Privacy is a privilege. It is rarely enjoyed by women or transgender men and women, queer people or people of color. When you are an Other, you are always in danger of having your body or some other intimate part of yourself exposed in one way or another. A stranger reaches out and touches a pregnant woman’s belly. A man walking down the street offers an opinion on a woman’s appearance or implores her to smile. A group of teenagers driving by as a person of color walks on a sidewalk shout racial slurs, interrupting their quiet.
For most people, privacy is little more than an illusion, one we create so we can feel less vulnerable as we move through the world, so we can believe some parts of ourselves are sacred and free from uninvited scrutiny. The further away you are from living as a white, heterosexual, middle-class man, the less privacy you enjoy – the more likely your illusions of privacy will be shattered when you least expect it.
For celebrities, privacy is utterly nonexistent. You are asked intrusive questions about your personal life. You can be photographed at any moment. Your family is investigated, photographed or harassed daily – parents, children, sometimes even siblings also losing any semblance of privacy simply because you share the same blood or name. Celebrity is, in some ways, an infection that is only marginally beneficial.
We’re not going to cry for celebrities, of course, not really. When you choose that life, you must sacrifice certain dignities for the privilege of fame, of fortune. For the most part, these intrusions or privacy are all in good fun, fodder for gossip magazines and websites – because ... celebrities, they’re just like us! They go to the grocery store! They drink coffee! They wear sweatpants! Celebrities are just like us until they aren’t, until such intrusion involves the celebrity woman’s body, in intimate poses, splayed across the internet for delectation and debauchery and debate.
On Sunday, a user on 4chan made good on a promise made several days ago and leaked nude and otherwise revealing photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Lea Michele, Kate Upton, Kirsten Dunst, Hope Solo and other famous young women. This leak is likely only the beginning. Because there will always be another leak, because there is an insatiable curiosity when it comes to the nude celebrity woman’s body. She puts herself in the public eye and, in turn, we are entitled to see as much of her as we so desire, or so I am sure the justification goes.
It goes without saying that there aren’t many nude photos of men being released. Men are largely free to bare their bodies as they choose without repercussion, unless, as is the case of Dave Franco with Allison Brie and Justin Verlander with Upton, the man happens to be in a picture with a young woman, collateral damage.
It’s not clear what the people who leak these photos hope to achieve beyond financial gain and a moment of notoriety. I suppose such impoverished currency is enough. The why of these questions is hardly relevant. These hackers are not revealing anything the general public does not already know. BREAKING: beneath their clothes, celebrities are naked.
What these people are doing is reminding women that, no matter who they are, they are still women. They are forever vulnerable.
The racy images of these nubile bodies are the biggest story on the internet, and every site that refuses to reprint the images has already left itself absolved while leaving a prurient trail of breadcrumbs. The permanency of such violation is a bitter thing. These leaked images are instantly widely available and they always will be. The images will be downloaded and viewed and shared. These women’s lives and their private choices will be dissected. They are women, so they must be judged.
Revealing nonconsensual nudes of the famous female body is not new. In 1983, Vanessa L Williams was the first black woman crowned as Miss America. She had little time to enjoy her achievement, however, because Penthouse published naked pictures of her, and she was forced to relinquish the crown. Williams has gone on to a successful career in film and television, but her biography will always have this footnote. She will always be reminded of the time someone decided to put her in her place because she had the audacity, as a woman, to rise too far.
Nor is this exploitative exposure of women’s naked bodies an issue that only famous women must deal with. Celebrities are just like us after all. This practice is so pervasive that it even has its own name – revenge porn, nude photos and explicit videos unleashed on the internet, most often by disgruntled ex-lovers. There are websites and online forums dedicated to this pernicious genre. Lives have been, if not ruined, irreparably harmed, because we are a culture that thrives on the hatred of women, of anyone who is Other in some way, of anyone who dares to threaten the status quo.
The Great Celebrity Naked Photo Leak of 2014 – or perhaps we should call it The Great Celebrity Naked Photo Leak of August 2014, given that this happens so often that there won’t be only one this year – is meant to remind women of their place. Don’t get too high and mighty, ladies. Don’t step out of line. Don’t do anything to upset or disappoint men who feel entitled to your time, bodies, affection or attention. Your bared body can always be used as a weapon against you. You bared body can always be used to shame and humiliate you. Your bared body is at once desired and loathed.
This is what we must remember. Women cannot be sexual in certain ways without consequence. Women cannot pose nude or provocatively, whether for a lover or themselves, without consequence. We are never allowed to forget how the rules are different girls. I suppose we should be grateful for this latest reminder.
This article was written by Roxane Gay, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 30th September 2014 15.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010