In the last forty years, its obituary has been written many times. So far, it seems, these obituaries are always premature, and ‘Page 3’ marches on, pillorying, and in process, outliving careers of many of its trechant critics. Although the Sun began running photos of female models on its third page in 1969, the paper’s editor Larry Lamb waited until the paper’s conservative proprietor Rupert Murdoch was away to present a topless model that would later come to be identified with the magazine. On 17th November 1970, Stephanie Rahn posed in her birthday suit (above) to mark the first birthday of the relaunched paper.
Initially, the Sun upping its ante went unnoticed and caused little offence. As the topless ‘Page 3’ girl become more common and more risque over the next four years, controversy grew, and so did its popularity. Although “Page 3” was initially as a response to the Sun‘s top rival, the Daily Mirror, which typically ran pinup photos, it was eventually come to identify a new segment of the permissive society. Both the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star — which together with the Sun forms racy ‘Red Tops’ — later copied the Sun‘s “Page 3”. As critics from both left and right were criticizing the feature as misogynistic and pornographic respectively, and as MPs denounced the paper inside the House of Commons, ‘Page 3’ entered into national consciousness and lexicons. Although initially furious, Murdoch was pleased with the increasing sales numbers and put a ‘Page 3’ feature in all of his newspapers worldwide, except in Australia, where they were not printed out of deference to Murdoch’s mother.
To this author, the furore over ‘Page 3’ is incomprehensible. The Sun, with a respectable circulation of 3 million, is first and foremost a commercial enterprise, and ‘Page 3’ (along with other sensational halftruths that paper oft enjoys printing) is also first and foremost a tool to further that commercial interests. Although the author is sympathetic to arguments about banning the paper from public transportation and public libraries and imposing age-limits on buying, the arguments demonizing the paper are not solely limited on these grounds. Criticizing ‘choice’ based on broad righteous, moralistic and feminist arguments leave something to be desired. The models choose to pose for the Sun; readers choose to buy it. Also, not only it can be pointed out that these willing models came from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, but it can also be noted that the feature, like equally-vilified Playboy, enables women to challenge traditions and mores, to embrace their own sexuality, and to escape from rigid social dimensions of the yesteryears. Of course, a complex matrix of objectification and expectations plays into this, but so does freedom of choice. After all, for better or for worse, many models graduated from ‘Page 3′ (and its copycats) into popular culture, Katie Price, Samantha Fox and the Spice Girls’ Geri Halliwell being three most prominent names.
(The last paragraph is a gut reaction to this article in New Statesman by Laurie Penny, who I usually read for comic value. She is, of course, entitled to her own opinions, and I even agree with her on this dubious ‘Page 360’ feature, but comments to her columns always astound me. They are mostly all fawning and unctuous that I sometimes wonder whether selection bias is at play there or whether everyone just simply agrees with her).