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It's not just Jennifer Lawrence: women in pop culture are under attack

Anita Sarkeesian, host and writer of Feminist Frequency
Anita Sarkeesian, host and writer of Feminist Frequency
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The life of an incredibly famous person is often intensely lonesome. They're on the road or on tour, filming a movie or playing away games. And even when they're at home, they're constrained in ways you and I just aren't. To a degree we are okay with this. It's part of the deal. You get to be rich and famous, but we get to know things about you and say things about you that would make most people blanch. It's even encoded into our laws. People of particular public interest have, for instance, a higher bar to clear when it comes to winning a libel lawsuit.

There are many, many, many things worth being offended by in the hack of several female celebrities' accounts to steal and then expose their naked photos to the world. But what I find myself returning to isn't just the notion of this being a horrific violation of their privacy — though it is that — but also a final rending of whatever illusions of personal life celebrities thought they had.

These were photos meant to be shared with loved ones, or at least ones being flirted with. They were photos meant only for specific individuals who understood that the celebrity existed as a human being outside their celebrity — someone vulnerable and loving and horny and lonely. Many were meant, on some level, as a bridge between these people, as a way to be there when the demands of being a celebrity meant they couldn't be there.

As actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead said in a much-circulated tweet, her photos were images she took with her husband, part of something private and intimate and close. Winstead and her husband had a life separate from her public life, but then somebody decided that wasn't good enough, that because Winstead is sometimes in movies, she should always be up there, on a screen, for our consumption. And that's not just gross, and it's not just a sex crime. It's a violation of her humanity.

When someone says famous women are at fault for taking nude photos, the subtext is clear: You are not your own. You are ours. And you should know we are always coming for you.

A terrible August

The whole month of August seemed to be saying this message to women even tangentially involved in pop culture. Before the celebrity hacks there was another big story involving women hacked and harmed by denizens of the internet's darkest corners. Zoe Quinn, for instance, created the stunningly beautiful game Depression Quest. Her personal information was spread throughout the internet, and her life was hacked, so nude photos of her were sent to friends on her contact list.

Why? She was apparently involved with a man who didn't take the breakup well and posted an angry screed against her, which was summarily taken up by certain segments of the gaming community just because they could. There was some concern that Quinn's new boyfriend (a writer for Kotaku) had altered how he wrote about her once they started dating, but the site's editor conclusively dismissed those concerns. So what were these men so upset about? Any answer inevitably became more dispiriting the more one thought about it.

Or consider Anita Sarkeesian, whose series on sexist tropes in video games for her YouTube program, Feminist Frequency, has kicked up a ruckus merely for existing. After she left her home because of threats of extreme violence on Twitter, more than a few people accused her of making those threats up. (Why she would do this, exactly, was never explained. These "controversies" run on the same fuel as conspiracy theories.) The height of this month's idiocy was two men who host video-game shows on YouTube teaming up to fund an anti-Sarkeesian documentary and announcing the project in a video where they seemed unaware they looked like low-rent Inspector Gadget villains.

The fallout from these situations was swift. No less an online nerd icon than former Star Trek star and current Tabletop host Wil Wheaton declared himself to be ashamed of being a gamer, while still others speculated that the idea of "gamer" as an identity would soon disappear.

But what was less remarked upon was that Quinn and Sarkeesian were being treated as if this was somehow the expected payment for becoming moderately famous within a small sphere of the overall culture. They, too, were tossed into the fishbowl. A bit of that was because they were public figures within their industry. But much, much more of it was because they were women who dared to be involved in that sphere.

So what now?

This isn't about the nature of celebrity or security holes in iCloud or even the culture of video games. The common denominator here is angry men, often young, often with huge chips on their shoulders.

Behind these attacks is an idea of life not being what it was supposed to, of somehow not getting something one was owed. This is true when people target celebrities because they have so much, and true when they target online feminists because they feel something is being taken away.

The irony, of course, as my colleagues at The Verge pointed out, is that those who are so certain they're owed a look at these women's naked bodies or their home addresses also often freak out over the prospect of the NSA digging into their own privacy.

But it's one thing to shame those who express their views on Twitter, their names attached. It's another to shut down a swarm of anonymous subconsciouses that race to fill the internet with bile any time they might feel powerless or angry or ashamed.

And yet in the same way, maybe there's reason to have faith. This hack and the treatment of the women in the gaming industry were so exploitative, so blatant, so self-evidently awful, that I can't help but think somebody somewhere will realize all of this and maybe not click, for once. The louder the awful people are, the more that they show their true selves, the more everybody else can realize there's a problem and start working on solutions to that problem, even if it's just the painstaking, brick-by-brick work of talking to those we know about why things like this are so abhorrent.

Because these women deserve to have private lives. They deserve to have that most basic, most human thing and share it with the people they choose, when and if they choose to. They deserve to be able to comment on the games they care about and be in relationships with the people they choose. They deserve to not flee their homes. They deserve, above all else, to exist, to own their sexuality and autonomy and individuality. We are only owed what we are given, and we were never given anyone else.