Tech + Health

09.02.14

Jennifer Lawrence Shouldn’t Laugh Off Her Nude Photo Hack

The public might expect Jennifer Lawrence to be her usual charming, funny self in the wake of a nude photo scandal. Here’s why she doesn’t have to.

Jennifer Lawrence has long been praised for her authenticity in a Hollywood elite full of all-too-carefully curated personalities.

At the time of Lawrence’s 2013 Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook, Ann Friedman of New York Magazine called her “self-effacing and funny,” praising her for joking about “how many shots she’s had” and “about sucking in her stomach on the red carpet.” Vulture, too, noticed her “effortless, self-deprecating charm.” And, after a string of increasingly endearing interviews on Oscar night, Lawrence handily seized the title of America’s Sweetheart and ran with it. This year, she topped both Forbes’ list of most powerful actresses and FHM’s list of the sexiest women in the world.

But Lawrence isn’t joking around anymore, nor should she be. On Sunday, an unidentified 4Chan user leaked a set of what he or she purports to be nude photographs of several female celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Ariana Grande, Victoria Justice, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Some of the stars, like Justice, are asserting that the photos of them are fake but others, like Lawrence and Winstead, appear to be deeply troubled by the leak in a way that would suggest their authenticity. Winstead took to Twitter to express her disappointment and her feelings of violation. And a representative for Jennifer Lawrence dubbed the leak “a flagrant violation of privacy,” promising that the authorities “will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos of Jennifer Lawrence.”

In the aftermath of this theft and the subsequent online leak, Jennifer Lawrence is receiving conflicting messages on social media about how she should respond to the widespread distribution of the photos. Predictably, several people are blaming the leak on Lawrence herself for taking the photos in the first place—instead of blaming the hacker who stole the photos and the 4Chan user who leaked them to the world.

Blaming the female victim of a sex crime instead of the perpetrator is unfortunately par for the course and nude photo thefts are no exception. Three years ago, when hackers stole Scarlett Johansson’s nude photos off her phone, many commentators and entertainment bloggers told her that it was her own fault for taking them in the first place. This time around, too, Perez Hilton predictably treated the photos of Lawrence as if they were now public property by posting them on his popular celebrity gossip blog instead of condemning the crime. Hilton later apologized and took the photos down.

While Lawrence’s critics eagerly participate in this victim-blaming, some of her supporters are suggesting that she lighten up and “own it” instead:

Lawrence’s reputation for humor and candor does her no favors with these fans, who read her devil-may-care attitude as a sign that she should be able to shrug off a harrowing invasion of her privacy the same way she shrugged off her fall at the 2013 Oscar ceremony. But these ostensibly supportive comments are, in fact, nearly as insidious as the idea that Lawrence herself is responsible for the leak. These fans expect her to be able to act cute and coy even as millions of prying eyes scrutinize her body on computer screens around the world. In the public eye, it seems like Lawrence is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t: She shouldn’t have taken the photos in the first place but, now that they’re out there, she should simply laugh it off with her characteristic charm.

We should be able to recognize that Lawrence’s stone-faced response to the theft of her nude photos is not a break in character for the refreshingly down-to-earth star; rather, Lawrence is responding to the crime in exactly the same way that any girl next door would: she is upset and she wants justice. Telling Lawrence that she should “own it” in the aftermath of this crime further perpetuates the dangerous idea that the only way for a woman to survive an invasion of privacy is to double down on the sexist voyeurism that led to these leaks in the first place. They want Lawrence to suck it up and smile for the camera, however retroactively. But a life-altering invasion of personal privacy is nothing like a trip on the steps at the Dolby Theatre. And Lawrence shouldn’t be expected to take this in stride.

While fans might think they are being supportive by telling Lawrence to “own it,” they are, in fact, sending the harmful message that women should never fight against the understanding that their bodies are public property. It is worth noting that, according to the 4Chan user who released the photos, Lawrence’s nudes were “being privately traded” for the digital currency Bitcoin in the days before the leak. If we ask Lawrence to laugh this incident off simply because she “looks good” in the photographs, we are asking her to passively accept a world in which women’s private images are treated like public commodities rather than personal property.

By taking a firm stand against the leak instead, Lawrence is sending a powerful message that challenges the status quo. Whether you are FHM’s “sexiest woman in the world” or you are a woman whose beauty would never be recognized by the Hollywood establishment, you have the right to be upset about a sex crime and to prosecute the parties responsible for it. As Clementine Ford writes for Daily Life, the idea the Jennifer Lawrence should remain calm about the leak because she is sexually attractive “comes from the same school which instructs women to either ignore or welcome sexual harassment when it’s seemingly ‘positive’ in its sentiments.” And indeed, telling Lawrence to “own it” because she looks “so bomb” is not a far cry from a man telling a woman on the street that street harassment is a “compliment.” Both of these kinds of comments reinforce the cultural expectation we place on women to graciously accept positive attention, no matter the cost to our wellbeing.

In the case of Hollywood actresses, too, this expectation takes on an even more pernicious dimension. Because women like Lawrence work in the spotlight, the public often finds it difficult to differentiate between their public and private lives. After so many female celebrities have had their photos stolen and leaked—from Miley Cyrus to Rihanna to Blake Lively—we have come to believe that public figures should expect their privacy to be violated. But as Scarlett Johansson told CNN after nude photos of her were posted online: “Just because you’re an actor or make films or whatever doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to your own personal privacy. If that is sieged in some way, it feels unjust. It feels wrong.” The fact that Johansson has gone on to appear nude in the film Under the Skin does not contradict this stance in the slightest: In her professional life, Johansson can carefully consider the contexts in which she would like to appear nude; in her private life, she still owns her personal photographs.

Actors should be able to make deliberate choices about how much of their bodies are available for public viewing, and women like Johansson and Lawrence have had that choice taken away from them by a public that thinks they have the right to see all of their bodies at all times. In a telling display of cruelty, Twitter users have been publicly harassing Mary Elizabeth Winstead for daring to believe that her chosen profession has nothing to do with her right to privacy.

Actresses like Johansson, Lawrence, and Winstead have just as much of a right to their privacy as women who work in less visible positions. A cellphone camera is not a 35mm film camera. We shouldn’t feel entitled to conflate the two.

We shouldn’t expect Jennifer Lawrence to wink her way through the aftermath of this crime. Just because she’s America’s Sweetheart doesn’t mean she can’t seek justice as well. If anything, Lawrence’s hardline stance on this photo theft should be just as endearing as the fact that she ate a Philly cheesesteak instead of a salad on Oscar night. In both cases, Lawrence is reacting authentically in the face of a public that expects actresses to be superhuman.

So no, Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t need to “own it.” She already owns her photographs. And that gives her every right to prosecute whoever stole them.