Elena Ferrante and Kim Kardashian West live on the extreme ends of the privacy spectrum in the digital age. Ferrante, the Italian author of a series of novels about a lifelong friendship between women, has remained steadfastly pseudonymous even as her work has become globally popular. And Kardashian went from Paris Hilton’s sidekick to a multi-platform celebrity thanks, in part, to her assiduous use of social media.
On Sunday, Ferrante’s probably-true identity was revealed by the New York Review of Books, which obtained her publisher’s financial records from an anonymous source. Then, hours later, masked gunmen broke into the Paris apartment where Kardashian was staying, bound and gagged her, and made off with her jewelry. The transgressions against the two women were two sides of the same coin — and so were the snarky reactions on social media, many of which tacitly blamed each woman for what had happened to her. The writer Laura Snapes summarized the worst reactions: “Elena: so private she ‘deserves’ to get doxed. Kim: so public she ‘deserves’ to get robbed at gun point.”
In America, “a woman’s right to privacy” is typically used as a shorthand for abortion rights because it’s the legal underpinning of Roe v. Wade. It’s the notion that the state cannot interfere with a woman’s decisions about her own body. While I’d never argue that women’s right to choose which aspects of our lives to reveal on Instagram is on par with our right to choose whether or not to be pregnant, it’s worth exploring the bigger picture of privacy — and how women are punished when they are perceived as revealing either too much or too little about themselves.
Even before the incidents this weekend, both Ferrante’s aversion to the public eye and Kardashian’s extreme openness were routinely dismissed as marketing gimmicks — not authentic choices that each woman made according to her desires and goals. And we’re all familiar with assaults against celebrities’ privacy in the form of overly aggressive paparazzi and photo hacks.
But this isn’t exclusively an issue for the rich and famous. In theory, women have more agency than ever when it comes to deciding how public we want to be. We can choose to post rarely and selectively on pseudonymous, locked accounts. We can choose to broadcast everything we do under our full name. We can try to have it both ways. (I have a public Twitter account I use during the work day and a private account I use if I’ve had more than two drinks.)
These are choices that we tend to muddle through on our own, depending on our professional field and personal values. But the outing of Ferrante and the reaction to Kardashian’s attack only underscore how difficult these choices are for average women. Even if we’d truly like to document every moment of our day and every corner of our body, we fear that to do so would be to put ourselves at risk of threats and physical harm. Even if we’d like to never say a word publicly, we fear that we’d harm our professional prospects and social ties only for someone else to put us on blast, anyway. In theory, each woman decides how exposed she’d like to be on social media. In reality, it’s not so simple.
I hope that, even after this attack, Kardashian continues to use social media in a way that makes her happy. I hope the rest of us quit bothering Ferrante — and everyone who, like her, doesn’t want their private life made public. Ferrante has said she chose pseudonymity to guarantee her writing would remain “far from the demands of the media and the marketplace.” She wanted to be known only for her books, and the New York Review of Books editors (and their hypocritically anonymous source) refused to let her make that choice. They said her outing was “inevitable.” It wasn’t.
Don’t listen to Ferrante’s outers or Kardashian’s haters, who say that women who shy away from publicity are inviting exposure and women court publicity are inviting attack. Listen to women themselves when they declare how much privacy they want.