Updated: Nov 21, 2020
By Shiva Chopra
Image via PopSugar
After reading Emily Ratajkowski 's controversial essay in The Cut, where she wrote that her nude images had been released by photographer Jonathan Leder without her permission, I wanted to track down every last copy of her three polaroid books and burn them in a pyre. Or just throw them into a volcano. Or in the depths of the sea, plunge them. Not only for Ratajkowski, but for any woman who has been reminded aggressively that her body is not her own, anything to achieve even a sliver of justice.
When she was 20 years old, Ratajkowski posed for Leder early in her career. In the essay, as she posed in lingerie and in the nude, she spoke about soothing her nerves with sugary red wine, trying to please a guy she thought it was her duty to please. She accused Leder of sexually harassing her, but the suspected crimes did not end there. When she became famous, over many years, he collected the unused polaroids into three books -- according to her article, against Ratajkowski's wishes and against what she claims was the legal agreement around the original intended use of the images. Her attempts to halt the project were made public, but despite or perhaps because of Ratajkowski's protests, people still purchased the book and attended the opening.
When Cut's fact-checker reached him, Leder said, "You know who we're talking about, right?" This is the girl in Treats who was nude! And bounced around naked at that time in the Robin Thicke video. Would you really want somebody to think that she was a victim? As Ratajkowski wrote, "He'd kept Emily in the drawers of his creaky old house for years while I was building a career, waiting to whore her out."
As I read it, I seethed. And I'm there seething. Just because she was nude once, even more than once, she shouldn't give people free rein over her body with her own approval.
The fact that the Ratajkowski exploitation mentioned is the product of patriarchy and sexism 101, that men are taught that women are disposable objects for fun and entertainment, makes it no less appalling. Exploitation is not just a choice, but a necessity for some men. Women aren't completely human, then. Definitely not.
Well perhaps, we would like to think that we are stronger than this in our supposedly post-feminist culture. But it was just six years ago that hundreds of famous women, including Ratajkowski, had their nude images stolen and leaked. The fact that the big data breach was generally referred to as "The Fappening" tells you enough of how happily those photos were discovered and consumed, how those women were discovered and consumed.
It's not that nude bodies on the internet are impossible to locate. But the joy in men's consumption derived from seeing these women without their permission, from being able to degrade them and ridicule them, is dehumanizing. "The Fappening" was not just about getting off to a pair of breasts or an ass, but getting off knowing that the popular, well-known women were profoundly abused and humiliated.
Actor Chris Evans had his own nudes appear on the internet a few weeks ago. Unlike the hacking controversy, this was an accident of his own making. In an Instagram story, he posted a screenshot of his camera roll, which happened to contain a nude image. It was removed quickly and his supporters and other celebrities, such as Chrissy Teigen and Mark Ruffalo, were able to come to his defense as well. A movement emerged to shame everyone who posted the picture, reminding us that sharing it was a violation of Evans' privacy. Fans populated the internet with images of Evans with puppies and Evans visiting kids in the hospital when his name began trending on Twitter, to take the focus away from the photo and towards his humanity.
I'm happy the internet treated Evans with kindness. But the photo of Evans was never gleefully consumed with the same interest as the 2014 hacking images because his body is considered his own. We would not acquire any sense of ownership or control over him as a human by catching a private glimpse of him. You might claim that the women whose pictures have been stolen, like Ratajkowski, have suffered no real repercussions. That most of the mainstream media were on their side and that they started their careers unabated. Many of these women willingly posed naked in other formats, as Leder himself claimed about Ratajkowski. What was really the big deal?
That's precisely how we all across the world view sexual violations. Sexual harassment is considered uncommon or even non-existent in rape culture, but if it occurs, it's not a massive issue. It's just been bad sex. It was a photo only, get over it.
We have had numerous opportunities learn and grow. A few weeks ago, This Is Paris, a documentary about Paris Hilton, was released on YouTube. Hilton was never a figure who received much empathy, often seen as a wealthy ditz who manipulated herself for fame. The fact that part of her rise in the public eye was a leaked sex tape is almost too easy to forget.
She was only 19 when that tape was released by a man she had kissed to an audience who lapped it up, cruelly titled 1 Night in Paris, not because it was a decent video in any way, but because it was, like those nudes, an opportunity to own a piece of Hilton without her explicit consent. “That was a private moment with a teenage girl, not in the right headspace, but everyone was watching it and laughing like it was something funny,” Hilton says in the documentary.
Hilton claims he took the camera out and forced her to make a tape, telling her no one would ever see it. The press blamed her after the video was released, just as Ratajkowski was blamed by Leder, just as the women in the naked photo hack were blamed in the first place for ever taking the images. "It was like being assaulted electronically," said Hilton.
I definitely think she's correct to claim that if the video had been leaked now, it would look different from 16 years ago in the media reports around it. It would be generous to at least some of the headlines; some people would point out the infringement for what it is. But still, I know, and you know, there will be plenty of salivating posts on Reddit and endless uploads to porn websites. The happy consumption of the ultimate getcha moment for a woman who has attained some degree of fame, accomplishment, or likability will commence.
It says a lot about who else we don't allow to own their bodies, that we barely care about these kinds of abuses of women who are white, slim, attractive, and popular. If we just come around now to see Hilton or Ratajkowski as women who have been raped, what happens when someone who is not white, or LGBTQ, or obese, or disabled, or bad, is picked up in such a way for consumption?
Well, we know already. The response was exacerbated not only by misogyny but by racism and body-shaming in 2016 when comedian Leslie Jones was exploited and her nude images were posted. The same bullies who exchanged thin white women's nudes exchanged barbs about the presence of Jones. We not only own you, they said, but we condemn you. We have power over you either way. Your body is not your own either way, and it's your fault either way.
I would like to believe that we're having some kind of defining moment now. I would like to think that we're improving. But those Ratajkowski picture books are still sitting on the shelf and you can still see those nudes that were stolen.
I hope I'm not alone in wishing to ruin all the stolen nudes and leaked clips. We're going to create the pyre, burn those books, and dance around the flames.
Written by writer Shiva Chopra