Turning the tide of media sexism

Comedy and social media are targeting Britain's Page 3 culture. With Lord Leveson's inquiry lashing the tabloid press for 'reckless prioritising' of sensation, now is the time for activists is to reach out beyond the middle class Twittersphere says Kirsty Styles

Peter Ustinov said that comedy is simply a funny way of being serious. So a comedy show put on by two young women who have created very modern campaigns to highlight and change the way women are seen and treated in Britain was the perfect setting to laugh, and look seriously, at 21st century Britain.

Lucy-Anne Holmes, who started the No More Page 3 petition, and Laura Bates, founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, presented the Stand Up to Sexism show with the tagline ‘get your gags out for the girls’ at a historic theatre in London’s West End. Comedians gave their time for free for the cause. A crowd of 600 raised £4,000 for the End Violence Against Women campaign and proved that two young women can think, do and lead.

For over four decades, Britain’s leading national daily newspaper, The Sun, has featured a large photograph of a semi-naked woman on page 3. ‘Page 3’ is now synonymous in British culture with a woman’s breasts. Holmes’s campaign aims to close that chapter in British newspaper history. But even in the midst of the biggest crisis to hit the British media sector this century, with a massive formal inquiry into press culture and ethics, the Sun’s editor, when giving evidence to Lord Leveson, felt quite able to justify his paper’s commitment to reporting the news of girls in their knickers. He said that he believed the daily photograph was ‘meant to represent the youth and freshness’ and ‘celebrate natural beauty’ and amounted to an ‘innocuous British institution’.

At the comedy show Viv Groskop, a writer, broadcaster and stand-up comedian, highlighted that Page 3 ‘celebrated’ its 42nd birthday the same weekend as the gig. “That’s more than 13,000 editions. 26,241 nipples. Why the one?” she asked. “Melinda Messenger had her hand over her tit on one picture. Was it a protest? Was it a cry for help? Or was she just a bit chilly? We are not saying ‘boo’ to nipples, but boo to the outing of nipples. When you’ve seen that many, it’s not really news anymore. Yes, we still have nipples.” 

Lucy Porter, compere for the evening, has built a successful career as a female comic, in a media environment where even she wasn’t immune from the sexist culture. In the 90s, she worked as an assistant producer at the BBC. When she was groped by a well-known male DJ, her superior said ‘come on love, laugh it off’.  

“But the people who were laughing loudest and longest were the men who were getting away with it. One tragedy of being a woman is that, when you can finally stand up for your tits, pervs don’t want to touch them anymore.” There are stereotypes of feminists as ‘man hating lesbians’.  “But the women who really hate men tend to be heterosexual,” she said. “It seems there is nothing like sleeping with someone of that sex to lower your opinion of them,” she laughed.

She wasn’t surprised that the No More Page 3 campaign was taking off. “It’s creepy and weird… I’m hopeful for the future of feminism,” she said. “These campaigns have been created by young women with lots to say.”

She noted that what was once called ‘being a twat’ has been rebranded as ‘banter’. Her husband told her a joke, “watching your wife giving birth is like seeing your favourite pub burn down… Misogyny can sound quite funny at first. But ‘banter’ is actually men saying things that they know are unacceptable.”

It’s hard to underestimate the power that social media is giving to both campaigns, helping to build sufficient profile to fill a major London theatre for a fundraising night of comedy. 'Humourless' feminists have come a long way and the sound of tables being turned is getting louder. Holmes is collecting signatures for her petition, which already has more than 55,000, with lots of work put in on Twitter to get people to see and share her vision. She also arranged a protest outside the Sun’s HQ. When the police arrive, they signed her petition.

#Everydaysexism’s Bates is collecting 140-character examples of sexist incidents experienced by women. In little over six months, 10,000 women have lodged their complaints. But her campaign still exists in a virtual world where #boobs is also regularly used by the Sun to direct its frothing audience to their site.

Kate Smurthwaite, said that Page 3 makes her feel ‘embarrassed’, especially when friends around the world happened upon this Great British institution.

The Sun is not the only culprit in the race for depravity, Kate noted. The latest issue of the satirical magazine Private Eye highlights this article: “Teenager Elle Fanning shows off her womanly curves… The 14-year-old took to Instagram to share a photograph of her Hallowe’en outfit and wasn’t afraid to flaunt her curves for the camera.” Not a paedophile website, no. But the Daily Mail, the world’s number one online site. Even in a media world rocked by the revelations of child abuse by the late entertainer Jimmy Savile, once one of the UK’s biggest TV stars, this is somehow considered ok.  

Joe Wells picked out Front magazine, where they proclaim a ‘no fake boobs’ policy. “Yes we objectify women like pieces of meat, but they are 100 per cent organic.” He said that when writer Laurie Penny said that there were not enough women on BBC television’s Newsnight, Katie Price, glamour model and reality TV and tabloid regular, was invited to talk about the ethics of breast implants. “By far the worst editorial decision of Newsnight to date. Like getting a pig to debate EU farming regulation.”

Tiffany Stevenson came out and told the audience about her ‘muffin top’. “But I’ve come out here and slagged myself off – why do that when I have magazines to do that for me?” She said it’s weird that as you grow older you almost ‘miss sexism’. “Would you mind not talking to my face, they’re right here,” she said pointing to her chest. “But that’s what I was told I was worth my whole life. Your whole self-worth is tied up in how you look.”

“People now get botox in their late 20s as a ‘preventative measure’. Let’s stop carving our faces up. It never looks better, you should own your face, own your years. It’s the same with technology. You can’t judge a Kindle by its cover. Soon kids will be saying ‘Do you remember books??’ Hey, remember old people?’ STOP IRONING THE WORLD!”

Poet Sabrina Mahfouz performed her No More Page 3 poem, one of the first overtly political pieces she had written, but something she felt compelled to do when she saw the campaign. “Even though I’d gone to grammar school. Not glamour school. And I was at university. It seemed to me that the only way I could see to the top was through desirability – ‘cos that’s what I’d seen non-stop in the papers, magazines, films and on TV.”

“Now fast forward 10 years and I hear of this thing – No More Page 3 – and it makes me so happy to think that finally, 84 years after women won the right to vote through protest and death, newspapers might actually start to fill pages with the sagest and most outrageous words of powerful women.”

Bates closed the event by saying: “Page 3 is everyday sexism. For 42 years, the largest female image in the biggest selling newspaper has been a woman with her breasts on show. Women should be represented with more respect. A mum sent me a message on Twitter saying that her young daughter wished she could turn into a boy so she could go to space. A quarter of seven-year-olds have tried to lose weight. 80 per cent of 10 year olds have done the same. Against odds like those, no wonder she’s thinking she has to change who she is to be what she wants to be.”

The timing of these campaigns is significant. The crisis sweeping journalism has also implicated British politics and the government. Despite the soft pedalling in Lord Justice Leveson’s report on figures like Prime Minister Cameron and former Media Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt, the political fallout has plunged the coalition government and Parliament into splits and conflict. Leveson’s inquiry into the British media was prompted by phone hacking at The News of the World, the Sun’s former Sunday ‘sister’ paper. 

Even in the eye of a major political storm, leading British newspapers continue to publish sexist content with impunity with no detriment to their sales figures. Lucy Porter also noted that the Stand Up audience was a very middle-class show for a very middle-class audience. The next task then for No More Page 3 and Everydaysexism, at this moment of opportunity in the wake of the Leveson report, must be to take their campaigns beyond the Twittering classes, to the people who read the Sun and the people who don’t read much at all. So women everywhere can be sure that finally in the 21st century, they will know that assets means more than just breasts.

About the author

Kirsty Styles is a digital journalist and youth activist. She is also an enthusiastic dodge ball player and (very) amateur comedian. Kirsty has worked as a media campaigner for Oxfam, and has written for The Observer, RockFM and the Sunday Mirror. Kirsty is an elected youth member of the left-wing think tank Compass.