Naked Photogate: Paging Dr. Freud

“No one’s laughing now.”

That’s how an August 31 Us Weekly write-up of the “scandal” around a massive breach of privacy, in the form of leaked nude photos of multiple female celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, began (yes, that’s the very same Us Weekly devoted to invading everybody’s privacy all the time). JLaw, known for being Hollywood’s latest “not like those other girls” cool girl, is now spoken of in brusque, awkward tones by the very same tabloids that cooed over every one of her adorkable kooky red carpet tendencies.

Nude photo “scandals” aren’t new. This narrative has been played out hundreds of times with scores of female celebrities, and not a whole lot has changed, except maybe the crisis communications strategy of some celebrity PR teams. Personally, I think Scott Mendolson at Forbes has the right take on it; hacking/leaking nude photos of anyone without their consent is a sex crime, not a scandal, and should be treated as such. We should be focusing way more on the actual perps and Apple’s failure to protect against this kind of breach (the photos were allegedly hacked from iCloud). And some days after the fact, the Internet may getting a bit tired of hearing about this when there is so much else going on in the world. But Us Weekly‘s choice of lead sentence with regards to an article about Jennifer Lawrence is interesting to me. It’s Jennifer Lawrence, Hollywood’s favorite “cool funny girl,” why is this such a big deal? Why isn’t anyone laughing now?

Looks like we’ve run into part of the WALB, aka the barrier keeping women, even supposedly perfectly likeable, “down-to-earth” women who have it all going for them from truly being seen as equally funny.

Here’s the thing: one group of people seems to be laughing at all this, namely the bridge-dwellers that frequent 4chan (the original outlet for said photos) and anyone who looks at the “leaked” images with a sense of glee beyond prurient (“ooo, naked people”) interest. The common trait of all trolls, from 4chan into Reddit and beyond, is that they live for the lulz, which come from shooting down others/starting arguments/calling out epic fails. All of those lulz are classic examples of the superiority theory of laughter, which started with Plato and really became articulated by Thomas Hobbes. The superiority theory, which is one of several theories of laughter discussed in literary academic discourse, can be summarized by the Hobbesian idea that laughter is the “sudden glory” arising from the perception of someone else’s failures/imperfections. EDITORIAL NOTE: It’s worth noting that Hobbes takes special care to point out that “it is incident most to them, that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favor by observing the imperfections of other men”[1].

That’s all well and good for understanding how trolls operate with each other, but what does it have to do with the drive to hack and expose female celebrities’ naked photos, and how does it relate at all to why everyone’s making such a big deal about Jennifer Lawrence’s photos in particular? This is where it gets interesting: Slate wrote about a University of Manitoba study which found that trolls (a small but very vocal minority of all Internet users) display personality traits such as Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism. One component of this study involved the creation of a tool called the Global Assessment of Internet Trolling, which asks participants to agree or disagree with several statements about their beliefs and behavior. This is the one to pay attention to:

The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt.”


Photo credit:

Paging Dr. Freud. No, really. Though there were hundreds of photos leaked, Jennifer Lawrence is the focus of most of the stories about the hack. Remember that story I mentioned about Jennifer Lawrence being the new “cool girl” of Hollywood? Being that “cool girl,” according to the article’s author, is conflated with a certain sense of purity. That same kind of “purity” may very well have roots in what Freud was talking about when he described women’s role in humor as nothing more than being the butts of dirty jokes, or “smut” (defined here as the “the intentional bringing into prominence” of sexual facts). In this situation, according to Freud, there must be the first, or, “the one who makes the joke,” a “second,” or the “object of the hostile or sexual aggressiveness,” and “a third in whom the joke’s aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled”; Freud goes on to explain that the place of the “second” is almost always held by a woman, whose perceived inflexibility/refusal to yield sexually causes the “first” to develop hostility against her, and therefore driving the “first” to belittle, objectify, and “expose” her to the “third”[2].

So the 4chan-dweller (whose day-to-day Internet lulz derived from superiority laughter) who first leaked the photos onto 4chan itself is the “first,” JLaw et al are the “second,” anyone who clicks on the photos are the “third.” Then, of course, “thirds” become “firsts” by sharing the photos further, and so on.

It’s an interesting way to look at 1.) the motivations behind someone hacking into the iCloud specifically for naked female celebrity photos; 2.) the reason everyone is being so weird the fact that female celebrities’ naked photos were leaked (can’t blame America’s puritanical roots, because the Puritans were actually in no way puritanical); 3.) the fact that high-profile women lauded for being funny are still viewed as beautiful, pure, unattainable objects deserving of degradation (because deep-down, some Internet users are just mad that they won’t have sex with them).

In summary, that seems to be why “nobody’s laughing now,” at least at this point. Naked bodies, though, are generally hilarious, and I’ll explore why in further posts. However, even after this latest celebrity naked photogate fades from Internet discourse (and Jennifer Lawrence’s career likely goes on uninterrupted), it’s worth thinking about instances like these when we wonder why women still face certain barriers to complete comedic freedom. Trolls like the ones that hacked JLaw’s and others’ photos aren’t entirely to blame, but they are symptomatic of something in Western culture that seems to have been there for a long, long time.


[1] Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. From Leviathan, Part 1, ch. 6 in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, ed. John Morreall. Albany: State University of New York Press: 1987. (p. 19).

[2] Freud, Sigmund. 1905. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VIII: Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Trans. James Strachey with Anna Freud. London: Vintage, 2001. (p. 100).

Breaking Down the WALB

In late 2012, I sat opposite a Women’s Studies department chair at a fairly well-known university, late in the PhD candidate selection process, and attempted to explain why her department should invest its limited funding in my tuition, thesis, and general future in academia. My proposal at the time: research on how negative perceptions of women in comedy shape perspectives that lead to policy outcomes and deeply entrenched cultural attitudes towards women in general. It was something that had been on my mind for a long time – namely, since I was 17 and someone said to me “girls aren’t funny, but you’re kind of an exception.”

“Comedy,” she mused. “Women in comedy!” She was interested. I was pleased. The conversation was good. The right buzzwords were dropped, and I had high hopes. But then came the inevitable question:

Lucille Ball, being wacky

“But what about Lucille Ball?”

I’ve got nothing against Lucille Ball or her creative empire. I have fond childhood memories of falling asleep to “I Love Lucy” reruns on TVLand. I eagerly ogled everything in a traveling “I Love Lucy” museum at the county fair. I laughed/was secretly jealous of Lucy and Ethel every time I saw that episode where they shove chocolates in their faces at the candy factory. I even wrote a book report in middle school about the autobiography of Vivian Vance (aka Ethel), and gave an in-character presentation to my entire English class (hello, excuse to wear bright red lipstick at age 12). There was never anything not to love about her, as far as I remember. Lucille Ball was clownish yet beautiful and admired, and wildly commercially successful – there’s really no way to hate her if you grew up in America.

But the thing is, I’m a little sick of hearing her name invoked whenever I want to open up a discussion of women in comedy in America and other societies with a hegemonic, click-hungry media culture. Actually, though I’m a little reluctant to admit this, I’m sick of all invocations of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer, Rebel Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer of Broad City, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Chelsea Handler, Betty White, Bea Arthur, and so many more, for that matter (though I hope they’ll forgive me, because I’d love to be all of their best friends and for Bea Arthur to be my guardian angel).

I am in no way flippantly throwing decades of progress out the window. That would be dumb and catty and totally unproductive of me. However, every time someone says “What about ____?” and invokes one female comedian when I raise a point about the differences in perceptions of women v. men in comedy, it’s like saying “But what about the McWrap?” when you point out that McDonald’s doesn’t have a huge variety of healthy options on their menu. Like any consumer/audience of comedy, some McDonald’s lovers might not even see the necessity of healthy options, or complain that that’s not what McDonald’s is about, and that anyone who tries to point out the flaws in their system is a whiny, kale-excreting Whole Foods spoilsport. But some people can’t afford Whole Foods, and man, is McDonald’s everywhere in America.

See where I’m going? I’m not discounting progress – I just want to dig deeper.

The way I look at it, when someone says “What about Lucille Ball?”  in response to a statement about the persistent lack of an even playing field and deeply entrenched negative perceptions of women in many forms of comedy, it shows that our collective consciousness has taught us to brush off inequality in one of the greatest expressions of power in our society (according to canonical male philosophers including Henri Bergson, as well as Joseph Boskin and even Nietzsche, to an extent).

The study of comedy, and the performances by and perceptions of women therein, can open up incredible perspectives on the shaping of actual policies that dictate our lives and, yes, our perspectives. That’s why I’ve launched Funnynism, a space to discuss elements of the gender/comedy/policy dialectic with the occasional fart joke.

Statistically speaking, isolated success by any measure isn’t indicative of full equality in any uneven playing field – does Mary Barra’s job mean that we don’t need to worry about income inequality or power imbalance anymore? Did Sheryl Sandberg’s how-to guide for corporate gurrrlz totally fix all sexism and microaggression in the office?

Did Lucille Ball incinerate any need for questioning the forces a woman must overcome to be seen as funny, intelligent, multi-dimensional, and therefore human, while she blazed trails through network TV?

The “What About Lucille Ball” (WALB) point of view is pretty dismissive of the fact that comedy, and thereby the power to elicit laughter, is kind of a big deal. It’s a mechanism through which we frame, understand, and project our desires onto the world around us – and thereby exert a subversive form of power by diffusing difficult situations or winning people over to our side. Moreover, the WALB POV doesn’t address the fact that comedy, one of the most potent tools for the expression of power within human expression itself, is an ever-evolving apparatus. Obviously, it’s not entirely without formulaic elements, but  as a form of communication it is essentially dependent on cultural norms and the human perception thereof.

Cultural norms change. Human perception changes with age, experience, trauma, major life events, etc. Even different nationalities think different things are funny. So, why should one really famous “lady comic” fix everything? If anything, this should be an ongoing conversation. Why? Because, as I’ll explore in Funnynism through future posts, being seen as funny equals power, which means the right position to alter policy (you know, the stuff that affects people).

I should admit, I wasn’t able to explain myself to that Women’s Studies department chair during that interview. The eternal WALB question had stumped me, and I didn’t know what to say – or if I did, I didn’t know how to phrase it eloquently enough. I should hope that through this forum, I can explore the processes at work behind WALB, and examples of how funny=power=policy, and why we should be paying far more academic attention to this debate.

Much theory will be dropped, and copious cultural references will be made – pop, high and low. Essentially, every branch of the humanities will be dug up, re-animated, and cobbled together in an attempt at relevance. All of this will be done with the aim to open up debate, make my case to the already-robust feminist academic community online, and possibly, once and for all, break down the WALB.