It can occasionally seem as if, when a news story comes along and hogs the headlines for a few days, we get too caught up on its specifics and cast anything like a broader perspective to one side. So it is with the increasingly perplexing story of Emma Watson, 4chan and a publicity company which may or may not exist. It’s the second time that a story such as this has reached the homepages of the world’s newspapers. It’s not so long since what has come to be known as “The Fappening” – an appropriately dismal name for the leaking of a large number of private photographs of naked photographs of female A-list celebrities – occurred, and it should probably be no great surprise that a further leak would hit the headlines soon afterwards.
As with so much in modern life, however, this latest story has turned out to be rather more complicated than at first suspected. For the uninitiated, the 4chan forum recently had a message posted on it stating that the actress Emma Watson would be appearing on a website at the end of this week. A link to this website was “helpfully” provided, and this featured a countdown to midnight on Friday, when, it was claimed, these pictures would appear. Today, however, the story has zig-zagged across an increasingly bizarre series of events. After it was revealed that the domain name for the website mentioned above was owned by what was claimed to be a “social media marketing enterprise,” those confirmed changed the conent of their site to state that its original purpose was to close the 4chan forum down and highlight the practice of leaking photographs of this nature and to “prevent more private pictures from being leaked.”
So far, so confusing, then. As the internet settles into another invigorating round of whataboutery – one of its favourite pastimes, it can often feel – it’s worth taking a step back from all of this and consider for a moment the nature of privacy in the twenty-first century, as well as the broader question of why the objectification of the female form still occurs to the extent to which it does in the twenty-first century. In some respects, we encourage a lack of basic privacy rights, these days. Our every thought is broadcast through social media and this, as anybody who has lost their job as a result of an ill-advised Tweet or Facebook status update will attest, can have notable side-effects on what we might describe as “the real world.” The currency of privacy has in many respects seldom held a lower value, and we all may be culpable in that phenomenon, to some extent or other.
What happened with the matter of the aforementioned leaked photographs, however, is a different matter. This isn’t about various celebrities posting intimate photographs of themselves on Facebook and Twitter and then getting angry when they enter into the public realm. This is about theft, anonymous individuals hacking into what are supposed to be secure cloud accounts, downloading whatever they see fit, and then – as if that’s not bad enough in itself – releasing these deeply personal images to a rapacious audience which mostly consist, of course, of slathering men. It’s not a matter of said celebrities “not taking enough care” of their cloud accounts, of course. Such an argument is the equivalent of a house burglar attempting to argue that it was okay for him to steal the money from somebody’s house because the owner of the house hadn’t secured their front door enough.
Even this seems to pale in comparison with our continuing obsession with objectifying women, though. Like death and taxes, that a woman will be judged on her appearance before any other factors are taken into account can occasionally feel as if it’s one of life’s inevitabilities, but the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t have to be this way if we don’t want it to be. It often feels as if those who are on the side of those who leak this sort of thing in the first place are framing their argument to cover the fact that, ultimately, they like looking at leaked naked photographs of celebrities, but the issue is surely considerably wider than this.
This objectification of women sticks its clammy paws into every corner of the mass media these days – consider, for example, the singularly wretched of the British tabloid newspaper The Daily Star, which had the Watson story on its front page this morning, describing her as the “Harry Potter babe,” barely able as it was to contain its excitement at the possibility of these pictures entering into the public domain – and it might be argued that the Watson story is merely a logical extension of this culture of objectification. After all, it’s so deeply ingrained that even the concept of a topless woman on the third page of this country’s second biggest national daily newspaper remains completely normalised for many, even in 2014.
It’s a familiar enough trope for anybody who defends the red top media over stories such as this to pin the blame for this noxious culture on the concept of “supply and demand.” Perhaps we have to cast aside the obvious flaws in this argument – would it be fair enough for newspapers to give away a daily dose or two of crack cocaine if their editors felt that the demand was there for it? – if we are to try and make any inroads in ending the sort of practices that we have been hearing far too much about recently. If we have to accept that the concept of “supply and demand” is a valid one, then in order to cut off the supply you have to get to the demand, and to get to the demand you have to to peer into the minds of those who are so desperate to see this sort of thing that moral objections scarcely cross their minds in the pursuit of them. And that isn’t necesarily going to be easy. These, it rather feels, are deeply entrenched attitudes that we’re taking about here, after all.
This can, however, be done. A brief look a the history of the twentieth century shows a lengthy list of cultural, social and political norms – universal suffrage, segregation in the United States of America, and so on, and so on – that became beyond the pale on account of the dedicated campaigning of indivuduals who refused to be cowed by the opposition to these changes that they faced. And it should be culturally unacceptable to be anything other than appalled at the very notion of downloading stolen intimate photographs of anybody, never mind celebrities alone, along with, in a broader sense, the objectification of women in a more general sense.
The more pessimistic amongst us might consider this to be a massive uphill struggle that seems close to insurmountable, but just as the internet allowes the more obnoxious elements of society more outlets to breathe their fumes over the rest of us, so it is that the same medium allows thoe amongst us who wish to fight this fight the sort of outlets to do so of which the protestors of the twentieth century might only have dreamt. The success, over the last coupe of years, of the likes of the Everyday Sexism project demonstrates this extremely effectively. For all this success, though, the support of more people
Certainly, it rather feels that to seek to demonise 4chan in and of itself betrays little more than a misunderstanding of the nebulous nature of the internet. 4chan is little more than a conduit for its users that guards their anonymity fiercely, and it is those users who need to be addressed rather than the website itself. Closing 4chan down will achieve little to nothing, in and of itself. Its users – and almost certainly the sort of people against whom this notion of unacceptability needs to be impressed the most – would likely regroup elsewhere, probably embittered at what has happened to their site and quite possibly even more entrenched in views that should be challenged.
Men need to understand that their support, both through their behaviour and through their vocal support, is essential if debased situations such as “The Fappening” are not to become the norm in months and years to come. If that tide can be stemmed, then perhaps an important step in the beginning of the end of a far broader battle will have been taken. Emma Watson said herself to male listeners earlier this week at the launch of the HeForShe intitiative earlier this weeks that “Gender equality is your issue too,” and she’s right. Gender equality can and should matter to men as much as it does to women, and if more widespread anger at the likes of “The Fappening” is the result of it all, then even those who were embarrassed by some men’s sense of entitlement when it comes to female nudity might feel they even they can take solace from the fact that it happened in the first place.
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