Culture

Why Is J-Law’s Privacy Worth More Than Paris Hilton’s?

The media was outraged over nude celebrity photo leaks this week -- but a quick glance back at past violations shows more than a little hypocrisy at play.

As the dust settles on the most recent nude photo leak, one thing has become clear: the media reacted with unprecedented outrage on behalf of the victims.

The scandal involved, most notably, Hollywood’s golden girl Jennifer Lawrence. Photos of the star – and over a hundred others — were hacked via a chink in the iCloud’s armour, and quickly circulated earlier this week.

In the past, the media has been more than happy to capitalise on another nudie leak, with little-to-no regard for those who were violated. This time, however, newspapers, magazines and websites — including this one — urged readers to respect the celebrity’s right to privacy, and to not click around for the photos (with many treating the other affected celebrities merely as an after-thought). ‘If you click on Jennifer Lawrence’s naked pictures, you’re perpetuating her abuse’ wrote The Guardian; ‘This is why you shouldn’t click on the naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence’ wrote Daily Life.

Of course J-Law is worthy of our indignation, as is everyone else who was violated in the leak, and a far greater majority of people who’ve been violated by someone they know. But where was this same media call-to-arms in the wake of earlier non-consensual leaks? What about Blake Lively, or Vanessa Hudgens? Scarlett Johansson, or Paris Hilton? These women also suffered from a sexual violation, but far from being protected or defended, in many cases these women were blamed.

Back in May 2009, for instance, the Huffington Post ran an article titled ‘Vanessa Hudgens NAKED PHOTOS: New Nude Pictures Show Starlet – AGAIN’. The article included photos of Vanessa from her private device (although the most explicit were omitted). Fast-forward to this week, and the same site treated us to a barrage of outraged op-eds: ‘Jennifer Lawrence’s Leaked Nude Photos Remind Us How Crappy The Internet Can Be For Women’; ‘You Know Who’s Not To Blame For Jennifer Lawrence’s Nude Photo Leaks? Jennifer Lawrence.’.

In September 2011, NovaFM’s website featured an article describing how Scarlett Johansson’s phone got hacked, alongside the naked photos themselves. Buzzfeed also posted about these photographs, but ”alas, at her lawyer’s request, we had to take [the photos] down.”. Yet this week, Buzzfeed’s outrage was directed on behalf of J-Law: ‘Those Jennifer Lawrence Pictures Aren’t Scandalous’, they declared, before offering ’21 Photos Of Jennifer Lawrence You Should Look At Instead’

Or consider the case of Jessica Alba. In 2010, TheVine posted an article containing leaked nude photos which had been taken by her partner Cash Warren, before being hacked from a private device. After embedding the images in a gallery, TheVine offered some wisdom: “Here’s a hot tip. If you’re a celebrity, AVOID TAKING NUDE PICS OF YOURSELF IF YOU DON’T WANT THEM LEAKED” — shifting the blame from the perpetrator onto the victim herself. This week from TheVine? ‘Dear 4chan And Reddit, Sharing Leaked Celebrity Photos Is Sexual Abuse’.

So What’s Changed Between Then And Now?

Although the way they were hacked differed from the current ‘scandal’ – in most cases in the past, the photos were found from ‘secure’ email addresses and mobile phones – the fact remains that readers did not have permission to view them, and media outlets did not have permission to share them. Like this week, they were leaked without the victim’s consent — yet there was almost no media backlash back then. No one remonstrated readers for searching for the photos; no one questioned the breach of their privacy; and no one called it what it was: sexual assault.

Worse still, in some cases the media actively blamed the victim. In 2003, for instance, news outlets from The Guardian to Cracked.com questioned the authenticity of Paris Hilton’s leaked sex tape by citing its proximity to the debut of The Simple Life, as though that proved it was all part of a publicity plan – this despite the fact Hilton continued to deny it, and was awarded $400,000 in a legal case against the man who distributed the footage. In fact, it’s very difficult to tell what’s a genuine leak and what’s a publicity stunt — but if a person claims the leak was out of their control, we should assume we don’t have permission to look at it. Is the media only now beginning to understand that? What’s the difference now?

Perhaps the changed response reflects the evolving tone of the internet, the shift from snark to moralising outrage in the race for Upworthy-levels of clicks. In his Gawker essay ‘On Smarm’, Tom Scocca defined this tone by its major themes: “the scolding, the gestures at inclusiveness, the appeal to virtue and maturity” — themes which were poured all over the internet in the wake of this week’s leaks.

Or perhaps it comes down to the face of the scandal: J-Law is the internet’s golden girl, well-loved for her endearingly clumsiness, her candid and quirky interviews, her stance against Hollywood’s unrealistic body expectations, her down-to-earth persona. With Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera, the crime was played down because of how she dresses, or how she’d been photographed before (which, let’s remember, is akin to telling a rape victim she was asking for it in that skirt.) When nude photos of Miranda Kerr leaked in 2012, Huffington Post linked directly to them with a shrug that seemed to say, ‘We’ve seen her pretty much naked anyway’. The same can’t be said of J-Law — and she’s certainly no Paris Hilton — but surely her privacy is not worth more as a result? If the woman didn’t consent, she didn’t consent. It’s simple.

Hopefully, this week’s media reaction comes not from J-Law favouritism or from a battle for viewcounts: hopefully, it reflects real change in how we understand privacy and sexual abuse in the digital age. In the mainstream, leaks of private photographs seem to be no longer perceived as a scandal to profit from, but as a crime. One can only hope the media shows similar respect to future victims as it has to Jennifer Lawrence.

Dzenana Vucic is a Melbourne based writer who has been published in Lip Magazine and Dialect

Feature image by Mike Marsland, for Getty.