Imagine that it’s a Friday night. You know what that means: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” Nestle Drumsticks and some Ibuprofen. A little medical marijuana for your, uh, restless foot syndrome. Maybe some friends.
As you burrow into the you-sized depression in the couch, get comfortable and start the movie, the front door opens. A man dressed in all black walks in, takes out a big drawstring bag and starts putting your stuff in it — the television, the Xbox and, God help you, all of the drumsticks. Then he walks out the door, shuts it behind him and leaves.
That was a fairly straightforward robbery.
Now imagine that on the Friday night in question, your apartment is actually your phone’s hard drive, the man dressed in black is a computer code and the stolen belongings are a few photos. Also, put yourself in my ex-girlfriend’s shoes (we just wanted different things), and imagine that you’re Jennifer Lawrence. What seemed so simple and unambiguous a few moments ago has now become an infinitely more difficult social and cultural issue.
Story after story has surfaced over the past few months about material stolen from the phones and computers of celebrities and public figures and uploaded onto the Internet. Each week invites a new victim, a new set of nude photos and a fresh statement of denial from a publicist or exhortation of committed legal retribution from an attorney.
What I’m noticing about these “scandals” — and what makes them so potent a commentary about the current state of American culture — is the way we’re dealing with them.
The immediate reaction to the theft and publicization of a string of private and intensely personal celebrity property, for example, has tended to look a lot like indifference and even jubilation: not only at the prospect of viewing the photos (this made evident by the online movement fashioning itself appallingly and a little bit hilariously as “the fappening”) but as a result of an unbecoming dimension of schadenfreude. There is a very clear public sentiment that the celebrities either had it coming to them or that their exorbitant wealth and fame disqualify them from genuine sympathy.
And I don’t think this attitude is unrelated to America’s all-encompassing obsession with celebrity culture. For years now, the public hunger for celebrity information, as well as the expectations of exposure we’ve built for public figures, has been increasing and is starting to reach a fever pitch. For the average film or television actor, there is almost no excursion that isn’t photographed, recorded and submitted to the 24-hour entertainment news apparatus.
Once celebrities have driven down the long driveway of their Hollywood compound — and one can’t help but think these compounds are named as such for the sense of security they used to ensure — and the gates have shut behind them, their lives become public information.
It was probably unavoidable, then, that the public would start pining for a look at what was going on behind the wrought-iron gates and up the long driveway. What does Jennifer Lawrence put on her bagel in the morning? Does she chase with cranberry juice or beer? (After a long, tumultuous relationship with her, I can tell you that she chases with Meryl Streep’s blood.)
It seems impossible that this cultural appetite for full disclosure and this need to know everything — not at all helped by the superabundance of reality programs with the sole purpose of chronicling how many times Kim Kardashian blinks in a four-minute conversation — is at least partially responsible for the current hacking epidemic.
You may find yourself wondering, “Doesn’t all of this come with the job? Because these celebrities signed up for fame and fortune and submitted themselves to the gaze of the public eye, shouldn’t this be par for the course?” We as the proletariat, after all, are the ones subsidizing their big paychecks, shelling out for the movie tickets and buying the Coke bottles they’re sipping in the Super Bowl commercials.
More scrutiny, yes. That is certainly an inevitable consequence of success in the entertainment industry. It has its perks, and it engenders certain sacrifices. But what is not a given is the consignment of the already overexposed to be, more or less, a publicly traded commodity subject to our discretion in all matters personal or otherwise — simply by virtue of the career they’ve chosen and the notoriety they receive as a result.
We should be every bit as outraged by the flagrant violations of privacy and theft of property occurring at the expense of public figures in the digital domain as we would be by the same set of circumstances in our own living rooms.
And the Internet isn’t what has to change. Neither are the celebrities. They have every right to take whatever photos they want and send them to whomever they want.
We have to change — not that we aren’t already. The millennial notions of privacy and the kind of information we should be privileged to is changing rapidly. Maybe you’re progressive and don’t care about nude photos. Your respect for, and infatuation with, a celebrity isn’t influenced by hacked private media. And that’s good for you.
But we have to preserve the right for anyone — celebrity or otherwise — to determine his or her own definition of what constitutes private and public knowledge about him or herself. Eventually, this attitude will compromise everyone’s privacy. And frankly, I’d rather see a naked Jennifer Lawrence sprawled on a couch than you. And I think you would, too.