The Sun and the misrepresentation of women

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English: Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Murdoch at t...

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Who knows what Rupert Murdoch, Dominic Mohan et al. are really up to behind closed doors at News International? However, one thing’s for sure – as more and more details about the hacking scandal come out, it’s not a pretty picture that’s emerging. As far as I’m concerned, The Sun is no more than a glossy magazine dressed up as a newspaper; the only difference being that sometimes the content is about current affairs rather than what so-and-so wore to the Oscars. I say ‘sometimes’ because on the day of writing, The Sun’s front page headline is ‘Girl Eats 4,000 Sponges’. I didn’t read the rest of the article, because needless to say, it looked like codswallop. Utter rubbish. However, despite my reservations about giving The Sun’s official website yet more traffic, in the name of research I thought I’d check out this story that was clearly so world-defining that it made the front page ahead of say, ooh I don’t know, genocide in Syria? (Out of interest, I googled what stories The Guardian was running on the same day and the second from top was James Murdoch being removed from News Corp’s board – oh, the delicious irony.) The offending article was actually rather long for a Sun article, and gave quite in-depth coverage of the girl in question’s addiction to eating objects that are not food (a condition called pica apparently). However, I really don’t think it was about raising awareness of how miserable pica can be. In all honesty, the article looks mostly like an excuse to profile a young girl that fits the mould of what Sun readers would probably deem attractive – and then feature multiple photos of her provocatively posing with sponges. Bizarre, yes; surprising, no. Any excuse to sexualise, however mildly, and The Sun are there, loud and proud.

Dominic Mohan recently told the Leveson Enquiry that the daily page three photograph of a nude woman was ‘meant to represent […] youth and freshness’ and ‘celebrate natural beauty’ and amounted to an ‘innocuous British institution’, despite four woman’s groups with expertise in rape and domestic abuse claiming they believe the pictures are damaging to the general perception of women in society, and therefore to their equality. During the Leveson enquiry submission by the aforementioned women’s groups, Anna Van Heeswijk of Object said of the disparity in reporting standards for women and men:

We have to think about what kind of story this tells when they see men in suits, in sports attire, men as active participants and subjects, and women as sexualised objects who are naked or nearly naked on every page in the case of the Sport.

It’s more harmful to have these images in mainstream newspapers because of the normalising effect it has.

This is the key here. The Sun is a huge newspaper. According to Wikipedia, ‘It has the tenth-largest circulation of any newspaper in the world and the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in the United Kingdom.’ It sold approximately 2.7million copies a day in 2011. It therefore has a responsibility to the public not to propagate unhelpful portrayals of women. Page three, and depictions of women throughout the The Sun, showcase us as primarily sex-objects, instead of celebrating our achievements as people. Perhaps The Sun ought to re-address their definition of the word ‘innocuous’. Pre-watershed boobs? This can only be described as pornography. (Definition: ‘writings, pictures, films, etc, designed to stimulate sexual excitement’.) Yes, these pictures are there to titillate the gentlemen reader. They serve to pander to his whim of wanting to legimitately see naked women without feeling ashamed of it. They serve to normalise looking at such images in public spaces, in front of strangers, in front of colleagues… What about the large demographic of female Sun readers? How do they feel about it? They probably don’t want to question it in case of being labelled a prude. Equally, they may not even question it at all, because we are so used to this ‘institution’. Boys will be boys and all that. Usually the word is institution is used for a long-standing tradition that serves some purpose. This particular ‘institution’ of nudity serves no other purpose than to show a one-sided view of women. And no, I don’t want any children of mine exposed to that by accident in a newsagents.

I don’t mean to diminish the condition the girl on the front page suffers from, but check out this quote concerning the eating of soap and sponges:

I’m so proud she has worked hard to fight this condition and is recovering through counselling. She is really brave to talk about it so openly.

These are the kinds of sympathetic quotes it would be great to see The Sun print about survivors of serious crimes, such as rape. Instead, The Sun is known for trivialising serious crime against women by choosing pictures of the women in question in scantily clad outfits to accompany the articles. In addition, when challenged, The Sun and all of its might launches full pelt into attack. When Clare Short questioned the place of page three in a newspaper available for purchase by children, they notoriously (albeit under previous a Editor) labelled her – on the front page no less – as ‘fat’ and ‘jealous’, claiming it would be ‘impossible’ to make her into a page three girl. The presumption here is that there is intrinsic value in being attractive rather than having a value system and something to stand up for as Clare Short did. Yes, it would be impossible for Clare Short to be a page three model. Because she has better things to do with her time! I’m afraid it is attitudes like this, that trump atttactiveness over any other characteristic for women, which make rape victims less likely to report their attack.

If a woman has been raped and looks around her for support, what will she see? Perhaps she will find a rape helpline, or the shoulder of a friend to lean on. Perhaps she will walk past a newspaper stand and perceive that the dominant voices of society, such as The Sun, are only proposing one view of women – as half-clothed and posing for men’s gaze. Perhaps she will then feel that it is inevitable that she is treated as a sex object and that she cannot fight the ‘powers that be’. In the vulnerable position of being a victim of crime, women need to feel they are valued as more than the sum of their body parts. Media portrayals of women that are significantly different to portrayals of men reflect inequality in our society. Why is there no page three man? Because it was trialled and failed. Why? Because men are widely accepted as being more than sex objects. Women are only sometimes accepted in this way. And this makes women feel less secure that they will be taken seriously in reporting crimes. Unfortunately, it is often the case that prejudice is present in our police system and reported rapes are not properly dealt with, but that is for another post. Either way, crimes should still be reported so that we have a more accurate idea of the scale of the problem. Currently, we can only guess at the number of rapes committed.

The Sun is certainly doing women no favours at being taken seriously for their merits in clothing. It’s certainly doing women’s self-esteem no favours by portraying only one type of ‘ideal’ body. It’s certainly doing nothing for survivors of serious crime that are unsure how they will be received. I, for one, would like to see that change. Are you with me?

You can support the Turn Your Back on Page 3 campaign here.

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3 responses »

  1. Some circulation stats and links to an archive of past offences at Front Pages Today. The middle class broadsheets also tend toward a main photo of ‘fruity’ girl plus totally unrelated story as a formula. A Level results day is always good Telegraph fodder. A solid bit of research (perhaps already done by someone?) would be a longitudinal study of this sort of imagery. Set the parameters, and log them every day for a year, see what patterns emerge. A bit like Adorno’s fantastic analysis of an LA astrology column in “Stars Down to Earth”, but more quantifiable.

  2. I love your site. I’ve posted a link to your site on my blog: opt4.wordpress.com. I’m a prevention educator who goes into schools and after school programs and teaches boys about preventing DV and promoting healthy relationships. Keep up the great work and great writing! Thank you and I am honored to help end this epidemic.

  3. Pingback: Representing women experts on TV and radio: why the controversy? « feministmeup

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