Naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence: to click or not to click?
by Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian, Tuesday 2 September 2014
A few years ago, the late American film critic Roger Ebert illustrated an article about the pornographer Hugh Hefner with a nude photograph of Playboy magazine’s June 1975 Playmate of the Month. It went online on a Sunday, but it was only the following day, a work day, that a reader asked him if he’d thought about warning unsuspecting readers that the photo made the article NSFW – Not Safe For Work. “They explained,” recalled Ebert, “that they read the column at work (“during lunch break”, of course) and were afraid a supervisor or co-worker might see a nude on their monitor. I asked one of these readers if his co-workers were adults.”
Ebert was conflicted – it offended him to preface his article with such a warning, not least because the NSFW label was, as he put it, an “unsightly typographical offence”, but mostly because it “would contradict the point I was making”, namely that he was opposed to American puritanism, preferring Europe’s supposed festive nudearama. “Having grown up in an America of repression and fanatic sin-mongering, he wrote, “I believe that Hefner’s influence was largely healthy and positive. In Europe, billboards and advertisements heedlessly show nipples. There are not ‘topless beaches’ so much as beaches everywhere where bathers remove swimsuits to get an even tan.” Not at Skegness, Mr Ebert, not at Skegness. No matter: rise up, repressed Americans, he seemed to be suggesting, you have nothing to lose but your tan lines.
But other readers contacted Ebert telling him of strict corporate rules at their workplaces. “They faced discipline or dismissal. Co-workers seeing an offensive picture on their monitor might complain of sexual harassment, and so on. But what about the context of the photo, I wondered. Context didn’t matter. A nude was a nude.”
So Ebert reduced the image to postage-stamp size, hoping that would make it SFW. But it didn’t: clicking on the resized photo, he realised, would enlarge it to fill the whole screen, making it once more NSFW unless – presumably – you work for Playboy or, you’d think, 4chan. So he disabled that command.
I thought about Ebert angrily resizing nude photos of Aziz Johari (the “playmate” he didn’t deign to name) earlier this week when the media storm broke about the publication on image-sharing websites such as 4chan of private naked photographs of about 100 celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson, Rihanna and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Suddenly we were being told to avert our gaze, not because the images involved were merely NSFW, but because they were a form of abuse.
What has happened in the four years since Ebert made his article SFW is a proliferation of warnings and cues that enjoin us not to click. And while the NSFW warning might often have served as pragmatic advice (behind which, admittedly, were ethical norms about workplace behaviour), the later injunctions not to click have a moral force that – just possibly – suggests something counterintuitive: the spread of ethical compunction across the basest, most sexually commodifying and amoral of all human inventions, the internet. Just possibly.
For instance, in a Guardian piece this week Van Badham argued that the images of stars including Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson naked were intimate photographs taken by or for their lovers which the likes of me should not see. It would be worse than NSFW to click on them: it would be immoral, a violation of those women’s right to privacy.
Quite so. Absolutely. That said, the article did raise questions for me other than those pertaining to JLaw’s violation. Important lifestyle questions. Is it just me who doesn’t have naked photos on my phone that can be stolen by hackers? Would my relationship with my wife be better if I was sending her naked pictures of myself rather than nudging her to make a move in our online Scrabble marathons? Celebrities: they’re just better than us. Face it.
But set aside my manifold inadequacies as lover and human being for a moment. Badham’s central point was that by clicking on stolen naked images of Lawrence we were invading the actor’s privacy and perpetuating her abuse, becoming – although she didn’t quite put it this way – akin to Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and Gary Glitter. “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.” Certainly, I take Van Badham’s point: ethically, if not (I suspect) legally, those who click on stolen private images depicting naked celebrities are violating Lawrence’s right to try to perform one of the most difficult balancing acts imaginable, namely to be a Hollywood star whose work involves displaying her body before photographers in poses that don’t strike only me as sexualised and playing a virtuoso archer of a role model (Katniss Everdeen in the vaguely feminist Hunger Games franchise) to young girls andretaining her right to privacy. Tough gig, Ms Lawrence.
But there are several paradoxes that the call not to click on these images raise. One: I could readily click on lots of other highly sexualised images of some of the women stars who have been thus violated, images that they, or their people, have allowed to be posted online in order to facilitate their celebrity brand. Two: that while we write objecting to the violation of Hollywood stars’ image rights and the abuse of their privacy, the internet carries on regardless making life more miserable for women and more degrading for men.
There’s something Canutish about Badham’s injunction not to click. It does little to address the herd of elephants in the room – the objectification of women’s bodies, the spread of misogyny that the internet has facilitated, the poison of online porn beyond Hugh Hefner’s wettest dreams, the real-world consequences for human relationships of the endless parade of naked bodies beyond Roger Ebert’s anti-puritanical hopes across computer screens.
No matter. The call not to click is spreading as, perhaps, we belatedly learn that the freedom to surf confers a responsibility. We saw an argument for that responsibility to be exercised recently when Isis posted a video of its murder of American journalist James Foley. Entitled “A Message to America”, the video was taken down shortly after it was posted on YouTube, but later appeared on sites such as LiveLeak and Vimeo.
Among those who urged people not to click links to the video was Kelly Foley, James’s cousin, who posted a message to Twitter that was retweeted more than 1,000 times: “Please honor James Foley and respect my family’s privacy. Don’t watch the video. Don’t share it. That’s not how life should be.” The hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout was used to urge people not to spread the images in order to deprive the jihadist group of the oxygen of publicity. “Amputate their reach. Pour water on their flame,” tweeted one supporter of the hashtag campaign. Others argued otherwise. “There are those who see the video as proof of the militants’ barbarity and of the tragedy of Foley’s death,” wrote Bill Chappell of National Public Radio in the US. “Some see the restriction of images as censorship. Others question why the killing of an innocent American should be treated differently from other cases.” The apparent execution of Steven Sotloff is likely to provoke a similar debate.
To click or not to click: the issue becomes intriguing because of the phenomenon of click-baiting, which Facebook recently defined as “when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see. Posts like these tend to get a lot of clicks, which means that these posts get shown to more people, and get shown higher up in News Feed.”
You know the kind of thing Facebook means. The headline reads: “You’ll NEVER believe which two celebrities got into a fight on the red carpet last night!!” And when you click, oh dear, what a disappointment – there’s no substance to the story but so many pop-up ads that you want to lie down and have a good cry. What happened? “You’ve been misled, you’ve been had, you’ve been took,” as Malcolm X used to say.
Facebook last month announced it was clamping down on such worthless clickbait stories and links. But how would they decide what was clickbait? If Facebook users clicked through to a link and then came quickly back to Facebook, that would suggest that they didn’t find the story valuable, as would data showing the ratio of people clicking on the content compared with people discussing and sharing it with their friends – the more comments and shares, Facebook reasoned, the less likely it was to be clickbait. “If a lot of people click on the link, but relatively few people click Like, or comment on the story when they return to Facebook, this also suggests that people didn’t click through to something that was valuable to them.”
But clickbait has come to mean more than that which skews Facebook news feeds. It has come to mean, according to news analyst Sally Kohn, who gave a TED talk on the subject, the kind of non-story or degrading nonsense that proliferates online when we abnegate our ethical codes as we turn on our computers. “We gotta stop clicking on the lowest common denominator, bottom feeding link bait,” Kohn said. (And this was before 4chan got even more grubby by urging ordinary women to post naked pictures of themselves in “solidarity” with Jennifer Lawrence.) “If you don’t like the 24/7, all-Kardashian all-the-time programming, you gotta stop clicking on the stories about Kim Kardashian’s side boob.
“Clicking on a train wreck just pours gasoline on it and makes it worse. Our whole culture gets burned. The incentive is to make more noise to be heard and that tyranny of the loud encourages the tyranny of the nasty. It does not have to be that way.” Click responsibly, Kohn concluded: “If what gets the most clicks wins, we have to start shaping the world we want with our clicks. Because clicking is a public act.”
Of course, it’s easy to get too pious about this. The bloody-minded antinomian in all of us is more likely to transgressively click in response to being enjoined not to click. When the Guardian’s George Monbiot tweeted yesterday: “Please sign a twitter pledge not to look at stolen photos of nude celebrities. Do so by using the hashtag #NoGawping”, part of me wanted to do nothing so much as gawp. Reader, I didn’t: I went and read a New Yorker profile of Professor Mary Beard’s travails with misogynistic trolls instead. That set me right.
In Truffaut’s 1968 film Baisers volés, Delphine Seyrig explains to her young lover the difference between politeness and tact. “Imagine you inadvertently enter a bathroom where a woman is standing naked under the shower,” she says. “Politeness requires that you quickly close the door and say, ‘Pardon, Madame!’, whereas tact would be to quickly close the door and say: ‘Pardon, Monsieur!’” “It is only in the second case,”explained philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently, “by pretending not to have seen enough even to make out the sex of the person under the shower, that one displays true tact.”
Our task today is not quite the same. Sure, we must learn anew to respect others’ privacy, especially the privacy of women who don’t want us to be looking at their naked bodies. But we need to learn more than tact if tact involves that Žižekian lie of pretending to have averted our eyes. We must learn, truly, not to gawp, rather than incessantly indulging the gaze. “We are the new editors. We decide what gets attention,” says Sally Kohn of what we do online. She’s right, but for too long we haven’t used those new powers responsibly, as we sit, day in day out, looking at screens, too shameless to look away.