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A drawing of people standing around and discussing a blurred-out representation of a nude photo of a celebrity taking up the entire wall behind them. Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

When celebrity nudes were everywhere

In 2007, Vanessa Hudgens had a giant nude photo scandal. It left no cultural footprint.

In 2007, High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens, the new darling of the Disney Channel, had her personal nude photographs leaked to the internet. One of the oddest things about what ensued was how loud the outrage was when the leak occurred in 2007, and how little anyone seems to think about it now.

Hackers first leaked Hudgens’s private photos after the release of High School Musicals 1 and 2 but before 3. The world was shocked. Disney moms pronounced Hudgens “ruined.” OK! confidently reported that she would be dropped from High School Musical 3 and replaced by one of the Cheetah Girls. Hudgens released a chagrined statement taking responsibility for the photos (“I want to apologize to my fans, whose support and trust means the world to me”), and Disney made its own statement regretting Hudgens’s “lapse in judgment.” Days after the pictures leaked, Hudgens was photographed by paparazzi at a church, as though to cleanse her reputation. “Baby V she is no longer :(” lamented Just Jared.

But today, the moment barely figures in Hudgens’s public image. Now 33 years old, Hudgens is remembered as that girl from High School Musical, from Grease Live, from The Princess Switch. Most people associate her with singing and dancing, with her luminous smile, with lightly offensive TikToks about how we should just let some people die of Covid, with a bunch of direct-to-streaming movies that you know ahead of time are going to be as bland and weirdly satisfying as a fast food burger. So many other female stars have had nude photo scandals by now that who can remember Vanessa Hudgens’s? It barely rates.

Looking at how fast and furious the flame of public reaction burned in the response to Hudgens’s photos makes for a vivid illustration of just how fast and how drastically the ways we talk about women’s sexuality have changed over the past 15 years — and, in small and crucial ways, how they haven’t.

“A woman’s worth lies in her ability — or refusal — to be sexual”

When Vanessa Hudgens’s nude photos leaked, we were in the penultimate year of the Bush administration, and one year away from the publication of the book that best chronicled the sexual mores of the era: Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women.

“More than 1,400 purity balls, where young girls pledge their virginity to their fathers at a promlike event, were held in 2006 (the balls are federally funded),” Valenti reported. “Facebook is peppered with purity groups that exist to support girls trying to ‘save it.’ Schools hold abstinence rallies and assemblies featuring hip hop dancers and comedians alongside religious leaders. … Whether it’s delivered through a virginity pledge or a barely dressed tween pop singer writhing across the television screen, the message is the same: A woman’s worth lies in her ability — or refusal — to be sexual.”

Hudgens was one of the girls whose worth lay in her refusal.

She became famous at age 18, when she starred opposite a baby-faced Zac Efron in the Disney Channel original movie High School Musical. The flick, a quasi-retread of Grease in which absolutely everyone was too pure to be pink, became a massive hit, picking up 160 million viewers after its premiere in 2006. And Hudgens’s palpable innocence was at the center of it.

Hudgens played Gabriella, a sweet nerd newly arrived at East High. Terrified of being boxed in as the scary math genius at her new school the way she had been at her last, Gabriella instead finds herself accidentally auditioning for the winter musical, facing down East High’s intimidating theater kids in the process. Inspired by Gabriella’s beauty, innocence, and bravery, Zac Efron’s Troy, the macho school jock, admits that he, too, loves to sing and dance, and he, too, auditions for the winter musical.

Gabriella is an icon of sorts for Disney’s ideal of femininity at the time, an example of the kind of girl Disney thought the little girls in the audience should aspire to be. We are told she is smart, a quality mainly demonstrated by her offscreen win at academic decathalon, and that she is kind, a quality mainly demonstrated by her ability to be nice to other boys when the plot demands that Troy become jealous. She is afraid of the spotlight because nice girls are not ambitious, but when pushed into it against her will, she performs admirably. She is unfailingly supportive of Troy’s hopes and dreams, because High School Musical is very much a showcase for Troy in which Gabriella features mainly as a lovely trophy. At the start of the third act of each movie, she breaks up with him to teach him that he has strayed from the path of goodness, and then she sings a sad ballad and then Troy sings an angry ballad.

Disney Channel’s key demographic was and remains kids between the ages of 6 and 14, so any suggestion of sex was out of the question. So pure is Gabriella’s relationship with Troy that they don’t even kiss onscreen until the end of High School Musical 2. Gabriella wears sensible mid-length skirts and one-piece swimsuits. (Efron, it must be admitted, does take off his shirt in the final movie, in a moment that caused audible yelping from the audience when I saw it in theaters in 2008. As ever, boys get more leeway in these things.)

Like many of pop culture’s good girls, Gabriella’s goodness is emphasized by a bad girl foil, Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale). Sharpay, too, is sexless. Her badness is emphasized not by any suggestion of Rizzo-like sluttiness, but by her hyperfemininity, her girly obsession with pink, and her Hilton-esque tiny dog. Sharpay is the reckless striver to Gabriella’s passive achiever. While Gabriella eschews the spotlight unless pushed, Sharpay issues her demands each movie in a rapid-paced “I want” song, and her vindictive scheming is always what sets the plot in motion. At the end of each movie, Sharpay is punished for her high-maintenance ways, while Gabriella is rewarded for her passivity and sweetness.

Gabriella’s passivity and her sexual purity are closely linked. As Valenti lays out in The Purity Myth, the virginal ideal of the Bush era was essentially an ideal by absence: absence of desire, of provocation, of wants of one’s own. “We’re defined by what we don’t do,” Valenti concludes. “Our ethics are the ethics of passivity.”

Disney’s good girls were often held up as the role models families needed in the age of Girls Gone Wild raunch culture, a wholesome and much-needed antidote to the Disney-gone-bad Britneys and Christinas of the world. But Disney’s virginal ideal was less a counter to the midriff-baring bad girls of the ’00s than she was the other side of the same old virgin/whore coin. Valenti cites Lakshmi Chaudhry’s In These Times on this issue.

“Make no mistake, raunch is Republican,” wrote Chaudhry. “The sexuality that reigns supreme in Bush World bears the basic imprimaturs of right-wing ideology: gross materialism, sexual hypocrisy, and acquiescence in the name of empowerment. It is in every sense a conservative wet dream come true.”

It doesn’t take much, in other words, to flip the switch from a good girl to a bad girl. Which is why when pictures leaked of Vanessa Hudgens posing naked, effectively giving the lie to the Gabriella persona, watching moms knew immediately what was going to happen to her: She’d be ruined.

And she almost was. But then, faster than you would have thought, the story died away.

“Who do you want to see naked?”

Hudgens’s nude photographs were first reported by the National Enquirer in September 2007, and within a week they were scattered across the internet on different sites. The reaction was as bad as by now we should know to expect.

The conventional wisdom of the era was that only sluts and stupid girls took nude photos of themselves, and that once the photos existed, no one could reasonably expect to keep them out of the public’s hands. While from the perspective of the 2020s, Hudgens was clearly the victim of a gross invasion of her privacy, in 2007 Hudgens was expected to take the blame for the photos.

Hudgens took her medicine. She accepted the blame, kept her head down, and finished out her term in the High School Musical franchise with a minimum of scandal. But while she sweated out the consequences of her hacker’s actions, the context of this whole story was about to change very rapidly.

The Hudgens photo scandal didn’t only emerge at the tail end of the virginity-obsessed Bush era. It also emerged at the beginning of the camera phone era. The development in technology meant that nude photos were in the process of becoming an increasingly common part of modern courtship — and celebrity nude photos showing up on the internet, in turn, were about to become a staple of the gossip press.

The same year that Hudgens’s nudes leaked, Kim Kardashian saw her sex tape hit the internet after her boyfriend intentionally leaked it. In 2009, hackers leaked nudes of Rihanna, Leighton Meester, and Ashley Greene, among others. In 2010, nudes leaked of Hayley Williams, Blake Lively, Jessica Alba, Kat Dennings, Miley Cyrus, Christina Aguilera, Amber Rose, and Kesha. In 2011, it was Lady Gaga, Scarlett Johansson, and Madonna.

“Now we’re to the point where two celebs can have nude leaks in one day and no one hardly bats an eye,” mused the pop culture website Complex in 2012. (Olivia Munn and Christina Hendricks were the celebs in question.) “We have it so easy these days. Who do you want to see naked?” All you had to do was wait. The internet would deliver.

As this veritable flood of nude celebrity photos made its way onto the internet, the stories we told about those photos began to shift. At a certain point, people had to admit, taking nude pictures seemed less like a particularly kinky perversion and more like just a thing a lot of people were doing these days. It might not even be particularly shameful.

WIth this change in the narrative, a new and more uncomfortable question began to emerge. Was it possible that it was not the women who were wrong for photographing their own naked bodies, but instead the hackers who stole those pictures and distributed them across the internet? Was it possible that it was even wrong for regular people on the internet just to look at the pictures, even if they weren’t the ones who stole them?

In 2014, hackers released a massive photo dump of nude celebrity selfies. The private pictures of dozens of famous actresses raced across the internet, including photos of Jennifer Lawrence, then at arguably the height of her fame. By now, there was a new conventional wisdom in the air when it came to the subject of nude photos.

“Consider this,” instructed Complex. “These women, regardless of their public persona, are entitled to privacy and to express their sexuality however they wish. It’s their basic human right. These women have lives, too.” We were a long way from, “Who do you want to see naked?” and it had only been two years.

The scandal that had once threatened to ruin Vanessa Hudgens drifted gently out of public consciousness. What young female celebrity hadn’t had a nude photo scandal by now? And who didn’t realize that the fault lay with the hackers and not the celebrity?

By the time Me Too rocketed into public focus in 2017, the idea that only sluts and morons took nude photos of themselves and that the public was entitled to see all the naked pictures of actresses it wanted had well and truly died. But the other half of the binary Hudgens represented — the Gabriella half, the archetype of innocence and virginity and passivity — that half would be harder to shake.

Gabriella is still a beloved archetype of teen innocence and youth. She still represents a powerful ideal of who girls should be: unambitious and unneedy, undesiring and uncomplaining, smart and kind but only insofar as those traits remain unthreatening to men. And she lives on in a thousand network police procedurals and children’s TV shows, in web series and YA novels, in Hallmark movies and Netflix rip-offs of Hallmark movies alike. In the Princess Switch franchise, one of those Netflix rip-offs of a Hallmark movie, Hudgens plays three characters, and she only meaningfully departs from the Gabriella archetype in one of them. (Fiona’s more of a Sharpay.)

This character is good less because of what she does than because of what she doesn’t do, her virtue inscribed in the negative space where her character should be. She is, as Valenti argued, good by default, good by virtue of her passivity. She’s what girls learn, still, that they should aspire to be. And it’s hard to imagine that she will ever die.

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