In the ruins of Pompeii, in the late 1770s, archeologists found a breast.
What they found, in fact, in a house they called the Villa of Diomedes, was the space left by the body of a woman without much on. But when they tried to make a mould of it, all they got, according to Mary Beard in her book Pompeii, was a breast. It was put in a local museum, and drew crowds from all around.
Nihil sub sole novum, as the Romans might tell us if they’d found the time to read Ecclesiastes, which was written about 1,000 years before. There’s nothing new under the sun, as Mary Beard, who has found the time to read a lot of things, could translate. There is, she might add, nothing much new in The Sun. What you see on the most famous newspaper page in the world is what you’d see on murals in Pompeii.
“Hello, boys! Look at me. Now back to your woman. Now back at me. Sadly, she isn’t me, but that’s OK, because if you keep reading Page 3 every day, I’ll be in your hands every day.” The woman, who has her hair draped over her nipples in a way you feel pretty sure someone thought was “tasteful”, is in a shower. She’s in a shower on YouTube. She’s there to “celebrate” a “national institution” that has, for 40-odd years, been “spicing up your life”. The video, which was posted on Remembrance Day, has had nearly four and a half million hits.
Four and a half million is about two-thirds of the daily readership of a newspaper which is still the tenth most popular newspaper in the world. Four and a half million is quite a lot more than the 64,305 people who signed a petition for a group called “No More Page 3”. But the 64,305 people who did sign it may well have cheered up. On Sunday night, a woman who sounds like an American teenager, but may well not be, sent Rupert Murdoch a tweet saying: “we are all so over Page 3”. And Rupert Murdoch, who’s 81, and who, in spite of the dementia that seemed to hit him when he talked to Parliament, wants to pretend he isn’t, sent a (not very grammatical) tweet back. “Page three so last century!” he said, also sounding like an American teenager. “You maybe right.”
This might have been a surprise to the editor of The Sun, who had to give his reasons for Page 3 to Lord Justice Leveson, and probably looked forward to this as much as Starbucks’ chief financial officer is looking forward to his next grilling from Margaret Hodge. The naked breasts were, he said, “meant to represent a youth and freshness” and to celebrate “natural beauty”. They didn’t, he said, use models who had had plastic surgery. Page 3 was “an innocuous British institution”. The “girls” were “ambassadors” for the paper and went to places like Afghanistan. They might, he almost implied, help win the war.
What he didn’t say is that naked breasts are in The Sun for the same reason they’re in any magazine, or on any website, or in any club (apart from a gym) that has women anywhere near poles. Naked breasts are in The Sun because they’re an easy way to make cash. Naked breasts are in The Sun because men like naked breasts. Men like naked breasts more, unfortunately, than columns in The Independent.
Rich people don’t get rich by being nice. Starbucks didn’t suddenly decide to pay more corporation tax because it thought Margaret Hodge had made a good point. Rupert Murdoch has put naked breasts in The Sun for 42 years because they have made him an awful lot of money. He’ll only take them out if he thinks taking them out will make him more. He might, he said, consider a “halfway house” with “glamorous fashionistas”. He might, in other words, think about swapping one kind of porn for another: the porn of nearly naked bodies that’s aimed as much at women as men.
Porn, like sugar, like alcohol, and like (for some of us) Kettle Chips, is like a drug. Once you’ve had a taste, you want more. When Hello! was launched in 1988, we didn’t know we’d had a gap in our lives. After it was published, we did. After it was published, and after OK! was published, and Heat, and Closer, and More!, and Now, and after newspapers started filling their weekend magazines with people who were suddenly famous for suddenly becoming famous, we realised what had been wrong. What had been wrong was that not enough of us had been looking at photos of women without many clothes on at all.
Before, we hadn’t really bothered to look at photos of women in their bikinis, and wonder if they might be a little bit fat, or a little bit short, or a little bit thin. Now we could do it for quite big chunks of our time. We could, in fact, do it for so much of our time that the newspaper websites which published a lot of these photos, and wrote “stories” underneath them that weren’t really stories, got more readers (if you can call people who look at pictures “readers”) than any other newspaper websites in the world. These newspaper websites, unlike most newspaper websites, even made money. They made this money by making sure a woman’s body wasn’t just something to stir an appetite, or cheer a bloke up. They made this money by making sure a woman’s body was something for another woman to judge.
We can see the results wherever we look. British women are getting fatter. If you walk down a street, you can see that British women are getting fatter. But if you’re on telly, or in a magazine, you can’t look like the kind of women you see when you’re walking down a street. You have to have a very nice figure, and a very smooth face, and nice teeth, and nice hair. You can’t, for example, look like Mary Beard. You can try if you want to. You can even have your own series, as she has done, but, if you do, then people will talk more about how you look than what you say.
The editor of The Sun was, at least in one way, right. There is something “innocuous” about the Page 3 breasts. They make you think of a more innocent world: of saucy seaside humour and camp Carry On. They make you think of a world before mass plastic surgery, and internet porn. Those breasts bounce because they’re made of real flesh. Those breasts are about lust, and sex.
Some of us would be quite a lot happier if newspapers made money without selling sex. But sex, like women’s breasts, will always be with us. Vivamus et amemus. Let us live, as Catullus said, and let us love, but please let’s not feed any more orgies of self-hatred. And particularly when the profits of those orgies go to men.
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