Consider this: You’ve just seen a movie. You didn’t expect to enjoy it and now that you’ve left the theater, dusted the popcorn kernels off your shirt, and complained about the steep price of entertainment these days, you find yourself outraged. The writing was terrible, the acting was poor, and, because the film was a reboot, you feel that an important part of your childhood has been forcibly torn out of your torso, leaving a gaping wound where memories of joy and happiness once resided.
Now imagine you know where one of the stars — the one you hate the most because of reasons apparent only to you (but definitely not because she’s a black woman) — lives. Would you drive to her house to yell at her? Would you break in, rifle through the drawers of her nightstand? Would you take her most personal possessions — including her driver’s license and intimate photos never meant for you — and then share your conquest with the world, happily comparing this woman to a gorilla just because you find her annoying? Or would the fear of legal action and your own sense of morality stop you?
If you wouldn’t do the above to a person in real life — because you’re not a sociopath — why is it so easy to do (or cosign) online? And why is such an assault on someone’s privacy, someone’s body, less of a crime when it comes from behind a screen?
But forget the hypotheticals. If you’ve been following the news, you already know that Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was cruelly and viciously attacked on Wednesday — the regular content of her personal website replaced with pictures of the comedian’s passport and driver’s license, selfies of Jones with celebrities, and nude photos stolen from her iCloud account. A video of Harambe, the gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo, was plastered at the top of the page. And what’s worse, while Jones’ supporters rallied around her, others made light of the violation.
On Breitbart, an “alt-right” news site where the abuse of Jones began after blogger Milo Yiannopoulos sent hordes of his followers after her in July, people joked about vomiting at the thought of seeing Jones’ nudes. One commenter suggested that Jones had released the photos herself for attention. ”Who would be interested in viewing this hideous simian?” he added.
On Twitter, users made jokes about the actress’ nude form. They posted pictures of Harambe (with Jones’ head on his body, this time). Elsewhere, internet commenters admonished Jones for taking the nude photos in the first place — willfully ignoring the fact that this form of victim blaming grows from the same logic tree where we ask rape victims what they did to provoke their attackers. And while many will go to their deaths arguing that because Jones was never touched physically, what happened to her wasn’t truly grievous, it’s pretty clear that the ‘hack’ was an assault, a violation, and any other word you can think of that describes a person or group of people causing deep personal trauma to another human being.
Make no mistake: What happened to Jones wasn’t “trolling.” It was a hate crime. Most importantly, what happened to Jones is a terrifying reminder that in the age of the internet, there’s precious little protection for the people most vulnerable to this type of attack, and plenty of people who’ll happily applaud it while spouting clichés about why people should never expect a right to privacy.
But why Leslie Jones? In a post about the hacking, Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies pointed out that Jones is the target of vitriol for several major reasons: She’s black, she’s a woman, she’s successful, and she refuses to lay down when people come at her. Jones is also older (nearly 50) and doesn’t fit in the historic movie star mold. She is too talented to be relegated to bit parts and refuses to conform to stereotypes, and because of that, the men who hate her (overwhelmingly men, overwhelmingly white) are driven into a state of frenzy by her mere existence.
Jones’ continued success is not just an affront because it ruins childhood memories of a classic film that got “meh” reviews, but because the people who hate her are frightened by the fact that their childhoods — filled mostly by white men with an occasional cameo by a minority actor — are no longer a real representation of the world. Jones has too much, is too much and therefore needs to be destroyed.
“It’s about a loss of identity,” Tiffany McLain, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist with extensive clinical experience in the field of cultural competence told us. “For a long time white folks have been the norm, and they’ve maintained the status quo. When you start bringing in people from other ethnic backgrounds into the public consciousness and you put them in situations where it’s not about them being the other, that is inherently, on an unconscious level, a threat to identity.”
“On a conscious level,” McLain says, “people don’t think ‘I’m racist.’ Many people will agree that ‘everyone has equal status.’ But when you see someone not white actually elevated to equal status — not just a sidekick, not just a best friend — it allows us to see how invested we are in our perceptions of who is the norm and who is the other. It’s totally freaking people out.”
McLain says the imagery used to assault Jones is a major tell. “The comparison to animals and beasts,”McLain explains, “was used to justify the practice of slavery. It was used during the civil rights era to explain why people of color should be denied equality.” And it’s being used now to dehumanize Jones, allowing her attackers to not see her as a human being deserving of respect from others.
“If it’s not because she’s black, what is it about? We need to invite that conversation,” McLain says. Her tone isn’t accusatory, it’s a reminder that we must ask that question every time a claim of racism is dismissed out of hand. It may be uncomfortable to consider why Jones is the only star of Ghostbusters to have her physical safety threatened (with Jones’ identifying information published online, it’s not a leap to assume that she must feel unsafe both in public and in her own home). It’s also imperative that we do so in order to make sure that we understand when an attack is based in deep-seated racism.
In a post on Lainey Gossip, the site’s author further unpacked the motivation behind the attacks, pointing out that they’re not born out of a fear of Leslie Jones alone, but a frenzied panic about what Jones actually represents — “she broke the rule, the rule that says that a black woman who won’t conform can’t be popular and successful while being proud and outspoken” — and what it would mean if she were allowed (allowed) to be an inspiration to others.
“…most importantly, what would happen if there were more Leslie Joneses? THAT is the great fear, isn’t it? So for those of you who’ve emailed to ask why, why did that happen to her? What did they do that to her? Because they weren’t just hacking Leslie Jones. They were hacking the hope that Leslie Jones represents, sending a message to others who might hope for the same. They were trying to kill the hope that Leslie Jones represents. This was an attack on equality.”
One of the reasons that it may be easy to dismiss the siege of Jones’ website as “just trolling” is because we don’t know how much hate is being directed at her because she’s black, and how much of it has been lobbed her way because she’s a woman. When we get into the tricky issue of intersectionality — Jones is a member of two oft-targeted groups — it’s sometimes easiest to just ignore it.
Dr. Moya Bailey, a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies professor at Northeastern University and the creator of the term misogynoir — coined to describe the specific type of hatred directed towards black women — told us that both the language and the imagery used to belittle Jones makes it clear that it’s neither pure racism nor pure misogyny that is fueling this hate. Instead, a combination of the two — the gorilla references (which are tied to black people specifically), the disgusting comments about her looks (and framing them in context of her gender) — is the driving force behind what’s going on.
Bailey also noted that Jones’ tribulations due to her race and gender aren’t just confined to assaults by internet hate mobs. Her experience in Hollywood, Bailey says, pointing to the drama that erupted when Jones couldn’t find a designer willing to dress her for the Ghostbusters premiere despite the opportunity to get their work shown, is another example of how the mainstream treats dark-skinned women that “don’t have the features people have come to expect from a black woman that’s been allowed to be an A-lister.”
“All of these things,” Bailey says, “contribute to the violence that Jones has experienced or could experience.”
In the past 48 hours, the theft of Jones’ nude photos has often been compared to “The Fappening,” a 2014 leak in which many major female celebrities — including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton — saw intimate photos they’d uploaded to iCloud get plastered all over the internet. It’s an easy comparison to make, because both incidents are gross miscarriages of justice and because some have held them against each other as some perverted example of equality — but it’s also a lazy and disingenuous one. The 2014 leak was charged by voyeurism and sexual objectification. The humiliation of the women affected was, of course, implicit, but it wasn’t the main purpose of the leak.
In Leslie Jones’ case, humiliation was the only objective. “Look at her,” the pictures, juxtaposed with images of Harambe, screamed. “How dare she consider herself a sexual being?”
It’s cruel, it’s demented, and just the thought of someone treating another human being this way — for what? for starring in a movie? for refusing to bow to fan pressure? — should, at the very least, make all of us nauseous. It’s too late to protect Jones, but what will be done, what can be done to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again?
In the days since the leak, celebrities have rallied around Jones on Twitter. Hillary Clinton tweeted her support. The FBI is investigating. So is Homeland Security. There’s hope that whoever perpetrated this crime will be found and brought to justice. But legal consequences won’t be an end of the story. Not only are such crimes still so new that we don’t know how seriously to take them, but the nude photos will live on the internet in perpetuity where others can look at them and resurface them.
Moya Bailey hopes that Jones’ fame will ensure that such crimes are taken seriously, but she laments the fact that this is what it takes — especially in light of the fact that women and people of color who aren’t famous get harassed online every day.
“The kind of violence people threaten to do online,” Bailey says, “has been proven to happen in real life. The anonymity of Twitter has people saying that it doesn’t matter, but a lot of the violence that people enact in the digital space eventually moves out of that realm. This is something that has been happening to people for a long time.”
And then there’s the issue of who to punish and for what. When hordes of anonymous perpetrators get involved, it’s hard to tell who swift justice should be brought upon. “It’s a cultural hate crime,” Tiffany McLain says. “It’s all kinds of people. It’s not two people who murdered someone due to race. What do you do when a hate crime is being perpetrated by a culture. Who do you convict?”
Both Bailey and McLain agree that the situation must be transformed, not ameliorated in order for there to be change. But transformation takes a lot of slow and painful work, and it means reflecting on our own biases, educating others, and not being afraid to acknowledge and call out racism and misogyny when we see it. And it’s important, McLain says, to remember that the internet is a real place, not just something that loses and gains meaning when it’s convenient. “People tell you not to participate in that part of society,” she says, “but you have to participate in society. You have no other choice.” It may have been easy to quit Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat several years ago, but can you really unplug now, when these apps represent an important part of functioning in society?”
“What needs to happen is a real connect between people’s words and people’s actions, beyond just espousing anti-racist beliefs,” Bailey says. “It’s about really challenging the white people in their families who have these views, actually dealing with the reality of white supremacy as opposed to putting the onus on us to have a different conversation. Attacking the root of it all is much more effective than just talking about it.”
“People not wanting to engage is how racism sustains itself,” she continues. “I don’t know if you want to engage in it publicly. I don’t know that call out culture gets us closer to the world we want. It’s engaging with people one-on-one and part of that is drawing on relationships with people who respect and love you, who will say your opinion matters to me so I will take that under consideration. It isn’t something that gets solved overnight. It’s definitely something that is ongoing. But people have to be willing to do that slow work.”
And that slow work means keeping the issues of racism and sexism in mind in your everyday life, days, months, and years after we’ve decided that we’ve collectively devoted enough time to this particular violation. “I think there’s something people find gratifying in something like #istandwithleslie and that’s really wonderful for her,” Bailey says. “But it’s really in the day-to-day actions where people start changing their minds and behavior.”
Mark Shrayber is senior writer at Uproxx Life. You can contact him directly on Twitter.