Pop-Culture | Posted by Frances Nguyen on 10/7/2016
Public Women Are Not Public Property
Ukrainian social media personality Vitalii Sediuk is having a hard time with the definition of “assault.” Rather, the self-described “prankster”— who is responsible for assaulting both Gigi Hadid outside a Milan fashion show on September 22nd and Kim Kardashian West a week later in Paris—regarded both incidents as public protests. Apparently, he opposes Hadid’s inclusion in high fashion and Kardashian West’s alleged butt implants. As he captioned his now-infamous Instagram photo of the attack on Kardashian West, “I encourage her and the rest of Kardashian clan to popularize natural beauty among teenage girls who follow and defend them blindly.”
Though Sediuk is entitled to his opinions (and entitled they are), his actions in both instances did not respectfully express these beliefs. They were neither social commentary nor performance art. These actions weren’t pranks, as he has defensively claimed. They were assaults. He violated those women and their right to their own bodies and personal sense of safety; we must not assign any further pageantry to his actions.
In both well-documented instances, what’s most alarming is this man’s assertion of his opinions through physical, unwanted bodily contact. He wanted attention, he needed a platform, and he used these women’s bodies as a vehicle to amplify his own celebrity. Consent is at best an afterthought here.
The only thing worse than Sediuk labeling his actions as a “style of entertainment” is the public’s consumption of them as such. When the story first broke, and photos showing Hadid elbowing Sediuk in the face in self-defense were released, the kneejerk public reaction was to victim shame her. Hadid was described as “aggressive” for having “lashed out” at Sediuk, who at the time was simply described as a fan. On social media, conversations were spun around the model’s lack of grace and humility in her treatment of her fans and her celebrity status. Eventually, the woman who was, in fact, assaulted was the one who had to defend her actions.
Then, as if explaining why she rightly felt endangered in that situation wasn’t enough, Hadid had to qualify, to minimize, what happened to her. “I know people are put in much worse situations every day and don’t have the cameras around that provoke social-media support,” she wrote. “I just want to use what happened to me to show that it’s everyone’s right, and it can be empowering, to be able to defend yourself.”
After video footage of the assault was released, and public perception accordingly shifted in Hadid’s favor, the criticism that “this type of thing” happens to women every day, and they don’t get the same level of attention for it, remained. What makes Hadid so special? Many questioned on social media. What makes her think that she’s exempt from the experiences of women who don’t have cameras following them at all times?
This kind of response is directly symptomatic of the dehumanizing cleft we place between ourselves and celebrities: we begrudge them for getting special treatment, yet we still treat them differently, as if they were divorced from participating in the human experience. This treatment also belies a sinister societal expectation that we hold for public figures, and especially for women in the public eye: if you’ve agreed to be seen, then you’ve proffered yourself as public property.
This treatment was again evident in the media spectacle surrounding and in response to the assault of Kim Kardashian West in Paris. The media coverage of the incident was nothing short of sensationalist and highlighted the absurdity of the attempt itself rather than its broader, problematic implications. The fact that a stranger tried to kiss Kardashian West’s (often sexualized and objectified) butt made for ludicrous and delicious tabloid fodder; hardly anyone thought it more serious than that. “Tsk, tsk!” wrote Perez Hilton. “Hands off the famous derriere!” reported NBC San Diego. Even more repulsive was Sediuk’s defense of the assault—and of his protest of her. As he said to BBC News earlier this week: “It’s her body, she’s entitled to do with her body whatever she wants, BUT she’s a public person…When she has 16 million followers on Instagram, and half of them are children, I believe it’s inappropriate,” referring to her nude photos, “with big boobs and big butt.”
The sexist implication here is clear: If this woman is famous for her body parts, then surely it is expected that someone would want to touch them. And if they attempt to do so, well, that’s just one of the hazards of a public life, isn’t it? Kardashian West’s decision to sue Sediuk for the attempted assault is therefore not “classless,” as he described in the BBC interview. It’s her right to assert her sole ownership and control over her body and what happens to it.
To dismiss these incidents as part and parcel of the downside of fame (“that’s what you get for being a celebrity!”), not only widens the dehumanizing divide between celebrities’ experiences and our own, but also contributes to the long-standing cultural tradition that renders women invisible and strips them of their rights to bodily ownership, privacy and protection. It sends the message, if you’re seen, then you’re vulnerable to these things happening to you.
This is not the message we should be sending to any woman, regardless of her limelight or lack thereof.
By culling the seriousness of these displays of assault from our coverage of them, we consent to the objectification and dehumanization of these women. The media has to take responsibility for its part in enabling people to treat these public figures as if they were public property. We should all be horrified by these incidents, not flippant because they happened to celebrities.