LONDON — Britain’s best-selling Sun newspaper has called the topless women that are famously featured on its Page 3 a “British institution” — on par, seemingly, with a full English breakfast or quietly queuing at bus stops.
But for a new wave of feminists as tenacious as they are Twitter savvy, the Sun’s daily dose of bare breasts is not a quirky tradition worth celebrating but an example of modern-day sexism that urgently needs covering up.
The plainly named “No More Page 3” campaign has emerged as one of the highest profile of the many feminist-activist groups that have recently sprouted up in Britain, fueled by social media and online tools that are connecting feminists from Brighton to Birmingham.
The Sun is characteristically unrepentant when it comes to the calls to drop its signature pictures.
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In an interview with the BBC last month, editor David Dinsmore said the paper polled focus groups and “the result comes back a resounding, ‘Keep it there, don’t take it away!’ ” He added: “I’m making a paper for the readers.”
When pressed on what Page 3 brings to readers, Dinsmore replied: “A smile.”
Not to everyone. Lucy-Anne Holmes remembers reading her family newspaper as a girl and anxiously comparing her body with those of the topless models staring back at her. “I was comparing my breasts to these girls, and I just assumed at age 11 my breasts were there for men to see, ” she said.
During the London Olympics last year, she finally had enough. She noticed the largest single female image in the newspaper wasn’t an athlete, but a topless model.
A year and a half later, the topless models in the Sun’s flagship paper are still there, such as Mel, 22, a brunette from Kent, who recently posed wearing a thick gold necklace and frilly pink underwear.
But instead of fizzling out, the campaign is expanding at a gallop. In August, the Irish edition of the Sun ditched its topless models, citing “cultural differences” between Ireland and Britain. Dozens of universities have yanked copies from their shelves. Nearly 130,000 people — including 150 members of Parliament — have signed an online petition asking the editor to drop the feature. The British Girl Guides have voiced their support. So have teaching unions. So has the Welsh government.
So what? say supporters. It’s a bit of harmless fun, they say, and if you don’t like it, don’t buy it. Besides, we live in an era in which much raunchier images are only a click away.
This isn’t the first concerted stand against Page 3, which has long been a lightning rod for feminists. In 2004, then-Labor MP Clare Short said the images were pornographic. The paper responded by superimposing Short’s head on to a topless model, labeled her “fat” and “jealous,” and sent a double-decker bus to her house filled with Page 3 models.
In a sign of how visible the campaign has become, British Prime Minister David Cameron has been asked about it repeatedly, including last week in Parliament. He said it’s up to the consumer to decide whether to buy the paper, adding that he does not support a ban on the images.
Campaigners say they aren’t asking for legislation, just for the paper to drop the images, arguing that they objectify and demean women and, unlike top-shelf pornography, are easily accessible by children.
The Sun introduced topless models in 1970, under the helm of its new owner, Rupert Murdoch. A year later, circulation had shot up 29 percent.
It has undergone changes over the years: There are no more topless models on the weekend; no more models younger than 18; no more surgically enhanced breasts; no more “News in Briefs,” a box next to the model with pithy comments on the news.
But there is a growing sense that the images are a leftover vestige of a bygone era. Even Murdoch tweeted in February that he was considering if the images were “so last century.”
The campaign against Page 3 is part of a larger resurgence of feminist activism in Britain, with many women, as with Holmes, using social media and their personal stories to propel specific causes forward.
For instance, one of the most wildly popular recent projects is the Everyday Sexism Project, a website and Twitter account that catalogs stories of daily harassment. It has spread to 18 countries since its launch last year.
“So many voices are speaking up at the same time. It’s giving people the strength and confidence to talk about it,” said Laura Bates, 27, its founder, who started the project after a random man groped her on a London street.
Kira Cochrane, author of “All the Rebel Women,” which chronicles the “fourth wave of feminism” in Britain, said “this resurgence feels like something different — technological tools have moved on and you have tools that allow 150,000 people to get involved at quite a low level. The level of engagement is incredibly high.”
In the case of the Sun, which did not return calls for comment, the topless models remain, one flick away from the front page, evoking emotions on both sides of the debate. “I love Page 3!” a bespectacled man recently yelled from a yellow van, as he sped past a group of anti-Page 3 protesters marching in Central London.
Emily Wearmouth, 32, a Londoner who was in the march with her mother and baby son, said: “It’s really important that our major, most widespread national newspaper treats women in a more respectful manner, rather than objectifying us over everybody’s breakfast.”