with that abnormally large hitch-hiking thumb, and the punk haircut, but that reminds me that this was, after all, the height of the punk era. It was a time that was full of exceptional and original female talent. Women like Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene were challenging the notion of what it meant to be female and in the spotlight. Bands like the Slits and Kleenex were uncompromising in their determination to be on a level playing field with the boys, and were defiant in their refusal to use sex to sell their music. Not everyone was a punk, but youth culture was rebelling against many of the stereotypes in society, including the role of women. Maybe it was all too challenging for Britain’s favourite daily paper, and Page 3 was then, as I suspect it is now, an attempt to keep women in their passive and man-pleasing place. Whatever the reason, I can’t help thinking that, even back then, the Sun was completely out of step with women, and WAY behind the times.