Jennifer Lawrence Does Not Owe Us
As people react to the Jennifer Lawrence Vanity Fair article that I blogged about yesterday, I’ve noticed a troubling theme. People have not quite criticized her — I’m mostly talking about comment sections and social media and I’m not going to linkfarm that — for the sexually provocative photos that accompany the article, but sort of implicitly criticized her by suggesting that it is weird or inconsistent that she complains about feeling violated by the theft of her private nudes and also relates to her audience in a sexual way.
This is the epitome of not getting it. Or, rather, it is the epitome of trying to take an issue that is about autonomy and consent, and stuff it back into a Commodity Model framework that aligns her in a whore/madonna dichotomy, where she has to be somehow “consistent” in either demanding to be sexually available or sexually unavailable.
She does not owe us consistency in how she wants to be sexually available to her audience. Instead, we owe her consistency, in that we need to accept that she can present herself as sexual to her audience when and how she’s comfortable, and not when and how she’s uncomfortable. That’s what autonomy means for an actor managing a public persona.
She has said not to look at the stolen photos, because they were private and not meant for us. If she said, “I’m pissed that those were stolen, but I like the photos, so I’m releasing them,” that would be fine, too. If she said that, she wouldn’t owe us an explanation. Since she hasn’t said that, she doesn’t owe us a performance of “aggrieved virgin,” any more than she owes us a replacement for the pictures that we’re all not looking at because she said we shouldn’t. If she now wants to put out work that is sexually charged (as she has before — certainly there was a lot of sexual energy in her American Hustle performance), work that she controls and that she’s okay with all of us looking at, that’s her choice.
The only consistent theme is that she doesn’t have to be consistent in what she consents to. That’s how consent works. I saw one comment that said it was strange that she said both don’t look at my breasts in the stolen pictures and here are two thirds of my breasts in Vanity Fair. There’s nothing wrong with that. If a sex partner says, “I don’t want to fuck, but if you want, I’ll give you a blowjob,” that’s a perfectly valid choice. Why would it be any less valid to say don’t look at the stolen nudes, look at the seminudes I’m okay with instead? Having sex with someone once isn’t the same thing as agreeing to have sex with that person for all time. Having sex with lots of people isn’t agreement to have sex with every person. Having one kind of sex isn’t agreement to have another kind of sex. That’s how consent works. It’s not a ratchet. It’s not “once you do this, you can never go back.” I don’t think that consent is a matter only for people having sex with each other in private. I think that it also goes for the sexual relationship, such as it is, between performers and fans.
Think about the logic as it applies to someone who, unlike Lawrence, has been naked for an audience. Someone whose genitals appear on film, like Kevin Bacon or Rosario Dawson. If someone hacked their private nude photos, would that be fine because we’ve seen them completely naked? No! That’s absurd! They would be harmed in precisely the same way as Lawrence has been, and not any less! People who think that the harm to Bacon or Dawson from hacking their personal nudes would be less serious are adopting a mode of thinking not differentiable from saying that when a virgin gets raped it’s worse than if it’s a sex worker. That’s fucked up. That’s wrong. That’s both factually and morally indefensible.
Lawrence doesn’t owe it to us to be a “good girl” or a “bad girl” or any kind of “girl” to stand up and demand her right to keep her own property, to not have people invade her privacy. That’s not a cookie we give her for good behavior. It’s a right, and not one she forfeits because the way she presents herself confounds our expectations.