For the first two weeks of September 2007, High School Musical actress Vanessa Hudgens battled the most intense controversy of her career. A man had illegally leaked her nude selfies to the National Enquirer, and the photos later appeared on the gossip forum Oh No They Didn't and websites like Perez Hilton. Today, everyone from prominent figures to casual Twitter users would rightfully criticize this behavior as sexist and unethical, but in 2007, media piled on Hudgens.
"It is with extreme sadness that nude photos of High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens have been making the rounds on the Internet," announced blogger Just Jared. The Associated Press followed up with an article lambasting Hudgens for differing from her High School Musical character Gabriella: "Gabriella and Troy coo, they make googly eyes, they barely kiss. They certainly don't show off nude pictures."
Compounded by media, the cultural expectation of Hudgens to be perfect like Gabriella, a fictional character in a universe where teens broke out in song and dance, was shattered by the leak. At the time, one Urban Dictionary user updated the definition of "Vanessa Hudgens" to: "Before her 'incident', Vanessa Hudgens was every girl's role model. She stars in Disney Channel's hit movie High School Musical. Recently, nude pictures of her were leaked on the internet. Unfortunately, girls now think of her as the skank who doesn't shave. Please search up shave if you have any questions." It remains the most popular definition of Hudgens on the site to this day.
Much of this slut-shaming rhetoric came from people who viewed the nude photos as Hudgens's mistake, not a crime committed by a hacker. Instead of calling the pictures revenge porn, the Daily News described one as a "saucy snapshot." The idea that it might be wrong to publish a woman's personal property without her consent was a foreign concept to mainstream media outlets.
The onus to correct the problem was unfairly placed on Hudgens, who apologized for her actions. "I want to apologize to my fans, whose support and trust means the world to me," she said. "I am embarrassed over this situation and regret having ever taken these photos. I am thankful for the support of my family and friends." She never mentions the hacker who committed the crime.
Thankfully, this would play out much differently today. After hackers illegally released nude pictures of Hudgens, Jennifer Lawrence, and other celebrities in a 2014 event now known as "The Fappening," Twitter users mobilized to combat the bloggers publishing the images. Hilton quickly removed the photos from his site. "So going forward I will not post any intimate photos like that," he confessed in an apology video. "I just think it's the right thing to do, for them, for me, for everybody, to not perpetuate that."
This would never have happened in 2007, but even in the Bush era, some journalists appeared conflicted about the photos. Columnist Michael Slezak wrote a column for Entertainment Weekly imagining a debate between himself and "Slezak's Inner Cynic" about the nudes. "Yeah, but doesn't the whole thing make you a little suspicious?" his "Inner Cynic" asks. "Like, what if she leaked the photos herself?"
NJ.com blogger Carrie Stetler took a similar approach, imagining how she might discuss the controversy with her 9-year-old daughter. When her child asked if it was illegal that Hudgens reportedly took the photos when she was 16, Stetler quickly replies, "What she did isn't illegal—I don't think—but whoever put the pictures up on the Internet might have broken the law." She pauses. Like many Americans discussing the controversy, Stetler was unsure how to grapple with the Hudgens affair. The star's private pictures were leaked without permission, but taking those photos contradicted how a Disney star was "supposed" to act.
In 2007, many Americans weren't educated enough to see the inherent problem with blaming Hudgens. Stetler fesses up to that when confronted by her daughter, and gets to the heart of the confusion stirred by the controversy: "I'll have to Google that, sweetie."