Get your ankles out for the lads

June 27, 2003

The Sun is credited with inventing the Page 3 girl concept, but the tactic is nothing new, says Adrian Bingham

More than 30 years after its introduction, The Sun 's Page 3 girl feature still generates controversy. Rebekah Wade's appointment as editor of the newspaper in January prompted another fierce debate about whether these nude pictures are "sexist" or just "a bit of fun". By choosing "Rebekah from Wapping" as her first Page 3 model, Wade immediately identified herself with The Sun's tradition of titillation, disappointing those who hoped that the rise of women to the position of editor would change the culture of popular journalism.

My research makes clear that The Sun 's Page 3 girl feature was not as original or as radical as its critics and supporters have argued. Ever since it became possible to reproduce photographs in newspapers, editors and proprietors have been conscious of the sales potential of titillating pictures.

In the 1920s, Lord Northcliffe, the founder of the Daily Mail , made use of new publishing techniques to make his newspaper more visually appealing. He urged his staff to use eye-catching pictures, especially those of attractive women. In fact, he considered it essential for a journalist to be a good judge of female beauty, once remarking: "I have no use for a man who cannot appreciate a pretty ankle."

When a group of female Polish soldiers were featured on the Mail 's back page, Northcliffe was dismayed. "Pictures of attractive English ladies would have been much more to the point," he observed. He was aware that if his paper did not satisfy this demand, it risked being overtaken by others that were prepared to do so.

To modern eyes, the Mail 's pictures of women in bathing costumes or evening dress seem innocuous. Northcliffe wanted his papers to retain a certain level of "respectability" and did not allow pictures considered too revealing. Nevertheless, by demonstrating that one of the best ways to interest readers "in any subject was to add a picture of a pretty girl", he paved the way for others to exploit "sex appeal" more fully.

The reinvention of the Daily Mirror in the mid-1930s took things further. To halt a decline in circulation, the paper was given a more brash and irreverent identity, with sexual content far more prominent. Although nudity was still unacceptable, ways to circumvent contemporary taboos were found. Racial stereotypes meant that black women from the British Empire could be portrayed differently from white British women. So photographs of unclothed "natives" were included for prurient purposes. Nudity was also sneaked into cartoons, in particular Jane , a blonde "bright young thing" who developed the habit of losing her clothes.

By the 1950s, the pin-up photograph was well established in the popular press. Film stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe were unashamedly presented as "sex symbols" and their "vital statistics" were discussed in detail. Beauty competitions such as Miss World also provided opportunities to display glamorous women.

Many editors concluded that their newspapers simply could not sustain circulation without these pictures. When the News of the World sent leading feature writer Gerald Fairlie to investigate the underperformance of its Irish edition in 1961, he concluded that too many titillating features had been removed to please Catholic authorities. He told the paper's directors: "We must have bright pictures of pretty girls, freely sprinkled about the paper."

The only novel elements of The Sun 's Page 3 girl feature were its institutionalisation on a particular page and the greater frankness of the topless photographs. Otherwise, the strategy was rather old-fashioned.

Today, with nudity far more prevalent on television, the internet and magazines, the Page 3 girl appears somewhat anachronistic. Some commentators have speculated that Wade will drop the feature not because of feminist objections, but because readers are more interested in sexy shots of celebrities than of unknown models.

Yet, the focus on the Page 3 girl only obscures a more widespread and long-standing tendency to sexualise the female body in the press.

Titillating photographs of women are still far more common than those of men, and women continue to be exploited by all papers. If that is to change, the received wisdom of several generations of journalists will have to be challenged.

Adrian Bingham is Leverhulme postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Contemporary British History, London. He will present his research at the Anglo-American Conference of Historians next week.

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