Cultural Leakage; Or Why I Can’t Hack This Social Paradigm

At this point it’s probably redundant to mention that Jennifer Lawrence and a number of other celebrity women have had numerous private photographs distributed on the internet without their knowledge or consent. Originally circulating on 4chan, the images have since made their way to sites like Reddit and Imgur and finally to vulture gossip sites like TMZ, Perez Hilton and The Superficial, who have blatantly shared the images knowing full well that the actresses in question did not consent to their publication. Of course, as in previous cases, these sites remove the images (though often not links to existing copies on other sites) as soon as the lawyers get involved, protesting that they didn’t know they were published without consent, that they didn’t know it was x or y actress, but they do so with several thousand extra clicks and all of the attendant revenue.

It’s very easy to see this purely in the terms the gossip industry prefers. The way they portray it, they function to provide public access to celebrity “news” and these pictures constitute fair game under the existing legal and social structures, until they are reconstituted as otherwise. Under their terms of reference, there is explicit public entitlement to these photographs which hover murkily on the fringes of the public domain. They sell the idea that not only the existence of the images, but the actual content of them, is news, thereby legitimising their decision to publish, as well as the audience’s act of viewing. Under their mentality, you are not invading the privacy of a celebrity, or a person, but engaging with a news item.

This is a fiction; they know it’s a fiction even as they sell it, and a large portion of the audience knows it’s a fiction, but it is one that is used to deescalate the action, to excuse and justify it. In reality it is essentially the zenith of capitalist, patriarchal entitlement. The society that we occupy is hinged upon the notion that financial accessibility is the larger part of propriety. In this instance, clicking a link is your payment as you access a page filled with advertising and providing traffic which will facilitate the sale of that advertising space in the future. Regardless of whether you are affected by that advertising (and if advertising has no effect, an awful lot of people have been wasting an awful lot of money for an awful long time, and somehow haven’t noticed), you are still participating in a financial transaction, which conditions your access to this material; material being packaged overtly as “news”. We are entitled to this “news” product because we have the capacity to access it, to engage in the transaction which purchases it. We are encouraged to ignore the idea that the provider, Perez Hilton or The Superficial, is selling the product disingenuously. In many respects we are literally trained by our social structures to accept this version; capitalism never, ever wants you to question the product, or consider your entitlement to it.

Of course, what we are talking about is not simply a “news” item or a commodity. In very real terms we are talking about private images illegally accessed and distributed, images of real and factual human beings with all the intendant rights of personhood. Imagining that these sites have some entitlement to distribute these images (and that you have a right to see them) is essentially the belief that the right to profit outweighs the right of human beings to control/regulate their own bodies and images. Using those sites to view those images is, without doubt, participation in an agenda, an ideology, which configures real people as less than the vested financial interests of businesses. Even if you are “just curious”. Curiosity is fine; but in this instance indulging that curiosity is violating someone else’s personal sovereignty. Just because it has been made easy doesn’t make it okay. I can understand the impulse, the desire. I have wanted to see some, or probably many, of these women naked, but with their consent, their active participation. What I don’t want, however, is to violate their personal space, to invade their privacy, to participate in what is at best flagrant voyeurism and at worst sexual humiliation. Without consent, or knowledge, viewing these images is participation in the abuse of these women. Feeling your curiosity (or lust) outweighs another’s right to self-determination is a definitive example of capitalist and patriarchal entitlement, as well as a method of social control, where it is used to indicate and leverage positions of hierarchical control.

These commercial, capitalist and patriarchal systems stratify the world. Jennifer Lawrence becomes fair game because she is explicitly engendered as not being like us. She doesn’t inhabit the same paradigms. She has, according to the logic of commodification, traded her personal sovereignty wholesale for financial success and celebrity status. As such, “the public” as lead by various gossip sites with financial motives, are entitled to scrutinise and invade her life. She is no longer entitled to anything like privacy. Her entire existence is part of the commodity, not just what she willingly provides in her acting career or the adjacent press circuses. As such, the invasion is marginalised, minimized. It is rendered as a minor theft, rather than a gross violation. Theft is obviously a crime in the capitalist ideology, but it is actually relatively minor and often engenders little more than monetary reimbursement in most cases.

Here is the reality. This is not theft – this is violation. Jennifer Lawrence is as entitled to the control of her own bodily sovereignty as you are. Under the structures of capitalism and patriarchy, of course, you are actually entitled to very little personal control. Women, particularly, are denied personal autonomy. Whether that is the literal denial of freedom, or the restriction of reproductive rights, or the lack of economic parity with male peers, women are codified as of less value and less importance than male figures. The whole of society, however, suffers from commodification. In very real economic terms, our governments have been complicit in transforming large swathes of the population into educated but cheap labour for international companies. In Ireland, for instance, we have JobBridge, in Britain there is the Mandatory Work Activity Scheme, while similar schemes exist in many European and Western countries. These schemes seek to mobilise an educated workforce while providing as little reimbursement to workers as possible, exploiting labour and individuals for gain of businesses; they operate to instil a modern fallacy that we must now work in order to earn the right to a “fair” wage. I would explicitly argue that it is the same capitalist ideology that commodifies Jennifer Lawrence’s body and legitimises its dissemination and consumption against her will and without her consent, as seeks to shatter the labour/pay relationship for the current generation of wages. It is the ideology of the patriarchy which demands we accept this, that there is, in fact, no issue at all, which insists that Lawrence has no more right to control her body than we have to order ours. Note; it is a common misconception that patriarchy is “oppression by men” when in fact it means “rule by the fathers”. In the modern day, it is not limited to masculine figures as much as previous eras, but is concerned with the domination of the many by the dictates of a few (still largely male) authoritative elders. Under their rule, we are all entitled to be exploited by the existing power structures, each according to the stratum they have socketed us into, for as little return as can be managed.

Of course, there is another element to the release of these images which is purely and totally unique to the treatment of women. There is an obvious sexual element which I have only sort of touched on, and it is one that is not exclusive to the treatment of high-profile figures like Lawrence. In very real terms, this kind of exposure is almost always directed at women. There are rare exceptions, such as Collin Farrell’s sex-tape, but even then, the language surrounding the cultural discussion is utterly different. In his case the same aspect of victim-blaming is absent, and he is allowed, and even encouraged, to feel proud of it. On the other hand, Lawrence and the other victims have been publicly shamed and blamed. Misogynist language abounds. All the familiar, old reliables have manifested; comments suggesting these women are sluts for taking these private pictures in the first place, saying that their promiscuity or attention-seeking behaviour legitimised the release. Others have suggested that if they didn’t want these images to get out, they should never have, in the privacy of their own space and relationships, taken the photographs. This is essentially the digital-equivalent of suggesting “she was asking for it”, and no more legitimate than any other form of victim-blaming. Lawrence has now become a high-profile figure for something that happens to women around the world frequently. She is no different from any other woman who has had a phone or mail account hacked, who has had a partner or friend distribute images online. This is nothing short of an example of mass-scale revenge pornography, disgruntled keyboard warriors visiting retribution on their fantasy figures for some perceived failure of imagined expectations.

Neither Lawrence nor any victim of this kind of attack, celebrity or otherwise, are “silly girls”, they are not “sluts”, they are victims of the entrenched entitlement of misogynists and a patriarchal ideology that codifies women as controllable, distributable sexual objects. You can own as many copies of The Hunger Games film as you like, you’ll never own Jennifer Lawrence, or even her image. You can choose to click on links to those images, or other variations on them, but there should be no question that your participation legitimises the violation and sexual exploitation of those specific people and women in general.