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Nude Photos Would Be Less Threatening If They Weren't 'Shameful'

09/25/2014 12:30 EDT | Updated 11/25/2014 05:59 EST
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson attends the HeForShe campaign launch at the United Nations on September 20, 2014 in New York, New York. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

This week, a threat was levelled against actress and activist Emma Watson. The threat came in the wake of a speech made by Watson (famed portrayer of Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, now a UN Goodwill Ambassador), a speech in which she rallied members of both sexes to join in the fight against gender inequality. Almost immediately, a post appeared on the 4chan message board, linking to a "countdown" website, addressed "emmayouarenext.com." The site's creators, offended by Watson's public feminism, it seemed, claimed to have in their possession nude pictures of her, pictures they would, when the "count" was up, disclose.

It would only be natural for a consumer of media to have a sense of déjà vu, reading this latest news. Not a month ago, there was public outcry when nude pictures of several female celebrities (including, most upsettingly, Jennifer Lawrence) were leaked on 4chan. The threat of "indecent" exposure has become so common lately, there's a threat that the threat itself will cease to inflame.

It should inflame. It's malicious and invasive and derogatory, and based in that very dangerous territory where sex and power overlap. Still, I can't help but wonder if the furor inspired by both 4chan scandals (the initial one, and especially this most recent) is misplaced; if the outrage isn't based, at least partly, in exactly the impulse to misogyny it purports to be against.

To be enraged about the prospect of a thing coming to light, we need to believe on some level that it is terrible, terrifying -- that it should stay in the dark. When we assume that a woman's psyche or image will be profoundly damaged if pictures of her naked body are leaked (and we do, when such "leaks" are likened to rape, as they have been customarily in the media of late) we ascribe to that woman a shame that may or may not be hers. We turn the female body into a thing to be embarrassed of having. That's not to say that the leaks should happen, or that they're justifiable, or that they shouldn't be against the law. It's critical for us to allow that a violation might be traumatic. It's just as critical that we don't suggest it must be.

Let's imagine for a second, where Emma Watson is concerned. It's all we can do, because we don't know her. What if, in the midst of the hubbub and punditry, Emma Watson considers what it will mean for the public to see her naked, a stolen viewing, albeit, and she's just not bothered all that much? Isn't it her right to feel that too?

The actress and director, Samantha Morton, in a recent interview with The Guardian, spoke about sexual abuse she suffered as a child in a council-run residence home. When asked about the "level" of abuse, Morton made a salient point. "The word 'level' is a funny one, because it's what's relevant and how it affects you for the rest of your life," she said. In other words, we cannot ascribe an objective degree of severity to any particular trauma. What impacts one person minimally might be disastrous for another.

I've had my breast grabbed twice on the city street, and while I was shocked (one of the perpetrators was a cyclist on his bike), I wasn't very upset by the incidents, and to be honest, I'm gratified that I now have them in my arsenal of stories. I shouldn't have to make anecdotes out of what were, essentially, assaults. But I should have the freedom to.

As of this morning, the consensus is that the "Emma Watson photo leak scandal" was a hoax. Try to visit "emmayouarenext.com" now, and you'll be redirected to a page that shows the message "shutdown4chan," along with a directive to "spread the word" and "join" in the fight to "prevent more private pictures from being leaked." The bizarre stunt appears to have been orchestrated by "Rantic," a self-described social media marketing enterprise. It's unclear what aim the group has, if any, in addition to the ones it's declared. In this context, it's not unreasonable to suspect that the hoax itself is a hoax. Either way, what it does show is that even people of good will are ready to use female celebrities in a salacious way to further their agendas.

But let's imagine again. Let's imagine the scandal wasn't a hoax. Let's say someone did have nude photos of Emma Watson, and let's say that person was threatening to release the pictures. Now, let's imagine Watson herself, who in her address on feminism, spoke with such fortitude. Imagine she were to say, "Your threat is weak. Leak the photos. Huff, puff, blow the house down. I own this body. It's mine, and your seeing it does not compromise its strength one iota." To demand she react that way would be inhuman. Still, wouldn't it be our responsibility to allow her space for a multiplicity of responses?

We might also remember there is a very old female tradition of enduring hardship in the name of a cause. Joan of Arc went into the fire. It's hard to believe she would've been ruffled if all of Europe saw what was beneath her armour.

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