Mary Elizabeth Winstead was one of about one hundred celebrities whose private, nude photos were stolen and posted online this weekend, and she went on Twitter to call out anyone who might look at them.
To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves.
— Mary E. Winstead (@M_E_Winstead) August 31, 2014
The response was as predictable as it was disappointing: “We do.” “yes i do feel great :D” “tweet them bitch”.
Some users sent more supportive tweets, but the abusive messages are representative of the mentality that leads to the theft and consumption of private photos of the bodies of famous women. The entitlement is just an outgrowth of how we typically consume celebrities. As in many things, Clickhole, The Onion’s parody viral site, said it best: “Other Than Knowing Every Possible Detail About Their Personal Lives, We Need To Respect Celebrities’ Privacy.” From that story:
“When it comes to celebrities’ personal lives, let’s draw the line at stealing private images of their nude bodies, since that’s the precise point at which our incessant invasion of every aspect of their existence transforms from innocent fun into something disgusting.”
The victims themselves consider this photo theft to have crossed an especially disgusting line; it’s far more serious than a gossip magazine speculating on whether or not two actors are breaking up. But celebrities have long spoken out about harassment and invasion of privacy at the hands of paparazzi, only to be mocked for their complaints. This hacking is so vile, and yet there is still a vocal contingent of people who believe that, now that the photos are out there, there’s no harm in clicking. We’re used to seeing celebrities whenever and however we want to, and we don’t really want to hear it when they demand we respect their boundaries. The gist of it is: well, you wanted to be famous. This is what being famous entails. Because entertainers have chosen to work in a business where their work is exposed to a large audience, the argument goes, they don’t get to choose where the exposure stops.
A Toronto Sun item by Liz Braun from 2012 summed up a popular take: “Celebs whine over being famous.” The story mocked a quote from actress Evangeline Lilly, who said that fame once made her “cry myself to sleep wishing I was ugly because of the way men leered at and disrespected me.” “Oh, don’t worry, dear,” Braun wrote. “Just wait 40 years.” To Kim Kardashian’s complaint that being gawked at makes her feel “like a zoo animal,” Braun wrote, “That this might be the logical outcome of inviting people over to watch your marriage/bikini wax/colonoscopy seems not to have been considered.” And yet this throwaway line at the lowest-hanging fruit — we are talking about a woman who became famous from her sex tape — undermines the contract by which the Kardashians and other stars operate with the public: sure, they broadcast almost everything they do, but they do it within the controlled environment of a carefully produced reality television show. It’s not personal; it’s PR.
In a recent USA Today piece about celebrities pushing back against paparazzi, Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association, took a similar line to Braun. “[Celebrities] want their cake and eat it, too. They want free publicity, and they want to be left alone when they’re out in public,” he said. Most comments on both pieces used the same arguments, amplified with abusive and gendered slurs, calling stars “talentless” and “whiny sluts.”
As in the case of street harassment of civilians, celebrity victims of this kind of ridicule are deemed by others to be seeking out and secretly enjoying the attention that famous people actually hate. It mirrors the harassment and violence sex workers experience; abuse apologists claim that harm is an inevitable occupational hazard.
This is true even when celebrities are trying to protect their children from attention and duress. Last year, Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry testified before the California State Assembly to try and protect their children from encountering “25 grown men” trying to take their photos at preschool. The motion picture and the celebrity journalism industries tried to fight even this modest measure that now criminalizes taking the photos of children in California without permission.
And then there’s the case of Dave Chappelle, who found fame to be so suffocating and overwhelming, he went completely off the grid at the height of his success. An Ebony story described the mostly-white audience at a 2013 Chappelle comedy show demanding that Chappelle perform characters from his long-gone TV show: “people yelled that they’d payed him. They felt paying for a show meant they could verbally harass him, direct him in any tone of voice, as though they’d bought him.”
A ticket to a comedy show doesn’t entitle an audience member to “verbally harass” an entertainer, any more than an internet connection entitles someone to stolen photos of Jennifer Lawrence.