If Paris Hilton's Sex Tape Came Out Now, Would We Treat Her Like We Treat Chris Evans?

Paris Hilton during New York Fashion Week, 2018.  (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows)

This past Monday, the new Paris Hilton documentary This is Paris premiered on YouTube. Exploring her coddled childhood, her turbulent teens and beyond, This is Paris offers a revealing look at the difference between Hilton's real personality (complete with intense anxiety and chronic insomnia) and the ditzy celebrity persona she created to protect herself.

Some of the more harrowing moments in the film come when Hilton discusses the 2004 leak of her now-infamous sex tape. "That was a private moment with a teenage girl not in her right headspace," Hilton tearfully reflects. "But everyone was watching it and laughing like it's something funny... They made me the bad person."

The home video was recorded in 2001 when Hilton was 19, and leaked by ex-boyfriend Rick Salomon in 2004, after Hilton found success with the first season of The Simple Life. The public reaction to the tape at the time swung between mockery and disdain: This is Paris includes a clip of David Letterman making jokes at her expense before a howling studio audience. (Let's not forget that even Pink, an outspoken feminist, made fun of Hilton's sex tape in the video for "Stupid Girls" in 2006.)

In This is Paris, Hilton describes Salomon pressuring her to allow him to film her, and compares her experience to "being electronically raped."

The details of Hilton's humiliation were especially jarring to revisit on Monday, after a weekend in which Captain America's Chris Evans received an outpouring of sympathy for accidentally posting an explicit picture of himself to Instagram. When screenshots of his photo started circulating on social media, fans and supporters quickly buried them under a sea of wholesome photos of the actor with his dog, messages of support, and tales about his kindness.

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Evans escaped largely unscathed, even joking about it on Twitter the next day.

Even before Hilton's documentary came out, a great number of women pointed out how female celebrities in Evans' position are treated.

The double standards were impossible not to notice. A full decade after Hilton's humiliation, actresses including Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Watson and Kirsten Dunst were shamed and blamed en masse after their intimate photos were made public by the 4Chan leak. While vocal objections followed from feminist writers and media, the air around the whole thing smacked of both victim blaming and bringing successful women down a peg or two. (“It was all pain and no gain,” Lawrence later told Vogue.)

The fact that five of the hackers involved in the 4Chan leak were later sentenced to prison time (for periods ranging between eight and 34 months) has not acted as a major deterrent to others. In 2017, another hack took place, this time revealing intimate images of celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Kristen Stewart, Lindsey Vonn and Tiger Woods. (Woods was not shown any more mercy than the women—full frontal nudes of him are still circulating.)

There is evidence that the sympathetic treatment of Evans was not entirely about his gender, though. Last October, when Demi Lovato had explicit photos stolen and leaked online, supporters rushed to her defense in much the same way that Evans' did over the weekend. Within hours of Lovato's hacked Snapchat account directing users to a Discord server of her private photos, fans had buried them on social media. As with Evans, it was done with positivity and support.

The fan outpouring also prompted swift action from Discord. The day after the leak, the gamer app released a statement that read: “We have a zero-tolerance approach to illegal activity on our platform and take immediate action when we become aware of it. We moved quickly yesterday to disable the link and stop access to the server as soon as we became aware of it.”

In This is Paris, Hilton expresses the belief that if her sex tape were leaked now, she would be treated much more kindly than she was in 2004. "If that happened today," she says in the documentary, "it would not be the same story at all."

But that isn't necessarily true.

Neither Evans nor Lovato was saved because our culture is nicer to violated celebrities than it was in 2004. They were saved because they've already given so much of themselves to the public. Evans has been consistently open about his own struggles with anxiety and depression. And you'd be hard pushed to find another celebrity who's been as transparent as Lovato when it comes to issues around addiction and mental health. (She also overdosed the year before her leak, which means public sympathy for her was heightened.)

In contrast—as This is Paris so effectively demonstrates—Hilton has spent most of her career actively caricaturing herself as a means to keep the most vulnerable parts of herself private. And the public definitely doesn't care for that so much.

The big hacks of 2014 and 2017 went out of their way to humiliate successful, unattainable women. The fact that queer feminists Kristen Stewart and Miley Cyrus were targeted simultaneously is a demonstration of exactly what happens to those who don't pander to the public.

There is no reason why dehumanizing famous people (especially female ones) should continue to be the standard. Neither should we go on assuming that celebrity personas invalidate the real people underneath. What the public response to both Evans' and Lovato's leaks demonstrates is that we as a culture are more than capable of taking the high road when we want to. That shouldn't be contingent on them baring their souls to us first.