Anne Hathaway Outsmarted the Paparazzi, But Is Consent Really All That Matters?

Being in control of the photos you share isn’t the only thing at stake.
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Being in control of the photos you share isn’t the only thing at stake.

Earlier this week, Anne Hathaway posted a picture to Instagram of her beautiful bikini-clad (and several-months-pregnant) self standing on the beach. Admitting that it was not her style to post such a photo, Hathaway explained the decision in the photo’s caption: “Posting a bikini pic is a little out of character for me, but just now while I was at the beach, I noticed I was being photographed. I figure if this kind of photo is going to be out in the world, it should at least be an image that makes me happy (and be one that was taken with my consent. And with a filter :)”

There are many things I love about this picture. I love that this picture makes Anne Hathaway happy. I love that she is calling out the paparazzi for mercilessly preying on celebrities at the beach and profiting off their photos. I think she is making the best of a crappy situation—one I can’t relate to at all and have no idea how I’d act if I could. But her caption got me thinking, particularly her use of the word consent.

Consent is having something of a moment in mainstream media today. Particularly in light of an out-of-control hookup culture on college campuses, the celebrity nude photo leak, as well as the rise of revenge porn, people are talking about what consent really means and why it is so important. But I think it is worth pointing out that, as important as consent is, it is not everything.

First, the reality is that while, yes, Hathaway posted the picture, she was sort of backed into a corner about it. She had two options: Allow the paparazzi to choose the bikini-clad photos that would plaster the Internet, or beat them to the punch by posting a picture herself. Either way, some bikini pic would take over the Internet. In this case, though Hathaway chose the word “consent” for her caption, she’s really talking about control. If she had it her way, her beach day never would have made it into the public record. But because she knew the pictures would be posted, she chose to take control of the situation. Consent or not, she wasn’t posting the photo just because she wanted to. If someone traps you in the attic of a burning house but leaves a window open, you may consent to climbing out the window and scaling a drain pipe to escape, but it doesn’t mean you wanted to do it. It kinda stinks that Hathaway, who admits that she would not ordinarily have posted such a photo, was between a rock and a hard place on this one.

Hathaway’s situation aside, I think that we as a society often make the mistake of thinking that lack of consent is the only possible objection to our actions. These days, the term “consent” usually refers to acts of a sexual nature. In those situations, the thinking goes, there can be nothing wrong with the pictures you post of yourself online, what you wear, or whom you sleep with as long as you choose to do it of your own free will. Consent is essential, to be sure. But consenting to a particular course of action does not necessarily make that course of action good. The reality is that many poor decisions are freely made.

We all, in some way, know this to be true. Few would say that as long as you are freely choosing to eat five thousand Krispy Kreme donuts a week, your decision to do so is a good one. Sure, better to do it by choice than by force, but it is still far from ideal. Likewise, freely choosing to sleep with a different man each night is certainly light years better than being forced to do so, but it doesn’t mean the choice is good, healthy, or fulfilling. There are a great many things that we are rightfully free to do that we still ought not do.

I am not criticizing Hathaway’s decision. And I am not offended by her photo. But it is worth pointing out that consent is not the only test of whether someone should post a photo publicly. Consent is important, yes, but it’s not the only thing.