Roland Barthes claims that the photograph repeats what can never be repeated existentially. It is the “That-has-been” or the Intractable. The moment, the person, the thing, which has been captured can no longer be again -- and yet it will always be. Understanding the relationship between a photograph and its subject requires nuance, the image is after all of the subject, but is not the subject itself. Misconceptions organized around this contradictory status have flared up in the recent scandal involving images of nude celebrities that have been leaked to the internet.
Yet before another piece about this photo leak can begin, it must be said that there was absolutely no adequate media response about this breach of privacy for these celebrities. More importantly perhaps, was that some of the women whose photos were made public -- namely the black celebrities, were hardly mentioned at all. Women’s bodies are never granted protection in this society. However countless more abuses are visited upon the bodies of women of color. This is because black women’s bodies have always been seen as the common property of America. This is why Jill Scott, a black vocalist whose images were also leaked along with those of Jennifer Lawrence etc, was left out of the initial outrage.
Then there is the prevalent “fake bodies” thread that declared some of the pictures were false images of a celebrity’s face pasted onto another person’s nude form. What was actually happening was the misidentification of other women, but were images of real bodies just the same. There is a gross insult of being labeled as “fake” when images of these real people have been intentionally misattributed. Why are some bodies more valuable than others? What is their worth? What does it mean that some of the celebrity women in question denounce these “fake” bodies as beneath the standards of their own crafted perfection?
Sure this is the mainstream media we’re talking about here, of course their line will be flawed, except all that was offered in the feminist media was an obscene amount of moralism, and equally shallow analysis. What these sorts of arguments lack is a nuanced understanding of the photographed image, a discussion around consent, and enthusiastic body positivity.
The images in question are of nude bodies, but they are not nude bodies themselves. And what does it even mean to say they are images of nude bodies? The moment an image is captured, it ceases to be the thing that was captured- it is only a referent, a version of the past. What can be tricky is that the photographed image is still an object, it is a tangible thing, it has, as Catherine Zuromskis puts it, a concrete materiality. So it lives on in its own historical moment, even when that moment has long passed. These images, some taken by the women themselves, others by their partners, others still not of the women in question, but a confused array of other bodies captured in similar ways. These are snapshots of intimacy, yet they are not intimacy. To confuse the two conflates the real experience with the pantomime of its activity.
When Playboy comes out and says, “Jennifer Lawrence Is Not a Thing To Be Passed Around,” you know something is amiss. In its attempt to offer refreshing commentary, Playboy only reveals the logic that has made it a megolith of misogyny: a woman and an object are indistinguishable. True to their sexist form, Playboy misses what is actually taking place. It is an image of Jennifer Lawrence that is passed around at a party, not her person. Yet to Playboy, a body and an image of a body are the same thing.
Understanding that there is a difference between a photographed image of a body, and a body is essential in cases such as these. Commentators were quick to shame those who would look upon these images, and equated leaking the images as a sort of sexual assault, or even rape. Let us state without apology that a misappropriated image, presented to the public outside of the realm of ethics, or legal parameters, for either private or public consumption, is not rape. It is a violation, but one utterly distinct from physical sexual assault. The violence we saw in Steubenville, Houston, and in Vancouver, cases where women were brutally raped by multiple men, were distinct and separate phenomena than a case where privacy -- not a human -- has been violated.
To further confuse the issue, commentators have raised the question of consent. It is as if one may consent to the sexual consumption of an image in the way one consents to sex itself.
While it is certainly true that before pilfering the images in question, those who stole the photographs might have asked permission to use them, which is the standard ethical practice when one aims to profit through the use and dissemination of another person’s image. But consent to produce an image should not be confused as consent to consume an image. It is of course impossible for the subject of an image to consent to how that image is consumed.
Our world runs off of the consumption of images. Through entertainment and advertising to security cameras that protect private property to the surveillance that props up the State. It is rare enough that anyone is asked for permission to take an image and none of us are given a choice on how those images are deployed or consumed.
Conflation over consent has lead to absurd recriminations that merely looking at these photos is the same as committing a sexual violation. There are those cultural commentators that alleged that the leak, as well as anyone who looked at the images were complicit in sexual assault. The Guardian published one such piece by Australian novelist and playwright, Van Badham. In her piece subtly titled, If you click on Jennifer Lawrence's naked pictures, you're perpetuating her abuse, she writes: “It’s an act of sexual violation, and it deserves the same social and legal punishment as meted out to stalkers and other sexual predators.”
Really, Van Badham? In what world do you live where sexual predators actually receive any sort of punishment? The kind of punishment you seem to have in mind has no humanity to it. If anything collective community responses by those affected are the only solutions -- real restorative justice, I don’t think that’s what you have in mind when you call for punishment.
Then there is Badham’s obsession with privacy: “The need for privacy is not only a sacred place to work out who we are, what we do or how we think; it’s a psychological refuge from overwhelming public dissection necessary for anyone’s mental health, famous or not.” We should not be championing privacy, rather we should be demanding a more open and accepting culture. We should not feel like our only place to seek refuge is inside our own sacred individual space, but rather we should fight for all spaces to be safe and supportive. The mystification of the body only serves to perpetuate body negativity, exclusivity and the need to expose some bodies. The truth is we are all naked under our clothes, and that is okay. The more red-tape is thrown around issues like these, the more tantalizing they become.
Rape Culture certainly explains why the actual bodies of women are violently passed around, abused, and without recourse for the abused. Sexism explains why women’s bodies are extra commodified, and seen as objects to be plastered all over the internet, sides of buildings, and on bedroom walls. Sexism and Rape Culture must both be dismantled. A new and better world full of respect, equality, and solidarity is what we need. We will not achieve this by further body shaming, mystifying, and ultra-moralism. We win these things by identifying real threats, and developing community based solutions to rid ourselves of them.
Jennifer Lawrence, as well as these other celebrities had snapshots hacked from their iCloud accounts and spread around the internet. This act is not defensible. It was prefaced on sexist cultural norms that demand the offering of women’s bodies up for consumption. In this case, sexist culture trumped Jennifer Lawrence, Jill Scott and their associates’ right to privately express their sexuality through the captured image. What did not happen was rape. An image cannot be raped, it can be consumed. In this case, the manner of consumption was both unethical and reflected the prevailing sexist current already too obvious in celebrity culture. Underlying sexism has equated Jennifer Lawrence to her image, in so doing it has deliberately conflated the object and the subject in order to sell both. We as artists, as art consumers, as feminists and social radicals need to be able to distinguish between the subject and the object and construct our criticism accordingly.