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I Think We Owe Vanessa Hudgens an Apology

Photo: Vanessa Hudgens, Facebook

In September 2007, Vanessa Hudgens became one of the first mainstream actresses to have her nude and intimate images leaked without her permission. The worst part? She ended up being the one apologising. In days following the leak, Hudgens made a statement where she apologised to her fans and expressed her embarrassment and regret for ever taking the photos. Disney decided not to drop Hudgens from High School Musical 3 followingthe leak, indicating that they believed that Hudgens had ‘learned a valuable lesson’ having apologised for an obvious ‘lapse of judgment’. Hudgens was the subject of further leaks of these historical images, including in 2009 and 2011.

I remember hearing about this when I was 10 and in the height of my High School Musical phase (I had it on sing star and you bet I was Gabriella or not playing at all). Looking at the narrative of the leak, it is really confronting to think that an 18-year-old was positioned as the villain of the situation, who dared to take photos she had absolutely no intention of publicly sharing. Disney may have thought they did the right thing by saying that Hudgens had learned her “lesson” from taking her photos, but what kind of message was this really sending?

This public rhetoric was found in Australia too. In an episode of their new series Scandal titled The Slut-Shaming of Lara Bingle, the Shameless Podcast explored the immense public criticism that Lara Bingle endured after a nude photo of her was allegedly leaked by Brendan Fevola to Women’s Day in March 2010. In the photo, Bingle appeared to be in the shower, attempting to conceal her body with her hands. Scandal in particular compared Bingle’s experience in the public eye with that of Hudgens’, including the scrutiny that Bingle received for allegedly selling the story to the same magazine that published the nude photo for $200,000.

For far too long, women who have had photos leaked of them on the internet have been publicly shamed and made to apologise and feel embarrassed, even if they weren’t aware that the image or video had been taken. This is despite the fact that this huge violation of their privacy has occurred, which is treated immaterially. The experience of men who have had photos leaked, including inadvertently, appear to be starkly different.

For example, in September 2020, Marvel star Chris Evans accidentally shared a photo of what was presumed to be his penis at the end of a shared screen recording in his camera roll. The reaction both by celebrities and the general public, as the Slate piece reports, garnered much sympathy for Evans’ situation, many of whom pledged to not share the dissemination of the image any further, not wanting to contribute to any further anxiety suffered by Evans. By contrast, Hudgens reflecting back on the nude photo leak described the event as being ‘very traumatic’.

In the wake of Evans’ photo leak, celebrities including Kat Dennings epitomised how different public reaction would have been had the same thing happened to a woman.

Hudgens was not the only female celebrity to attract public shame and condemnation. For example, Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook star Jennifer Lawrence was also the victim of a nude photo hack in 2014. Much like Hudgens, Lawrence was also largely blamed for the leak, because she had dared take intimate images of herself and by virtue of being a celebrity, should have expected to be hacked.

It is time we change the narrative. In the inevitably pervasive social-media era, it is more likely than ever before that intimate images of people may find their way into the public domain. So instead of shaming the women in these photos, it’s time we start shaming those who feel the need to publicly leak them. Revenge porn is a recognised crime in Victoria, including taking images or videos without a persons’ knowledge or consent.

Further, the rise in the use of deepfake technology, including as a form of image-based sexual abuse, also creates a risk that a persons’ image may be taken and superimposed into pornographic content from photos on their social media. Celebrities have been among some of the first victims of deepfake pornography, including Gal Gadot, Scarlett Johanson and Taylor Swift..

So instead of asking “Why did that person take that photo, or put themselves in a situation where a photo could be taken?” it is time we start asking “Who would dare to invade a persons’ privacy in that way?”

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