Defending Your Life

When being in the public eye means gratifying the public’s appetite for repentance

Breaking the record as the first American gymnast to take home four gold medals, Simone Biles, of this year’s Rio Summer Olympics, became one of the most talked about athletes outside of Brazil, next to Ethiopian bronze winner and political symbol Feyisa Lilesa. Weeks after returning to the United States, 19-year-old Biles, alongside fellow black female athletes Serena and Venus Williams, were targets of Russian hackers who broke into the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to release the stars’ medical records, with the obvious malicious intent of discrediting their athleticism; of course these black women couldn’t have taken home the prize without having their reputations ruined in the process.

It was noted in the medical records that the trio tested positive for substances on WADA’s banned list, but the agency cleared their use anyway due to its own “therapeutic use” exemption. Unfortunately, these subtleties were lost on the media, so Biles decided to reveal something about herself: “I have ADHD and I have taken medicine for it since I was a kid,” she tweeted. “Please know, I believe in clean sport, have always followed the rules, and will continue to do so as fair play is critical to sport and is very important to me.” In less than 160 characters, Biles, in an effort to clear her name, announced a developmental condition that the public wasn’t aware she lived with and had no business knowing to begin with. She was praised for her honesty: ESPN, Vox, and the Huffington Post celebrated the announcement as an act of bravery, without acknowledging the reasons she’d felt compelled to act.

Why does the public feel entitled to displays of vulnerability from women, especially women of color?

Compare Biles’s statement to that of another Olympian, this one white, male, and 13 years her senior. On August 14, almost exactly a month before the Biles hack, four members of the American Olympian swim team reported that they were robbed at gunpoint at a Brazilian gas station and had their passports stolen by “armed robbers posing as police.” Police reports later revealed that the swimmers were actually drunk, and had urinated outside the gas station bathroom, as well as vandalized a sign — and that their story about the robber was fabricated. A week after the incident, which helped perpetuate the stereotype of Rio as a hyper-violent city, Ryan Lochte, the group’s 32-year-old public face, showed some scripted remorse in an Instagram notepad statement. “I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning,” he wrote at the top, though he failed to redact his original story, and later called part of the Rio police’s version of events “absurd.” His non-apology didn’t contain a whiff of private information. Nor did his three fibbing teammates, Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz, and Jack Conger, offer up any personal details of their own.

Why did Simone Biles, one of the world’s most celebrated athletes, feel the need to reveal her medical status to the world, just to deflect accusations that had already been disproved? Why does the public feel entitled to displays of vulnerability from women, especially women of color, in the public eye, as though their success is a reflection of neoliberalism’s tendency to reward model minorities for their climb up the socioeconomic ladder until they start to “slip up”? Perhaps Biles hoped that revealing her health status would invoke a sense of humanity to counteract the harassment she was receiving online. Or maybe the teenager opted to expose herself before attackers could expose more delicate information about her, self-disclosure seeming the only way to inhabit a shred of self-ownership in an otherwise unpredictable climate of constant callout. For those most at risk of involuntary exposure — those expected to apologize simply for existing in public — self-exposure can be a form of strategy.

In a 2010 study by the Journal of Psychological Science titled “Why Women Apologize More than Men,” researchers noted that “women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.” If women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior, it seems the public has a lower threshold for what constitutes female offense. Two months after the release of the 2012 summer blockbuster Snow White and the Huntsman, photos emerged of its star, 22-year-old Kristen Stewart, canoodling with her director, 41-year-old Rupert Sanders. “I’m deeply sorry for the hurt and embarrassment I’ve caused to those close to me and everyone this has affected,” Stewart — who had until then never confirmed her longterm relationship with Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson — said in a public statement. “This momentary indiscretion has jeopardized the most important thing in my life, the person I love and respect the most, Rob. I love him, I love him, I’m so sorry.” Sanders, who was married with two young children, became a footnote in his own infidelity.

Due to an age-old gendered socialization process, apologies from women often involve an awkward mix of atonement and unnecessary confession, a more exaggerated show of remorse as if to emphasize sincerity. Russian researchers examined patterns of self-disclosure in a study that pinpointed how men and women tend to personalize their social media profiles, with young women disclosing more personal details in their “about me” sections than any other group. The study’s authors noted that “results are in line with the claim that female interactions are more emotional and feeling-oriented while male’s interactions tend to be instrumental.” Perhaps the study’s most fascinating finding, however, is the fact that women tend to reveal more about their education and career online than men. Researchers hypothesize that, due to gender inequality in the workplace, women see the online realm as a “tool to empower their social status” — and surely, self-disclosure can be every bit as “instrumental” as the opposite. Sending a tweet or personalizing a public apology could help safeguard an emerging career, or soothe a hostile public with a sense of ownership, and a hunger for repentance.

“I’m deeply sorry for the hurt and embarrassment I’ve caused,” Kristen Stewart said in a public statement. Rupert Sanders  became a footnote in his own infidelity

“It seems to be that when [men] think they’ve done something wrong they do apologize just as frequently as when women think they’ve done something wrong,” said Karina Schumann, co-author of the 2010 study. “It’s just that they think they’ve done fewer things wrong.” In October, after the Washington Post published a 2005 video of Donald Trump with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush alluding to kissing and groping women without consent because “when you’re a star, they let you do that,” a drained American public hoarsely demanded an apology. Pressured by Republican leaders, Trump finally released a brief mea culpa — “I said it, I was wrong and I apologize” — in a statement calling the issue a distraction. The apology was clean and simple, although morally insignificant given the open cases of sexual harassment, rape allegations, and hate speech, Trump having labeled Mexican immigrants “rapists” and talked about banning Muslims from entering the country while branding the ones residing within its own borders with an impending registry.

If the GOP and the American public at large hadn’t mounted pressure for a statement in the first place, the president-elect might never have issued one at all. A day later, the current president-elect called his original comments “locker room talk,” effectively retracting any hint of remorse. Labeling his sexist comments back-room banter reinforced his ideological foundation to his core constituents. This is the difference between accepting one’s wrongdoing, and publicly acknowledging a scandal; also the power of non-apology, publicly signaling that you don’t believe you’ve done something wrong.

After landing in Detroit from the Netherlands, Hasan Elahi, a 30-something Bangladeshi professor and multimedia artist, was detained by FBI agents on suspicion of hoarding explosives in a Florida storage unit. It was 2002: the invasion of Afghanistan was in full effect, and anyone who looked like they might adhere to Islamic belief (i.e., all brown people, no matter their religious affiliations) had a target on their back. A lie detector test determined that he wasn’t the culprit, but Elahi, fearing he might be permanently placed on the no-fly list, which would halt his career as a traveling artist, decided to alert the FBI personally before future flights. He hasn’t been detained since. In the aftermath he started a website, TrackingTransience.net, to publicize what he eats, where he lays his head, and most importantly, where he is at all times. With the goal of never getting stuck in an airport holding cell ever again, and perhaps to enact an Orwellian prophecy of innocence through hyper publicity, Elahi succeeded in remixing commodified radical vulnerability.

“I’ve discovered that the best way to protect your privacy is to give it away,” Elahi said in a Wired profile. “It’s economics, I flood the market.” It’s essential to note the grave similarities between the political landscape of 2002 and 2016: facing the reality of a Trump presidency and a Muslim registry, saturating the internet with redundant facts about your everyday life could at least block the horror of government surveillance. “The government monitors your movements, but it gets things wrong,” Elahi said. “You can monitor yourself much more accurately.”

In pop culture there are more cases of public figures, namely black female celebrities, who have harnessed the public thirst for pain into further promotion of their work

Although millions of sister sites like TrackingTransience.net could pop up as the outcome of increasing Muslim surveillance, the most radical aspect of Elahi’s project is his disregard for apologizing in general. Through a series of audacious attempts to showcase Big Brother as a tool of injustice, Elahi has weaponized the very technology that put him under the watchful eye of the FBI. Elahi practices self-disclosure, but strictly on his terms, and as an ironic jab at the very institution that means to profit off the exploitation of people who look like him.

In pop culture there are more cases of public figures, namely black female celebrities, who have harnessed the public thirst for pain into further promotion of their work. Kerry Washington for example, the highest paid actress on television with a robust social media presence on Twitter and Instagram, has never posted a photo of her two children online. The Scandal star only revealed the birth of her firstborn two weeks after her delivery; she married former NFL cornerback, Nnamdi Asomugha, without any prior announcement of their serious relationship status. And yet, with nearly 7.5 million followers, Washington has always remained in public: gracing the covers of dozens of magazines and plenty of red carpets, peppering her social media accounts with exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of her hit show and political affiliation with the Democratic Party. Washington avoids public scrutiny by “flooding the market,” but only on her terms.

Much akin to Washington is the Queen Bey herself. In 2013, GQ dubbed Beyoncé “The Sexiest Woman of the 21st Century,” and revealed that the superstar keeps a temperature-controlled storage facility for visual and audio documents of herself — video diary entries, live performances and photographs — in order to maintain ownership of her image. The R&B star maintains a carefully crafted private persona that heightens her allure, and feeds the beast hungry for more details of her life. Her self-produced HBO documentary, Life is But a Dream, was a well-edited humanizing catalogue of the recordings in her archive, released just weeks after the infamous Inauguration Day lip sync and the neverending gossip that she used a surrogate mother to carry her daughter, Blue Ivy Carter. Instead of publishing a statement to rebuke claims of her fake pregnancy or issue an apology for her lip sync, the 30-something singer commodified public thirst for drama into promotion for her Super Bowl halftime show.

After the infamous 2014 Met Gala video of her husband, Jay Z, and younger sister, Solange, in a physical altercation in an elevator, Beyoncé declined to issue any sort of apology. She addressed the incident only in the lyrics of her feminist anthem, “***Flawless,” with Nicki Minaj: “Of course sometimes shit goes down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator.” Cheekily referencing the incident as well as her family’s combined wealth (the wealthiest celebrity pairing in the world, according to Forbes), she honored her age-old rule of thumb: only comment about your personal life through your art. “Beyoncé,” a representative explained to the New York Times in 2015, “has not answered any direct questions for more than a year.”

Rooney Elmi is a freelance film writer and founding editor of SVLLY(wood) Magazine, a print and digital radical editorial geared toward curating a new cinephila.