Page 3 'banter culture'

27/01/2015  -  2.43

By Rob Wright, PhD student and Visiting Lecturer

We live in an instantaneous world, a culture of now. The story of the moment last week was that of the demise and speedy resurrection of the Page 3 Girl. Despite only happening last week, it’s already beginning to feel like a fading memory.

The premature buzz started on Monday 19 January with The Times quietly announcing that The Sun was to axe its Page 3 pin-ups. The small column failed, by design or not, to bury the news - the report went viral, it was picked up and echoed by various other media outlets, the whirlwind began to grow. Ripples of cheering ripped through Twitter, many MPs and columnists across the political spectrum cheered its demise, this hanger-on of the seventies, this outdated and sexist remnant of another era was to be no more. But, as we now know, this didn’t transpire. In fact, what this whole incident in fact seemed to demonstrate is that many of the attitudes we had assumed for the most part were dead and buried in fact continue to linger and haunt us.

The social media buzz around the story was immense, hashtags such as #page3takedown gained popularity and the back-slapping cheers of success gushed around the net. Of course, this could have just my immediate echo-chamber, as there were many more reactions to the news.

 One of the most interesting reactions to the story could be described as “Instant Nostalgia”; alongside all the cheering there were also many a tweet that also expressed sadness at the demise of a “British institution”. What might seem like a contradictory pairing, Instant Nostalgia is unique to our cultural present. Speed, as Virilio duly noted, is the key to understanding technology, but in the 21st century this speed is entwined with the internet, an archive in which we are always hooked. It’s the potent power of Instant Nostalgia for example, that makes retro photo-filtering apps such as Instagram and the personal “time capsule” service of Timehop ever so popular.

It is the awareness of this Instant Nostalgia trend which we could cynically argue may have been a factor in The Sun’s on and off removal of Page 3. Playing up to Instant Nostalgia, The Sun could perhaps have been engaging in what is known in PR as ‘suicide marketing’ in which you announce that you are dumping an old-fashioned product, await the rush of nostalgia, and then bring it back. However, two elements make this particular situation unique. Firstly, such a strategy usually pans out over a much longer span than four days, but, more importantly here, The Sun refused to confirm or deny that Page 3 was no more.

Whether or not this situation was purposefully engineered to be a PR stunt is uncertain, and it’ll be a long time before we do, that is if the facts of the story ever emerge at all. However, Head of PR at The Sun Richard James wasn’t going to let this good opportunity go wasted. On Wednesday night, just in-time for TV newspaper reviews, he tweeted a number of journalists the surprise revelation that in fact Page 3 wasn’t going anywhere. Accused of being a Troll by many commentators, Richard James’s online ‘banter’ with the journalists resulted in him issuing a half-soaked apology in which he explained that he was simply trying to be funny. Despite The Sun’s ‘Target a Troll’ campaign, aiming to rid the internet of trolling, it seemed The Sun was now provoking them into action.

Wednesday evening and Thursday morning saw the amount of attacks against the No More Page 3 campaign significantly rise, many of those who had earlier felt Instant Nostalgia for Page 3 were now revelling, in some cases aggressively, in what was seen as being some brilliant banter by The Sun. They made the defensive argument that Page 3 is, and always have been, simply a bit of fun. Feminists and others who are against Page 3 are simply members of the politically correct brigade, spoil-sports who need to accept that Page 3 is just good natured banter.

Banter then, is seen by those who use the term, as being simply a bit of fun, it’s meant to be playful teasing, but very rarely is that actually the case. It would seem that banter is becoming a mask for views which we thought were long gone. A case in point can be seen with the controversy around comedy character Dapper Laughs, whose self-described banter not only demeans women but has also been criticised for promoting rape culture. Furthermore, there are multiple examples of UKIP members defending their controversial views as being nothing more than ‘banter’. In 2013 for example Leicestershire candidate Chris Scotton was expelled from the party for joining Facebook groups titled “Women deserve as much respect as men … LOL joke” and “Racism? No mate it’s just ethnic banter”. There are numerous more examples, this weekend also saw UKIP’s general secretary Matthew Richardson using the ‘banter defense’ in an attempt to reign back his comment in which he suggested the party should ‘represent bigots’.

This phenomena of ‘banter’ then, like Instant Nostalgia, is unique to our present moment, it’s both of another era but also now. Despite masquerading as post-modern mockery, it simply isn’t. I’m not, as it is could be suggested by banter merchants, simply easily offended, far from it. What is being spewed out in the name of banter isn’t ironic but is vile unreasoned prejudice. For me, what the whole Page 3’s Lazarus act demonstrates is how our culture likes to deceive itself, it tells itself stories about how more accepting and liberal it’s become, how we’ve moved away from the dark days of the past. But in fact, those ghosts of the past continue to haunt and fascinate us in equal measure. We can continue in our attempt to exorcize the unsavoury elements of the past which continue to linger, such as that of the Page 3 girl, but ultimately the power of the past isn’t so easily brushed aside, particularly in our archive culture. Had Page 3 disappeared, its spirit would have most certainly survived; we would have continued telling ourselves the familiar story of increasing social progress when in fact the ghost of Page 3 would have continued to live on in the ‘banter’ of millions.