Activism
Tits aren’t News – The Power of the Online Campaign

Tits aren’t News – The Power of the Online Campaign

Last week I spoke at an event for Youth Action Northern Ireland, an organization that strives to make a significant difference in the lives of young people in Northern Ireland. One of the ways they carry out this mission is through their Gender Equality Unit, working “with those young women who are most excluded from resources and society to try to improve their access.” Part of this work is informed by the desire to challenge “traditional expectations of young women,” particularly those which deny their potential and their opportunities.

In Northern Ireland, it is not difficult to say what these traditional expectations are. In 2012, the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel reported notable differences between the genders in employment figures, with 71.2% of working age males employed compared with 62.8% of females. Other depressing statistics to come out of the report reveal mass underrepresentation of women in politics and public life. Approximately one in five MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in Northern Ireland are women and only 23.5% of Councillors in local government districts are women. This disparity extends to the business realm as well, with female level of entrepreneurial activity listed at 4.3% compared to 10.3% for males. Considering that girls consistently outperform boys in school, there seems to be a disconnect for young women leaving school and transitioning into working life when compared with young men.

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Keeping this challenge in mind, Youth Action is running a series of seminars tackling these very real issues in young women’s lives. Having used the internet to engage in feminist activism, I spoke at the seminar discussing the usefulness of the internet as a pathway for young women.

I’ve written before about my work at Hollaback! Belfast . Using online resources like blogging and phone apps, our Share your Story feature gives people a chance to reclaim some of the power lost when they suffer harassment, usually gender based or sexual in nature, in public spaces.

This is not the only feminist campaign to use this model. The “No More Page 3″ campaign is one such movement that is capitalizing on the small world effect that the internet offers. For those unaware of the phrase “Page 3 girl,” it refers to a British newspaper, The Sun, using a topless-to-naked woman on page 3 every day for the past 42 years, with countless other newspapers following suit since its inception. This campaign asks The Sun to voluntarily scrap Page 3 because it disrespects women and conveys this negative message to their readers every single day.

The “No More Page 3” campaign found its inspiration following the media buzz that surrounded UK athletes at the London 2012 Olympics. In a burst of national pride, Lucy Holmes bought a copy of The Sun to catch up on the latest Olympic news.  Reading the paper, Holmes “found she couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that the largest female image…was of a young woman showing her breasts.” This was during the very height of the London 2012 games. At this time in the UK, Olympic Heptathlon Champion Jessica Ennis was everywhere. Her image and story were used as an example of the very best Britain had to offer athletically. Holmes wondered then, why wasn’t she the biggest story in the paper?

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In this video, Holmes points out that the inclusion of a topless woman on Page 3 tells female readers that The Sun is a man’s newspaper. The assumption is that a newspaper which has one of the highest rates of circulation (2,258,359) in the UK assumes an audience of heterosexual men and so caters to this audience with pictures of next-to-naked women.  In having the biggest image of a female every single day for 42 years be a Page 3 model, The Sun condition their readers to view women primarily as sex objects. Holmes believes there is a direct connection between the attitudes that the Page 3 images represent and the increasing numbers of women who are raped and sexually assaulted. The 1 in 4 women who have experienced sexual assault, as reported by the Home Office, is a huge number and discounts the incidents that go untold.

Holmes argues that Page 3 models, as  the most obvious visual representations of women in such a widely read newspaper, add to a misogynist culture that allows sexual assault to be brushed under the mat and ignored. She puts The Sun to task for claiming to be a family newspaper while perpetuating these dangerous misogynist ideals. When there is a high level of sexual assault, perpetuating “a belief that women are there for men’s sexual pleasure, doesn’t seem sensible to me,” according to Holmes.

Without previous involvement in online activism or campaigns, Holmes launched an online petition asking The Sun to “Take the Bare Boobs out of Page 3” which at last count had 118,873 supporters. The great thing about the internet is how these campaigns can gather momentum. The simple acts of posting on friends’ Facebook walls or retweeting a comment are becoming increasingly credible ways to participate, harness power, and show desire for change.

Danielle Roberts, a campaign supporter in Belfast said that for her, “although Page 3 seems like an innocuous thing, a quirk of the British press, it has a far reaching impact. Page 3 reinforces rape culture. It affects girls’ self-esteem. I got involved because I believe my actions can help eradicate this particular example of misogyny, my ‘no’ should lead to the right things happening.”

The online aspect of this campaign provided the avenue for Roberts to let her “no” be heard:

I first got involved with “No More Page 3” via Twitter. Using online resources I have been able to contact all my elected representatives, Councillors MLAs and MPs, to lobby for their support. I have even been able to tweet the PM [Prime Minister]! Some of them have responded positively, Andrew Wilson of the UUP [Ulster Unionist Party] shared the campaign via his own social media. Using social media the campaign has reached a lot of people.  The online community also provides information and support for on the ground activities. They mobilized several flash mobs around the UK, including one in Belfast. We were all able to do the same dance to the same song, even though we were 100s of miles apart… The main benefit for me is the support, I know there are people all over the country who are trying to achieve the same thing I am.

Campaigns like this provide an opportunity for young women to get involved and become leaders. The more attention these campaigns get, the more questions that young women can ask about the society in which they live. When a space opens up for women to rebel against misogyny, it leads the way to change. It helps to fight the instinct to assume blame for sex-based violence perpetrated against us and our sisters, to redirect that anger and shame away from ourselves, but outwardly in a way that can empower.

There have been victories. The chain grocery store, The Co-Operative, has recently acknowledged the need for change and placed somewhat controversial modesty bags over the lad mags in their stores. Businesses are recognizing the need for change because of the simple acts of speaking up, sharing stories, tweeting, commenting – being vocal!

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While there has of course been some dissent over this campaign among commentators and feminists (feminism is after all a wide-ranging ideology), I am overwhelmingly positive of the power that campaigns like this can offer young women. If nothing else, it proves that there is a discussion to be had. Page 3 is no longer the norm or “a quirk of the British press.” The discourse is changing.

With organizations all over the world organizing around and marching against misogyny and openly condemning it online, young women are rising up to regain their rights to safe access to public spaces, fighting discrimination based on their gender, and holding their communities accountable.

I am Founder & Director at Hollaback! Belfast. I have a Master’s Degree in History and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wyoming. My academic work focuses on the role of women in post-conflict societies, with a particular focus on grass roots activism. I write for a number of feminist leaning blogs, am active in local feminist groups in Northern Ireland and an active speaker on Women & LGBTQ rights.