I'm Pretty Sure We Shouldn't Be Celebrating Jesse Williams' Leaked Nudes

The opposite reactions to Williams' and Britney Spears' nudes illustrate the gendered ways we think about nudity, desirability and privacy.

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Stacy Lee Kong

May 13 2022

13 mins read

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Image: Second Stage Theater

‎I don’t mean to be blunt, but if you have been on Twitter this week, it’s likely you’ve seen Jesse Williams’ penis and… I think we need to talk about it.

No, not like that. And also, not that there’s anything wrong with being naked. Mostly, I think bodies are just bodies. We all have one, and how much or how little we wear has very little bearing on, well, anything. But after leaked footage of a nude scene from the Broadway play Take Me Out went viral on Monday, it was kind of weird to see basically the entire internet not only thirst over Williams but gleefully share the video, even though the act of doing so was a really clear breach of privacy. That was in sharp contrast to how some people talked about Britney Spears’ most recent nude photo dump, which took more of a pearl-clutching tone, with some internet commenters even questioning her sanity.

There’s a lot going on here—double standards, ableism, consent, toxic masculinity, privacy. So I think it’s worth looking at these two situations as case studies on how we talk about nakedness and the points of tension within our society that these conversations illuminate.

Sorry, *where* did this nude photo of Jesse Williams come from?

Williams is currently starring in the Broadway revival of Take Me Out, which explores what would happen if an athlete at the height of his career were to come out as gay. His character, Darren Lemming, is a biracial pro baseball player who decides to announce his sexuality to the media, thinking his revelation will be nbd. He is very wrong; while some of his teammates and members of the public are unwaveringly supportive, others are horrifically homophobic.

‎The play, which originally debuted in 2002 when there had not yet been a single openly gay active baseball player, is set mainly in the locker room, a deliberate choice that highlights the tension between Lemming and his teammates. And in that context, it makes sense to include a shower scene since sexual attraction remains an unfounded but enduring source of concern around openly gay male athletes. (In 2013, when Brooklyn Nets centre Jason Collins came out, his teammates’ potential discomfort with sharing the locker room was a major part of the discourse. And not much had changed by 2021, when Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first openly gay active NFL player.) The point of the scene is clearly not titillation, which is why the theatre requires audience members to lock their devices in Yondr pouches that can’t be unlocked until the end of the show. These pouches have become standard at comedy shows and even some concerts as a way to create an immersive experience—and control how artists’ intellectual property is shared. But in this case, there was another purpose: to create a safe space where actors could feel comfortable being vulnerable. (And I do mean actors; Williams isn’t the only cast member who strips down in Take Me Out.)  

Which, to me, makes one theatre-goer’s decision to either hide their phone or sneak a second phone into the show to record Williams during this scene so, well, icky. I mean, it’s a pretty clear-cut case of broken consent, right? He chose to appear nude in one specific context—on stage, with clear rules governing who would see him, when that would happen, and for how long—but someone broke these rules, so now he is appearing nude in a totally different context, without having made that choice himself.

Covertly recording and leaking this footage is sexual harassment

‎That’s certainly how the theatre company that’s staging Take Me Out sees it; on Tuesday, Second Stage Theater released a statement saying, “taking naked pictures of anyone without their consent is highly objectionable and can have severe legal consequences. Posting it on the internet is a gross and unacceptable violation of trust between the actor and audience forged in the theater community. We are actively pursuing takedown requests and ask that no one participates in the distribution of these images.”

Williams’ co-star, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, reposted Second Stage’s statement with a scathing comment, saying he was “appalled by the disrespect shown to the actors of our company whose vulnerability on stage every night is crucial to Take Me Out.”

And on Wednesday, the Actors’ Equity Association released a statement of its own, characterizing the leak as “both sexual harassment and an appalling breach of consent.” As the association’s president, Kate Shindle, went on to explain, “at every performance, there is a mutual understanding between the audience and the performers that we are sharing an experience limited to this time and place; that trust makes it possible for us to be exposed both emotionally and physically. [This] is a violation that impedes our collective ability to tell stories with boldness and bravery."

‎These are not overstatements—it is literally against the law to publish an intimate image without consent in Canada, most U.S. states and several other countries around the world. What’s more, in other contexts, we quite easily understand what a violation it would be to have naked photos made extremely public against your will. In 2014, when a handful of male hackers published 500 private photos of mostly-female celebrities, some of them nudes, there was an immediate, widespread, mainstream repudiation of the men and, eventually, legal action. And when Chris Evans accidentally shared his own nude in 2020, which promptly made #ChrisEvans trend, there was an entire internet campaign to bury the photos by posting cute animals or safe-for-work photos of the actor under the hashtag. So what’s different this time?

Jesse Williams hasn’t made a statement about his unintentional dick pic, but pretty much everyone else has

I think it comes down to three things: first, the fact that as a society, we still don’t have a great understanding of consent, especially when it comes to cis men. It’s almost like our society thinks men are in a constant state of being consenting, when actually, just like anybody else, they are entitled to decide what they want to do with their bodies on a case-by-case basis. (You can tell that we don’t worry much about men giving consent because when you Google “men consent” almost all of the results are about what straight men need to know about women’s consent.) This is classic toxic masculinity! It frames men as so sex-obsessed that it's unthinkable they would reject any sexual advances; saying no is not even an option. That's bad for men because it perpetuates the still widespread idea that they can't be victimized, which is obviously untrue, and bad for everyone else because it directly contributes to a society where many men learn not to respect other people's consent.

I also wonder if race plays a role. In 2020, Cardi B accidentally posted a nude photo of herself and because humans are predictable, it also went viral. But not like Evans' did that same year. Instead, people not only shared the photo, but they also mocked her for the size of her areolae. As I wrote back then, "Cardi’s Blackness plays a huge role in the public’s feelings of entitlement to her body. As Teen Vogue’s Brittney McNamara explained back in August about the 'WAP' controversy, 'the stigma is increased [for Black women and women of color]. Since Black people were enslaved in America, Black women have been oversexualized, falsely seen as having animalistic sexual desires to either be exploited or suppressed.'" Black men are also oversexualized and fetishized, with dire real-world results. As writer Jason Okundaye argued in British GQ in 2020, "the over-sexualisation [sic] of black masculinity has, historically, led to intense surveillance and intervention over [Black men's] bodies." It's also dehumanizing. (Just ask 90s R&B sensation D'Angelo.)

And the last thing is the size of Williams’ penis. I know that sounds weird. I didn’t love typing it, tbh. But I do really think that’s a factor here. Williams’ body isn’t one we think he should be ashamed of. He’s attractive, fit and well-endowed—he exemplifies the Western masculine ideal, which makes it easy to believe that he doesn’t have any hang-ups about his appearance and that sharing these photos won’t feel like a violation to him because the attention he’s receiving is ‘positive.’ We think that all straight men want to be sexually desired by women, all the time, even though that’s not necessarily true.

‎That attitude explains why there were so many thirsty tweets, Grey’s Anatomy reaction gifs, and perhaps most shockingly, joke-y articles and posts from big media brands, right? “Allow me to thank the brave audience member who, I imagine, smuggled in a secondary smart device in order to take this video for social media,” wrote Gawker’s Kelly Conaboy. “While you may not receive the credit you are due today, person, I am certain your service will pay out in good karma for the remainder of your life. Amen.” Netflix’s Strong Black Lead sub-brand posted a casual reminder that 17 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy is streaming on the platform complete with a photo of Williams licking his lips, and commenters—including the streaming service’s chief marketing officer, Bozoma Saint John—loved it. On The View, co-host Sunny Hostin gushed over Williams’ body, saying, “he looks gorgeous, he looks beautiful, his body is beautiful, and—this is serious—I have at least 20 friends that have now bought tickets because of what they saw.”

Hostin went on to say that she felt better about how many times she’d looked at the video because Williams appeared on an episode of Watch What Happens Live on Monday, where he told host Andy Cohen that bodies are not that big of a deal. And he did say that. His exact quote was, “everybody makes such a big deal. It's a body. Once you see it, you realize, whatever. It's a body. I just have to not make it that big of a deal.” But while that interview might have dropped on Monday, according to the New York Post, Ferguson clarified via Twitter that it was taped last week, so while we do know how Williams feels about a role that requires nudity, we don’t actually have a clue what he thinks about someone sharing an illicitly recorded video of it. (Ferguson’s tweet has now been deleted.)

‎Britney Spears’ nudity, on the other hand, is being portrayed as weird

Now, compare the conversations we’ve seen about the leaked footage of William to the recent criticism Britney Spears has received for posting her own nudes. Salon rounded up some of the most problematic comments, from people who said she was "crazy" and "ridiculous," to those who characterized her posts as a "cry for help," to a truly disturbing number of people who said her posts were proof her conservatorship should be reinstated.

But as USA Today pointed out, she’s not crying for help; she’s clearly trying to reclaim her independence. “Feminists and sociologists say over the past year the public has witnessed Spears fight for autonomy—over her body, her career, her finances, her future. While many facets of Spears' life remain opaque, including clarity around any existing mental health issues, experts say she has made repeated efforts to reclaim power—whether by addressing the court about what she called an abusive conservatorship, or by posting nude photos of her body,” according to writer Jenna Ryu.

‎Unlike Williams, she’s choosing to post these photos. The fact that she posts well after she takes these photos, curating the shots she likes best and editing them so they fit the aesthetic she's chosen, indicates that publishing them is not an impulsive decision. And the entire premise of the photos is about emancipation; she is, or at least is trying to be, comfortable in her own skin. (She has explicitly talked about the act of posting these photos being empowering for her.) So, why aren’t we lauding her nudity?

I think at least part of the reason is a desire for Spears to ‘behave herself.’ Many of the comments her post received were straight-up ableist, implying, or outright saying, that without the conservatorship, she’s erratic or unhinged, even though plenty of stars post nudes—and for them, it's considered empowering. (I mean, in other naked news, this week Hilary Duff was enthusiastically praised for posing naked on the cover of Women’s Health and talked about learning to 'accept her body'—even though she is a thin, white, cisgender woman who has a lot of money and privilege, and who was, by her own admission, covered in makeup and posed in the most flattering positions for the shoot, not to mention almost certainly Photoshopped.)

‎But I also wonder if part of it is about how women are 'supposed' to look. Spears' photos aren't polished. Yes, she is still a thin white lady, but she's not in the sexiest, most flattering pose, her makeup isn't perfectly applied—and she doesn't care. In a way, it's the flip side of what's happening with Williams. If the internet's take is that it's not a big deal that footage of him was released without his consent because of how he looks, then doesn't it track that people have the opposite reaction to the photos Spears posts of herself because she doesn't look the way we demand female celebrities look?

Which is funny, because of all the people whose naked bodies we’ve discussed this week, maybe the only one who actually deserves the praise and positivity is Spears, whose charmingly lo-fi nudes are imperfect, not designed to sell us anything (including harmful ideas about body image) and released with consent.


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And Did You Hear About…

The TikTok-famous dance cult.

In light of three recent allegations of grooming against director Cary Joji Fukunaga, this Lainey Gossip breakdown of his creepy past.

This Washington Post feature on why celebrities abandoned Twitter after it turned into a “high-risk, low-reward platform.”

The Cut’s Claire Lampen on why so many people refuse to believe Amber Heard, which touches on something I’ve also been thinking about: what happened to all that progress the #MeToo movement supposedly made?

Refinery29 writer Maybelle Morgan’s spot-on piece about whether knowing too much about celebrities makes them, well, boring. (The words “tap water vibes” are used to great effect, fyi.)

This excellent Q&A with the writer who invented the term “adulting” in 2013, which covers everything from being a millennial guru whose life basically falls apart to crafting and the number of divorces her most recent book inspired (more than three!).

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Jesse Williams
Britney Spears
Jesse Tyler Ferguson