The recent episode of nude pictures of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence being leaked by a set of hackers launched widespread debate on the topics of privacy and consent when it comes to a woman’s body.
Their were two fairly polarised views on the subject. One, why would these celebrities click nude pictures of them in the first place. If they need to protect ‘privacy’ they shouldnt have clicked such a picture:
— Larry WACHS (@houseofwachs) September 1, 2014
The other view has been widespread shock and outrage at such lack of sensitivity and understanding of the concept of ‘privacy’:
If u blamed celebs whose nude pics were hacked & released, and r unable to understand that video was released w/out consent, I’ve blocked u
— Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) September 8, 2014
Women’s bodies,time,energy:not things 4 men to learn from.If u don’t know sharing vid of woman being knocked out=privacy violation u r shit
— Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) September 8, 2014
When I wrote my previous post on selfies, there was actually something else in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing that had caught my attention in context of this episode which I originally wanted to share.
There is a particular chapter in the book that explores the ‘usage and conventions’ around how ‘the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man’. I have shared some excerpts which I found very powerful (highlights in the text are mine).
A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies…The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual – but its object is always exterior to the man. A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you.
By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence…
To be born a woman has been to be born, within an alotted and confined space, into the keeping of men…But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is continually accompanied by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.
How Men ‘see’ Women
Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it…Every woman’s presence regulates what is and is not ‘permissible’ within her presence
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns into an object – and most particularly and object of vision: a sight.
Over centuries, there has been much change in both work and public sphere as well as the home sphere in the widening of space available to a woman to assert her presence. And yet if you really look at every form of abuse against women and the justification given by the perpetrator (man or woman), it can really be summed up by the above convention – men act, women appear.
Hence, by such a convention in the act of clicking a nude picture of herself, the woman is ‘defining’ how she needs to be ‘seen’ – a visual object of pleasure. Why should it then matter that this image resides in the private recesses of her phone gallery or splashed across the internet goes the argument? She herself has ‘sanctioned’ such a ‘view’ of herself and the men are only complying with how she would like to be ‘seen’. The question of her having clicked her nude for her self-pleasure does not arise, after all ‘objects’ can’t ‘feel’ pleasure, they can only ‘give’ pleasure.
Consider, some of the most common justifications given for sexual abuse against a woman – she was dressed provocatively, she was walking alone at night etc all place the ‘choice’ of the treatment that was meted out to the woman squarely on her. She was the one who invited such a behaviour. On the other hand, boys will be boys, their defined role by the convention is to communicate that women have no ‘agency’ on their bodies. They need to comply with the conventions of the ‘male gaze’. If there is an aberration in the woman’s ‘appearance’ from the expected convention, then she is liable for ‘punishment’ to reinforce the social order where -
men act and women appear
Unfortunately, the current conventions continue to reinforce this belief. There is an immense focus on a woman’s ‘appearance’ for her acceptance. We can talk about social change and preventing crime but till things change at a belief level, the scope for real change is limited. There is a lot of work required to crack the deep internalisation of the need to ‘present’ a self among women and the sense of entitlement among men to watch this ‘presentation’. Awareness of these dynamics can be a good first step.
What do you think?