Defenders of Page 3—and there are many, many women among their ranks—tend to argue that true feminism supports the right of women to do whatever they want. The feminist movement, they say, is about ensuring that women have choices, not dictating what those choices should be. If men are silly enough to pay women to take their clothes off, then the joke is on them—women are more than happy to oblige and rake in the modelling fees.
This understanding of feminism is widespread. Responding to criticisms from Bette Midler, for example, Ariana Grande described feminism as “women being able to do whatever the F they [want] without judgement.” And talking about Miley Cyrus, writer Catherine Hakim told BBC Radio 4 that: “There’s absolutely no contradiction at all between being a feminist and taking your clothes off… She’s using it for her own purposes, she’s increasing her fan base, she’s making a lot of money, she’s doing what she wants to do.”
But feminism is not just about women having choices; it’s about women having equal choices and opportunities, being treated equally and viewed equally, and Page 3 does nothing to advance these goals. It’s not good enough to say that female pop singers like Miley “increase their fan base” and “make a lot of money” by wearing skimpy outfits; we have to ask why that’s the case when male singers so rarely do the same, and seem to make money just fine without it.
If taking their clothes off feels liberating to a woman, if it feels empowering, it’s because for so many centuries women’s sexuality was so tightly proscribed or denied. Crossing continents, the control of women’s sexuality was a global obsession. Even in the post-sexual liberation west, that proscription persists to a certain extent today, in the double standards applied to men and women’s sexual behaviour.
But contemporary visual culture—where women are oversexualised and plastered half-naked across billboards, TV and even, in the case of Page 3, newspapers—only perpetuates this obsession with women’s sexuality. Whether a patriarchal society prohibits female sexuality or glories in it at every possible opportunity, women are still defined by it in a way that men are not. It’s part of a culture in which women are more valued for the…