The following is a sampling of headlines about the recent theft and illegal release of alleged nude photos of celebrities:
In them, and the hundreds of headlines like them, a theme emerges: white female victimhood. It’s in the choice of subjects, the words themselves and photos that accompany the various online reports. Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton are presented as the faces and bodies of these types of violations.
The flip side of these headlines and the less obvious theme is this: that black women are undeserving of protection; that when their privacy is criminally violated, it isn’t such a scandal. After all, Lawrence and Upton aren’t the only ones who have been violated in this way. Jill Scott and Rihanna have, too.
If you didn’t know, that’s because the “leaks” and “hacks” related to black female victims were scarcely covered in comparison with those of their white counterparts. A Google News search for celebrities’ names combined with “leaked,” while an informal measure, further confirms the spotlight on white female victims. Lawrence and Upton have, by far, the most results (22,700,000 and 126,000, respectively); Rihanna and Scott trail behind with 39,100 and 8,760, respectively.
There’s a disparity not just in the amount of news but in the amount of analysis and outrage when the victims are black. As the Washington Post’s Justin Moyer put it in his analysis of the leaks of recent weeks (Lawrence, Upton and Scott), “White feminists ignore Jill Scott.”
Commenting on the sparse mentions of Scott in published feminist analysis of the leaked nude photos, Ariel Leconte, at Revolutionary in Pink Pumps, argues, “The whole situation has a very Sarah Baartman-esque tone to it. The black woman’s body has never had any protection in society. It has always been a spectacle, to be gawked at and used as everyone, but black women, sees fit.”
This isn’t new, says Leconte. “The black woman’s body has been exploited from the moment it arrived on American soil; it is always on display and under scrutiny,” she explains. “So to continue to pass around photographs of Jill Scott’s body with the casual nature of sharing a stick of gum is a disturbing reminder that in 2014, the black woman’s body still has no protection.”
Some observers rationalized the limited outrage surrounding the photos of Scott as reflecting her supposed lack of sexual appeal. Meanwhile, she was mocked for her weight—fat-shamed—by Twitter users circulating her images. This isn’t surprising. In fact, it illustrates exactly how sexism and racism work together: Scott’s rights, her body and her privacy are determined to be commensurate with her sexual appeal and her ability to mirror dominant, white beauty standards.
Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American studies at Duke University and author of Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, says this is part of a larger pattern about how we view not just Scott’s body but all black women’s. “I suspect that where the circulation of naked photos of white women are seen as a breach of privacy, the all-too-public ways that black women's bodies are rhetorically exposed, prodded and poked speaks to the notion that black women's bodies are always/already accessible to the public,” he explains.
That could explain why even the articles reflecting on the larger racial history of unprotected black female bodies failed to mention Rihanna, who was also a victim of the nude photo leaks.
Some argue that that’s because Rihanna isn’t as famous as Upton and Lawrence. But that doesn’t add up: As of 2013, Rihanna was known by 80 percent of the public and had a Q Score of 14 (Lawrence’s recognizability score was 65, and she had a Q Score of 27, as of 2014; her Q Score was 15 in 2013). While Rihanna’s popularity has waned in recent years (her Q Score was 29 in 2009), she remains a superstar: 37.1 million followers on Twitter and 1.4 million on Instagram. She is a regular on the red carpet, a favorite of the paparazzi an ubiquitously featured on the style pages.
The routine consumption of Rihanna’s body, her sexual agency and her sartorial choices cloud the public reaction when her privacy is violated. Because she is a celebrity who wears “revealing” clothing, who owns her sexuality, many seem to conclude that she has lost the right to control her body, her flesh and the consumptive gazes directed at her.
Given the history of reducing black women to hypersexual jezebels and asexual mammies, unworthy of legal protection and cultural outrage in the face of violence and violation, it is no surprise that Rihanna, like Scott, has failed to compel media attention comparable to that of Lawrence or Upton.
“The fascinating thing about the theft and mass mediation of the photos of Jill Scott and Rihanna in particular, and then the resounding critical silence around them, is the pornotropic desire to simultaneously see and erase every aspect of black female flesh,” notes Tamura Lomax, professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-founder of the Feminist Wire.
It is no wonder, then, that the perpetual gaze directed at Rihanna as yet another hypersexualized black women precludes sympathy and outrage. And the positioning of Scott as undesirable and asexual, and therefore not worthy of outrage and sympathy, is merely the other side of the white supremacist coin.
Neither woman is seen as innocent, or as needing or deserving protection. Worse, they are not alone. Lomax makes clear that the consumption and the silence have a larger history. “Jill Scott and Rihanna experienced one form of erasure,” she explains. “Less-known black women and girls experience other forms, including societal marginalization and literal erasure—as in death.”
It’s true. From Renisha McBride to Aiyana Stanley-Jones, from Shanesha Taylor to Kelley Williams-Bolar, from the women of Oklahoma City to Vernicia Woodward, America continues to say that the bodies, rights and lives of black women don’t matter.
Tragically, the silence is bigger than white feminists, it’s bigger than Jill Scott, it’s bigger than Rihanna and it’s bigger than these specific violations.
David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman.