In 2008, Emma Watson woke up the morning after 18th birthday to find paparazzi photos from her birthday party plastered all over tabloid covers and gossip websites. But they weren’t just any pap photos, candid shots of the young actress partying with her friends.
“Photographers laid down on the pavement and took photographs up my skirt,” Watson recalled during a HeForShe conference last year.
“If they had published the photographs 24 hours earlier, they would have been illegal. I think that’s just one example of how my transition to womanhood was dealt with very differently by the tabloid press than it was for my male colleagues.”
Welcome to being a young woman in Hollywood. Welcome to being a young woman, full stop.
What happened to Watson back in 2008 was just the first of many violations she would face. Over the last nine years, she’s had to deal with everything from photoshopped images of her face onto the bodies of nude adult film stars, to online countdown clocks to her becoming legal, to slut-shaming over her recent Vanity Fair cover.
And on Wednesday, personal photos of Hollywood actresses including Watson and Amanda Seyfried reportedly began circulating on the “dark web,” Reddit and 4chan. The leaks include photos of Seyfried in the nude, performing sexual acts with then-boyfriend Justin Long, and Watson trying on several bikinis for a swimsuit fitting. The hackers claim more stolen photos are on the way.
“There may be a few more names added to that list but these are the big two,” the person who originated the thread on Reddit wrote, according to the Telegraph. “Don’t want to break any Reddit rules so no links right now but there should be some really good drama over the next few days.”
And yet, in the days since these leaks, there hasn’t really been any drama. Some outlets have referred to these leaks as “The Fappening 2.0,” a reference to the iCloud hacking of nude celeb photos in 2014 that included Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, Kate Upton, Vanessa Hudgens, Gabrielle Union, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Back then, gossip sites like Perez Hilton and Ohnotheydidnt covered the leaks with a kind of morbid glee. Even the name, “Fappening,” (a crude reference to masturbation) seemed to belittle the fact that these leaks were ultimately a violation ― and act that intentionally targeted women and their bodies. While mainstream bloggers like Hilton actually shared the photos to their sites or linked to where to find them, social media users weighed in on the leaks with classic victim-blaming.
This time around, the photos aren’t being spread quite so cavalierly on mainstream sites, and the discourse around the leaks isn’t revolving around how these actresses should have “prevented” this from happening by simply not taking the photos to begin with. Instead, the focus is predominantly around how the sharing of nude photos without the subject’s consent is a criminal violation.
Is this a sign of progress, incremental though it is?
Perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps we’ve learned a lesson, but perhaps also trolls and hackers have gotten smarter ― better to share these photos on the dark web, carefully making sure not to break Reddit rules by posting links, than to create an online trail that could lead to trouble with the law and possible jail time. (Both Watson and Seyfried have already lawyered up.)
The fact that these pictures are being shared without these actresses’ permission at all is a sign, though, that the rape culture and misogyny that was called out back in 2014 hasn’t, of course, disappeared.
What is perhaps more telling than the lack of horrific public reaction to the leaks is the female celebrities who were targeted. Seyfried has long been vocal about women’s rights including equal pay, and Watson, ambassador for the HeForShe campaign, was outspoken in 2014 about the iCloud hacks:
For speaking out, Watson received threats from internet trolls who claimed they would leak nude photos of her.
“That feminist b***h Emma is going to show the world she is as much of a whore as any woman,” a commenter on 4Chan said after Watson’s famous UN speech on feminism.
Here lies the crux of the matter; why the apparent lack of “drama” surrounding these new leaks shouldn’t lull us into a false sense of complacency.
The thing that compelled paparazzi to shoot photos of an 18-year-old Watson’s crotch is the same thing that compels trolls to steal the intimate photos of celebrity women. It’s not just about sex ― you can find porn made with consenting adults anywhere on the internet. It’s about control. It’s about ownership. And it’s about silencing those women who dare to speak out.
It’s about control. It’s about ownership. And it’s about silencing those women who dare to speak out.
Let’s not forget that while we all hear about it when famous women's bodies are exposed without their permission, this doesn’t just happen to celebrities. Every day, women who are not in the public eye have their privacy violated by strangers and by men they know ― ex-boyfriends, friends, coworkers. The impulse is, of course, the same. By humiliating these women, their tormentors are exerting control over their bodies and ultimately their lives.
What’s happening to Watson and Seyfried is the every day sexism women face played out on a much larger stage. It's emblematic of how wearyingly predictable and harmful male entitlement can be.
There’s always been tension in the notion of women getting to exist and thrive in public spaces. We must shrink ourselves on the street, on trains, at clubs ― all in the name of survival. If we don’t, and we are violated, somehow it’s our fault.
This tension is amplified for celebrities, who also exist in public consciousness. But just because a woman exists in a public space does not mean that we, the public, own her body.