To hear the media—well,Vox.com anyway—talk about it, the naked celebrity photo-hacking scandal is about the fact that “women in pop culture are under attack.” It’s about the degradation inherent in “involuntary porn.” It’s about “more than a nude photo” and reflects “the way society treats women in the public eye.” It’s about “women being shamed, objectified, and treated like property.”
That all may well have been the intention of the hacker or hackers who posted pics of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and others to 4chan.org and have threatened to release dozens, if not hundreds, more photos of mostly (though not exclusively) female celebrities. Yet the fact of the matter is that none of the women involved will see their careers affected negatively by any of this. That isn’t to minimize the legal issues of invasion of privacy, the psychic pain of exposure, the loathsome misogyny of the hackers and their comrades on 4chan and Reddit, or the frankly rotten security offered by Apple’s cloud service.
But it’s worth noting that, over the past few decades, American attitudes toward sex and nudity have changed dramatically—and for the better. No longer are women in or out of the public eye yoked to the sort of universal virgin-whore complex that long dominated the imaginations of Hollywood producers, literary novelists, and pop-music songwriters. According to the old dispensation, women could either be saintly and chaste or slutty and sexy. There wasn’t a lot of gray area in between the two extremes and even the hint of “art photos” surfacing from your early, struggling years was enough to sink a career or launch a lawsuit or three.
But that was then. Gone for good are the days when Miss America could be dethroned for old nude shots coming to light, as happened to Vanessa Williams in 1984 (Williams is now even listed as a winner at the pageant’s official site). The sort of early ’80s sex tape scandal that helped stop the career of sportscaster and B-movie queen Jayne Kennedy would barely raise an eyebrow in today’s post-Pam Anderson, Tonya Harding, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian world. Jumping Jeebus, even an unforgiving moral crusader such as radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger was able to easily ride out a nude-pic scandal back in the late 20th century.
By the time the usually funny Seth McFarlane finished his interminable, tedious “We Saw Your Boobs” number at the 2013 Oscars, it was clear that the joke was on him, not the women he tried to slut-shame in his stupid song. The pre-pubescent, pathetic impulse to think that seeing someone naked gave you some sort of power over her was revealed as just that: pre-pubescent and pathetic.
What changed? The sexual revolution helped usher in gender equality not simply in the bedroom but in the workplace and everywhere else too. Ultimately it put men on notice that they too had to perform if they really wanted to attract and keep the attention of women. The real change from 40 years ago in Hollywood isn’t in women’s bodies as much as in men’s. The flabby, muscle-free torsos of actors such as Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford, who in their heydays looked something like human veal, have been replaced by hairless hardbodies whose abs betray appearance anxiety once only confined to the fairer sex.
Clothing has become ever more revealing too, so that it’s almost impossible not to figure out what celebrities look like naked, whether you want to or not. And the proliferation of fake Photoshop porn is never more than a click or three away. Even as celebrities and their handlers try harder and harder to keep the press at bay and to control their public images, it’s easier and easier for us mere mortals to spy on them or make our fantasy visions of them on a desktop.
If there’s one person mostly responsible for demystifying the celebrity nude—and especially for smashing the virgin-whore complex to smithereens—it’s Madonna. After a decade of pushing the limits of good taste and network decency rules without ever fully abandoning them, she sprinted far ahead of her audience. Released in 1992, her Sex book featured The Material Girl hitchhiking naked on busy streets and cavorting on swing sets and in bondage gear with the likes of Vanilla Ice, Naomi Campbell, and gay porn star Joey Stefano. The prose was heavy on lines such as “my pussy has nine lives” and “When they say, ‘Are you hungry? Let’s go get some spaghetti,’ [in Italian], it sounds like they are coming on to you.” The writing may not have been erotic exactly, but it was completely unapologetic and even more in your face than the various pudenda scattered throughout Sex. The book got awful reviews even as it topped The New York Times bestseller list. It may have hurt her music career for a few years—Madonna later said the book’s release led to critics ignoring her Erotica LP—but it also obliterated the idea that a celebrity (especially a female one) ever need worry about being seen naked. Madonna—who in 1985 saw old nudes of her get published in both Playboy and Penthouse—owned her body fully, and in doing so allowed the rest of us to move on from childish obsessions.
Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Victoria Justice (who says the leaked pics of her are fake anyway), and all the others have every right to be pissed and to hope that the authorities track down the hackers behind the posting of private images.
But one thing they don’t have to worry about is that those same images will in any way, shape, or form compromise their careers or relationship with their audience. We’re way past that in the 21st century, and that’s no small victory for all of us, especially in a post-privacy age.