Last month, actress and comedian Leslie Jones was the newest victim of a celebrity photo leak: someone hacked her website on Tumblr and posted what seemed to be stolen nude photos of her as well as personal information, including images of her passport and driver’s license. The website was quickly taken down, but multiple sources reported that photos of Jones engaging in sex acts had been uploaded, as well as a video of Harambe, the slain Cincinnati Zoo gorilla. This caused the cyber attack to be described as an example of misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey to describe misogyny directed toward black women in American popular culture.
It became popular to repeat the claim that Jones was specifically targeted (by racist trolls) “simply for existing as a black woman online,” but that glosses over the events that led up to her website hack. Conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter after Jones claimed he and his followers sent her a barrage of sexist and racist tweets and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey personally intervened.
However, it was not Yiannopoulos but another user who posted false tweets (faked screen caps) purportedly by Jones and set the internet mob on her. Some Twitter users have also disputed the claim that Yiannopoulos was the cause of Jones’ harassment since it appeared that she had already been arguing with other, lesser-known users before Yiannopoulos even engaged with her. Jones even called one black woman a “bitch” after the woman suggested that other actresses would have been better than Jones’ in her role in Ghostbusters. If harassment toward a black woman is considered misogynoir just because it references the victim’s race and gender, why isn’t Jones guilty of it here?
To suggest that Jones’ hack was sexist would be to argue that her gender played a significant role in her website cyber attack, but it’s just as likely that her photos were distributed as an act of revenge because the suspension of Yiannopoulos’ account (but not Jones’) angered some of his fans. As the Verge noted, “Twitter didn’t provide examples of the targeted abuse or harassment [Yiannopoulos] was banned over…and he wasn’t directly responsible for the more egregious messages [Jones] got.” Twitter said that targeted abuse and inciting abuse is not permitted on its platform, but this rule doesn’t seem to apply to rank-and-file users, nor does it apply to Jones when she herself encouraged her fans to respond to those who were tweeting hateful messages at her.
It’s also difficult to make the claim that all revenge porn is sexist by definition, since intrusion of privacy laws protect both men and women, and according to this survey, men get threatened to have their photos exposed online more than women (12% vs. 8%) and men have those threats carried out more often than women (63% vs. 50%). However, more women than men seem to be victims of revenge porn that posted online without prior warning and women and girls suffer greater social consequences, especially among teens who blame the victims. If the media only portrays women as victims, and men as perpetrators, that creates a culture where online social platforms protect female harassers and local law enforcement don’t prosecute female offenders.
Because Jones is black and an image of Harambe was posted on the top of her website, some writers have described the website hack as a hate crime. The person who posted that video may in fact be racist, but for something to be a race-based hate crime, it’s not enough to say that the person is racist generally: the act itself would need to motivated by that bias. If assaulting someone outside a mosque while calling him a “fucking terrorist” doesn’t meet the legal definition of a hate crime, we must believe that the standard we hold for what is a hate crime must be extremely high, and it’s unclear that a comparison to a gorilla would meet that legal threshold.
Posting nude photos as revenge is done to titillate the audience by humiliating the subject, and that can happen to anyone, regardless of their race. In August of 2014, up to 200 intimate images of celebrities were posted on the image sharing site 4chan, in a massive security breach called The Fappening. Private images were released in stages and victims included many young, white, blonde women, most notably Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Kirsten Dunst.
Jones’ success on Saturday Night Live and on Ghostbusters might bring her unwanted attention, but her fame also comes with some clear benefits, such as immediate assistance first from Twitter, and then, from the FBI. “There are 400 new threats every minute,” according to a 195-page report on cybersecurity, but just one day after Jones’ website was hacked and her photos published online, Homeland Security opened an investigation into her case.
If Jones were targeted because she is black, female, middle-aged and successful, why don’t we see the same intensity of hatred or harassment toward, say, Oprah Winfrey? Winfrey is more famous than Jones, so wouldn’t that anger the racists who don’t like Jones because she’s black and successful? Winfrey is a self-made billionaire who rejects marriage and children, so wouldn’t that send the sexists into a frenzy? It would be naïve to think that Oprah Winfrey never faces insults or criticisms. She clearly does, but she has her own way of dealing with hecklers: Don’t feed the trolls. She simply focuses on her own success. “Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism,” said Winfrey.