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).

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