WHERE HAS she gone, the cynosure of Sun readers' eyes who sparked Clare Short's campaign for a law to cover her up and a thousand student union protest motions?
There are grounds for concern about the safety of the Page 3 girl. Her appearance in the past few weeks has been suspiciously sporadic. Yesterday, she was supplanted with a charming photograph of a World Cup supporter holding up an England flag emblazoned with the words: "Darling - I got a ticket! See U in three weeks."
Here is a refreshingly different portrayal of the heterosexual relationship than a picture of Raunchy Roseanne wearing a back-to-front swimsuit, oiled nipples and an expression of boundless goodwill. It would bring a smile to the face of all readers, not just a leer to the lips of the more predictable male.
Page 3 is becoming The Sun's Clause IV. Modernisers inside the paper want to ditch it on the grounds that it looks outdated and puts off female readers. Traditionalists believe that it represents the core identity of the paper and that to ditch it would accelerate, not stem, the paper's circulation woes.
There is something fascinating about the decline of a national icon which has inspired loyalty and outrage for so long in equally fervent measure. When I embarked on exhaustive research about the reasons for Page 3's demotion (this column spares itself no exertion), The Sun's response was strangely anxious. David Yelland, the new Editor, issued the following on-the-record quote from New York, specially for soaraway Independent readers: "There are a lot of surprises in store at The Sun. It's a great read and it's only 28 pence."
This reminds me of the kind of communique they used to issue after Eastern Bloc politburos had changed course but were damned if they were going to admit it. The paper has already run a defensive leading article: "Yes folks, the breast is yet to come." Tabloidologists promptly concluded that a mammary-war was raging inside the paper.
Why should the people who steer the destiny of Britain's top-selling daily paper be so unsure about the future of their prize asset?
The readiness to review Page 3 gives us reason to be cheerful about two things. The first is the embrace beyond the highly educated middle classes of the best of feminist attitudes - the idea that women should be in charge of the course of their own lives rather than reflecting the desires and expectations of men. They are, apparently, weary of endless advice on How To Please Your Man in Bed, the natural pendant to Get a Load of These. The feminist cry: "What about me?" seems, finally to be making itself heard even in the bastion of working-class culture.
The second encouraging sign is that those feminists who believed that the only way to achieve this turn of events was by signing petitions, trying to pass laws and banning publications from libraries were wrong. Heaping the opprobrium of non-Sun-reading women on the title had no impact at all. Indeed, Miss Short's campaign and associated jihads against topless pictures probably helped to prolong the slot's life by making it a rallying cause.
The Page 3 girl is the victim not of revolution but of evolution in taste and the perception of female attractiveness. She is vulnerable because she looks increasingly old-fashioned. Soon, she will seem as dated as a 1930s bathing beauty. She is static in a world full of movement. She invites the gaze of others while photographed doing nothing.
That used to be enough for the aspirants who queued for a chance to seduce the lens. But feminism works in subtle and mysterious ways. The latter-day pin-ups - first Sam Fox, then Melinda Messenger - exploited the platform provided by their tabloid exploiters to pursue their own ambitions. Without warning, they upped and walked off the page, out of newspaper aspic.
I have a shrewd idea that The Sun's market research is telling it that fewer teenage girls aspire to become topless models than 10 years ago. It no longer inspires the wannabes who would rather be Spice Girls than Page 3 girls. Spice Girls go round the world, sack their managers, have rows. They are frenetically active, not passive recipients of the stares of others.
Girl power is a tightly circumscribed version of female emancipation, but it is not without force. It is through popular culture that small girls first get to see women outside the roles of mother or teacher. If silly, static, sexist Page 3 disappears from the country's breakfast tables, so much the better. Women buyers find her an irritation; male ones are bored by her. She is yesterday's girl, not today's woman.
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