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Scandal or Sex Crime? A Naked Approach to Jennifer Lawrence’s Nude Photo Hack Framing

November 10, 2014

Most recently known for her role as Katniss Everdeen in the book series turned movie franchise The Hunger Games, 24-year old actress, Jennifer Lawrence, is a prominent public celebrity. Recognized for her quick-witted and unapologetically sarcastic and at times crude nature, Lawrence frequently speaks candidly to the press. Besides being my spirit animal (–yes, people can be spirit animals), she is considered by many to be an extremely talented and well-accomplished actor, starring in movies such as Winter’s Bone, Silver Linings Playbook, X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past, and American Hustle.

A few weeks ago, nude photos of the actress were leaked on websites like Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr (though many have since been taken down). From what we know, the photos were taken by Lawrence and were intended only to be viewed by her then boyfriend, Nicholas Hoult (who acted alongside Lawrence in X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past).

In a recent Vanity Fair article, Lawrence was interviewed about her career, personal life, and release of these personal photos. When asked, Lawrence explained her concern that it would affect her acting career, though quickly turned the tables to focus on what she considered to be the wrongness of the photo hacking. As a rhetorician, female, feminist, and personal fan, I was particularly interested by the ways in which Lawrence framed the issue not as a scandal or something to be embarrassed about, but rather as a sex crime committed against her. One way to approach this framing is through Kenneth Burke’s philosophy of Terministic Screens, which remind us of the relationship between language and ideology—particularly the ways in which language not only reflect reality, but also help us select and deflect reality.

In this sense, Lawrence employed a rhetorical strategy by reframing the issue of privacy and what it means to commit a sex crime. I see her doing this in three ways:

  1. By telling us the images weren’t meant for the public to see,
  2. By calling the publicity surrounding the photo leak a sex crime, and
  3. By insisting that those who hacked and viewed the photos be ashamed of themselves.

Breaking it down, Lawrence first reframes the issue by telling us the images were not meant for our eyes, but rather for her boyfriend. She explains, “I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.” By establishing that the images were never meant to be distributed publicly, Lawrence makes a distinction between herself and say, other individuals who willingly pose nude for the public. This statement could be analyzed further, but for the sake of brevity I’ll take you to the next point, which is that she reframed the issue as one about sex crimes against women, rather than just ‘another female celebrity nudie scandal.’ She states, “It [the incident] is not a scandal. It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation… It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change.” Here she deliberately places a value judgment on the fact that her photos where hacked, and legitimizes her position by naming the act as a sex crime/sexual violation.

After reframing the incident (from scandal to sex crime), Lawrence tells us we should feel shame for posting and viewing the photos. She explains:

“Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame…. Even people who I know and love say, ‘Oh, yeah, I looked at the pictures.’ I don’t want to get mad, but at the same time I’m thinking, I didn’t tell you that you could look at my naked body. Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this…. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting.”

Here Lawrence further instantiates her distinction between scandal and sex crime by pointing out she did not give permission for others to view her photos and that being a public figure does not give others the right to violate her privacy.

Is should also be noted that Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the only female celebrity who has found themselves in this situation. Other female celebrities, including (but sadly not limited to) Kate Upton, Demi Lavato, Ariana Grande, and Kirsten Dunst, have also been hacked and had their personal photographs taken from iCloud. I wonder, might they have employed a similar rhetorical reframing when their photos came to light?

One thing’s for sure: if tripping up the stairs while accepting an Academy Award for Best Actress at the 2013 Oscars hasn’t stopped Lawrence from remaining her hilariously blunt and fearlessly real pizza-loving self, I seriously doubt a photo hack will.

If you want to know more:

  • For a more thorough explanation of Kenneth Burke’s Terministic Screen (and other philosophy), I recommend turning to his book, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method—particularly Part 1: Chapter 3, which delves into an explanation of Terministic Screens and its significance to rhetorical criticism.
  • You might also take a look at the work of sociologist Ervin Goffman who is best known for his contribution to social theory and symbolic interaction. His book, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, explains how conceptual frames structure a person’s perception of society.
  • Given the recent rise in celebrity photo hacking, more information about what is being done to address the issue can be found here and here.
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