Celebrities, STFU About Your ‘Privacy’

The Daily Beast

September 24, 2014

Are you outraged on behalf of celebrities like Rihanna, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence, and Gabrielle Union having their most intimate pictures somehow hacked from the great big, invisible iCloud and distributed online?

It’s unpleasant for sure, humiliating, a violation—all of that, and perhaps worse.

But my most immediate thought was: Why take pictures of yourselves having sex, or naked, in the first place, which you then choose to share electronically? In doing those things, haven’t you already compromised your privacy long before a pervy hacker has figured out a way to get their grubby mitts on your pictures?

They’ve just got a pickaxe and fumbling sets of keys for the lock; you yourself have left your most expensive possessions in plain view, with a sign around them saying “Steal Me.”

Some have argued, persuasively, that this dreadful hacking of private pictures is part of an epidemic of misogynistic “revenge porn”—of men seeking to hurt women known or unknown to them personally, using images of their own bodies to shame them as Amanda Marcotte recently wrote. Samantha Allen wrote that Jennifer Lawrence was right to play against some of her fans’ expectations, and not be devil-may-care in her response to the leak of her pictures, but to—according to her representatives—seek the proper redress through law.

But is it really victim-blaming to suggest that if the celebrity or indeed non-famous person who has these kinds of pictures distributed against their wishes hadn’t taken the picture in the first place, then shared it, then the hacker wouldn’t have anything to hack? Is it really that prudish to suggest that first, maybe: don’t take pictures of yourself having sex or in suggestive positions? Second: If you do, then great—whatever floats your boat—but don’t share them and yet expect that they will remain magically sacrosanct, away from curious, potentially violating, eyes. Isn’t this common sense? If you don’t, however unwittingly, supply access to the source material, what material is there for a hacker to hack?

Even without the extremity of the hacking of intimate photos, celebrities are more and more involved in a bizarre balancing act when it comes to exposing their lives to the public. Beyoncé, for example, is using once-private family pictures as a backdrop for her On The Run stage show: these include her near-naked pregnant form being held from behind by her husband, and pictures of her daughter.

The video clip is apparently six minutes long, and includes footage of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s wedding day, of them on vacation, transmitting the message that they are very much married, and the baby bump presumably to show—what?—that she really did give birth to Blue Ivy, despite Internet rumor to the opposite.

Beyoncé, like many celebrities, is playing peekaboo: selling and trading off images of intimacy, a faux intimacy, then pulling up the drawbridge if anyone asks inconvenient questions about her life. She wants to let the carefully curated pictures do the talking.

The star herself said as much in 2008: “[Not speaking] controls your brand. It controls what you want to put out there and kind of forces people to talk about what you want them to talk about.” Later, she added: “What Jay and I have is real. It’s not about interviews or getting the right photo op. It’s real.” But six years is a long time, and now clearly she values photo ops more than she did.

It’s a staple of chat shows, or newspaper interviews: a celebrity kvetching over their private lives being on public display, the trauma of public curiosity in them. These interviews are themselves violations—fully consented to by the celebrity to sell a movie, TV show, or book—and if these celebrities didn’t have people working on their behalf to keep them in the public eye, they couldn’t command public interest in their work. Celebrities need to have their privacy invaded; it’s just they futilely hope they can control and maintain the means and level of intrusion. The aberreation occurs when a camera films something off-script–such as the one in the elevator when Solange Knowles apparently attacked Jay-Z.

The latest Beyoncé pictures appeared the same day as a book of pictures by theater impresario Michael White: these again are sold, feverishly, as “intimate” pictures of the super-famous.

Scrolling through the pictures, they are really just some famous friends—Kate Moss, Nicole Kidman, and Mick Jagger among them—but they are not doing anything that intimate. The most outrageous picture of Demi Moore looking like she’s having a fun night out with Iggy Pop. The most surprising are not sexual at all, but seeing Bianca Jagger and Mario Testino sitting on a couch—simply because both seem so un-domestic in the public imagination.

There is nothing wrong with mis-selling us “intimate” portraits of celebrities, just as there is nothing wrong with taking nude selfies of yourself, or you and your partner going at it. There is nothing wrong with claiming to be a private person, then shoving pictures of your family and private moments behind your stage show. “Intimacy” is now the most marketable aspect of celebrity. A new Jennifer Lawrence advertising campaign for Dior mines a similar seam: She talks about how she perfects her picture pose, what makes a powerful woman, and the “privilege” of working with photographer Patrick Demarchelier. It looks personal, sounds personal, and tells us zero about Jennifer Lawrence. It is an advertising campaign, selling Dior and selling her, bathed in the false glow of intimacy.

The problem comes when you live and work in the public eye, and court publicity to sell yourself and burnish your image, then complain about your privacy being under attack. You can’t bitch about your privacy being invaded, when you yourself put pictures of intimate family moments on public display. You’ve already invaded your own, making for a symbolic kind of open invite to others.

Celebrities want to craft their own stories and histories—and rightly many are aggrieved when reporters resort to the kind of illegal and underhanded methods as practiced by the tabloid journalists whose tactics became the subject of the Leveson Enquiry.

Today, in defense against these intrusions (and those of hackers) while also trying to parlay their own popularity, celebrities are using social media to increase the sense of intimacy with their fans, the notion that their lives are an open book. But the Beyoncé stage pictures are a ruse: they have an air of intimacy while telling us nothing of substance at all. They are every bit as calculated as an advertisement for soap powder—pretty pictures of family life Beyoncé wishes us to believe in.

The stars who unjustly had pictures of themselves hacked also willingly take part in publicity junkets to sell their films; they do fashion shoots in magazines. If their privacy really meant that much to them, they would do none of it. They would hope that their work told you as much as you needed to know about them. For the rest, be gone, skidaddle, there’s nothing to see here.

But celebrities today are consolidating their public images in faster and far less deferential times than the stars of old, who were free of the bothersome Internet, bloggers and hackers. Today, fame is perilous: You have to keep yourself in the public consciousness, but say something wrong and you are in flames on the Internet in 10 minutes. Do something wrong, and a panel of strangers will discuss your psychological frailties on primetime TV.

And if you choose to you market your private life—as with the blissful, beach-set idylls of harmonious family life that Beyoncé and Jay-Z sell us—then you must accept that it inevitably invites the kinds of curiosity you don’t want.

As it is with those who took the embarrassing pictures of themselves naked or having sex, so it is with Beyoncé and Jay-Z and their stage pictures of family life: You have a choice. If you don’t put yourself out there, if you don’t reveal too much of yourself in public, then you are not going to be complicit in a possible violation of your own privacy.

Away from the flashbulbs and stage histrionics of mainly pop, there is another way: It’s a model of celebrity you can bracket around the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Cate Blanchett, Emma Thompson, Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Day Lewis, Pierce Brosnan, Kate Winslet, Kerry Washington, and Meryl Streep. We know they’re there, they’re not hiding, but they’re not operating a high-stakes profit-and-loss game around the column-inches devoted to them. They’re intelligent, funny, recognizably human, and sometimes spokespeople for activism and change. They show themselves, do interviews, wear the right duds on the red carpet, and we are interested in them—though our relationship to them is mostly respectful. Emma Watson this week impressed many with an impassioned U.N. speech about gender inequality.

Of course, you have to sell yourself more furiously in pop, to play the bad guy or girl that goes along with the lyrics and revealing outfits. And then you’re stuck, until—like Pink—you age, and accruing years shove you forcibly along.

One of the only edifying lessons of recent days is that if those celebrities whose intimate pictures were hacked are feeling violated and upset, they can take some comfort that the outrage for them has vastly outweighed any outwardly expressed pervish delight over the images themselves. In our see-it-all Internet age, it’s reassuring that there is general disgust reserved for the actions of the hackers: it seems the response to the hacking has been a collective, “Ugh, TMI.” And this from a world where the famous and non-famous disclose stuff about themselves and their lives with a flagrant disregard for the notion of TMI. Maybe there’s hope for us.

Still, for any celebrities planning to make an X-rated home movie, or to reveal all about their family lives, I recommend a brilliant poster that Manhattan Mini Storage created prior to New York State legalizing marriage equality. It read: “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay-married.” And so it is for today’s whining stars: “If you don’t want your privacy invaded, don’t invade your own privacy.”