Friday, September 14, 2012

Nobody Asked Me, But...

The subject of Duchess Kate's rumoured topless photos raises a whole raft of questions that I've been meaning to address with respect to privacy, celebrity and of course, the rights of public people to protection from hoi polloi.
First, you'd think the media, in light of the still-sad death of the Princess of Wales, would be extra cautious in dealing with members of the British royal family. And you'd be wrong. And I think, if anything, Kate will have it harder than Diana ever did.
Diana didn't have to deal with the pervasiveness and immediacy of the Internet, for one thing, at least not to the degree this generation will have to. The 24 hour news cycle of cable TV news has been replaced by the 86,400 second news cycle of the Internet, and the person who gets their first, wins.
That's just a fact. It's also a fact that any laws or edicts that were passed in the wake of the death of Diana are woefully out of date: it's going to be very hard to close the barn door after the horse has sprinted out, as those photos are copied and distributed globally in the blink of an eye. Those photos of Kate probably earned the photographer a million bucks a piece. The magazine will make that many times over in sales and licensing fees.
I do not think there is a conceivable law that would prevent that kind of money from exchanging hands. Indeed, cracking down legally will only raise the stakes, as photographers will demand more money for greater risks and the supply of candid photos dries up, forcing demand up when they do appear. There really is an appeal for photos that are not staged and posed.
I'm afraid privacy will be a quaint concept for public figures from here on in, especially as we wrestle with balancing that right with the overriding right to freedom of the press and other First Amendment rights. But it gets worse.
With the rise of reality television, we now have an open window into anyone's life, or at least, feel we do. This frees us to snoop on our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers. Don't believe me? Ever Google a boy/girlfriend? That's a form of cyberstalking.
This facet, I think, is the key element to solving the problem. It's not about the paparazzi. They feed a market.
Ultimately, we are the problem and the solution. I think we're heading towards a boiling point, where individually we have to decide we don't care about the problems of the rich, the celebrated, and other people around us. It makes us feel better to see Snooki staggering around drunk, but why? What guilty pleasure could we possibly get?
More, why would we want to watch? It means we care, right? Why do we care about someone like that, or anyone else on reality TV? They're trying to earn a buck, so they're making shit up as they go. They're just not labelling it "fiction."
By watching, we each of us have lost some of the rationale for the defense of privacy in our own lives. If you say, "My private life is my own," then tune into watch the Kardashians under the guise that you're getting a glimpse into their private life....well, that's a little hypocritical, don't you agree?
This is not to say that either you or I will become a full-screen spread on some tittilating website, far from it, but our activities online expose us to the world: not just our friends and families, but our foes and adversaries, and even completely uninterested parties.
Exhibit A? The viral video. Many, if not most, are posted with the idea that they'll be viewed by as many people as possible, like that one about the history of dance in 60 seconds. But others, like the Numa Numa Guy, were probably intended as a goof among friends, but took over because someone looked over someone else's shoulder, either literally or figuratively.
Invaded privacy, in other words. In this case, benignly. This is not, and will not, always be the case.
The faster we hoi polloi get that, the faster celebrities can begin to reclaim their own privacy, what shards they may.
See, here's the bottom line: the rationale for photos of Kate, or Kim or Snooki or whomever, is that the more they ask for publicity, the more open they are to exploitation. You could make a couple of cases that the Duchess did not ask for publicity, but in fact by marrying into the royal family she has, since the royals themselves are essentially public creatures.
You cannot claim that she was an innocent, that her eyes were closed going in. The royals' case is a special kind of "public figure," to be sure, and I'm sure British law will find someway to try and protect them better, but they will never prevent this from happening again.
Until we decide we no longer need to see the breasts of a beautiful famous woman, until we decide we no longer need to exploit other people and objectify them, we will see this kind of offense, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.