This morning, Vanity Fair published a summary of its November issue's cover story, an article about Jennifer Lawrence that looks to be a typical Celebrity Profile—her development as an actress, her dealings with her fame, maybe a burger at the Chateau Marmont—in every way but one: It actually makes news. Well, sort of. In the profile, the 25-year-old Lawrence speaks "for the first time," VF says, about having nude photos of herself hacked and distributed across the Internet.
"Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” Lawrence tells the writer Sam Kashner. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can’t believe that we even live in that kind of world.”
She adds: "It 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. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.”
This is heady stuff, and good stuff. Lawrence is talking about ethics. She's talking about law. She's talking about, essentially, decency in the age of digital reproduction. And she's also, of course, talking about the tensions that inevitably exist in a world mediated by images. The line between objectification and empowerment is a notoriously thin one, particularly for women. Is that short skirt—or that low-cut shirt, or that nude Snapchat—liberating, or something else? In an environment saturated by images and therefore expectations, where does control end, and victimhood begin? "She" versus "her," subject versus object ... images, whether sent or stolen, capture all of those things.
Which is why it is extremely ironic—and maybe also extremely fitting—that Lawrence's thoughts on the ethics of imagery have been presented to the world through the picture in the magazine. A picture that carries the revealing headline "Both Huntress and Prey" and also, you cannot help but notice, the air of a nude selfie. (And also, you cannot help but notice, one extremely misplaced cockatoo.)
The picture itself—bird, baubles, breasts, "both"—carries its own telling tension. On the one hand, you have a story in which Lawrence, the smart, sassy celebrity, refers to the spread of images of her body as a "sex crime." You have her arguing that the mere act of looking at those images, never mind stealing them, makes someone complicit in that crime. You have her using her fame—and the considerable power over hearts and minds that comes with it—to appeal to common decency, and also to shape, in these still-early days of Internet, the relationship between The Culture and The Image.
But then: There's that image. Which features—really, focuses on—that pair of buoyant breasts. It's another strain of nude photo, the classic kind if not the fully classy kind, the kind that has been running in Vanity Fair and its fellow celebrity magazines for decades now. The crucial difference between this and the leaked images, of course, is that this one isn't fully nude and that, more to the point, Lawrence approved its publication. The power dynamics here—and the moral and legal dynamics, too—come down to consent. And to this image, and the straight-ahead shot on the magazine's cover, Lawrence has given her approval. Or, well, some combination of Lawrence and Lawrence's management and Vanity Fair and Vanity Fair's management and the American breast-industrial complex have given their approval.
Regardless, the compound message is this: "Do not look at my breasts!" and also "Oh, hey, here are my breasts." Lawrence is, with one image, saying both of those things. But she's saying much more, too—about magazines, about fame, about images themselves, about the tensions everyday women navigate as they both react to, and participate in, a media-driven culture.
Here is a sentence I never expected to write, but really: That cockatoo is all of us. It's facing away from Lawrence, yet perched on her; it's part of the image, yet not at all part of the point. It's awkward. It's probably wondering why, and how, it all came to this. And part of the answer is Lawrence herself, as person, as body, as celebrity. Lawrence wants us to look at her—on some level, she needs us to look at her. But she wants us—and she needs us—to do our looking in the way that she specifies. Who has the power in that relationship? We all do. And, also, none of us do.