The right Hill to die on? Phoebe Maltz Bovy talks Jonah-gate, feminism, and lashon hara

Until this past Sunday morning, I cannot say it had ever occurred to me to ponder what it would be like to date the actor Jonah Hill. I remember seeing him in Superbad, and have been vaguely aware of his existence since.

Then news broke that Hill’s ex-girlfriend, surfer Sarah Brady, whom he’d dated for about a year a couple years ago, had shared the alleged screenshots of some text messages Hill had sent her, in which he complained, among other things, that she posted swimsuit photos of herself and explained how this crossed his “boundaries.”

So. What is this, exactly? In the olden days, one might say, it’s celebrity gossip. It is, after all, being covered in People magazine because it’s about the goings-on of a famous person.

These days, however, there is no such thing as straightforward dishing. On the one hand, nowadays everyone with a social media presence is ‘famous’ enough to risk getting gossiped about on a wide scale, but on the other, there’s this popular understanding that gossip is frivolous and even unethical. (Hey, maybe Jews got there first!)

But the human urge to tell stories about other people is strong, rooted as it is in some complicated mix of prurient interest; a healthy curiosity about other human beings; and a desire to punish misdeeds. Some gossip-bashing is rooted in misogyny—that is, it can be a way of dismissing women’s sharing of important information. Information about, for example, which celebrities with nice-guy-who-gets-therapy images are maybe not as nice as all that. Or about which behaviours to consider warning signs to get the hell out of a relationship.

Confusingly, other gossip-bashing comes from the sense, common to all of us if we’re honest with ourselves, that our worst moments, taken out of context, would make us look… not abusive, one hopes, but not so delightful all the same. Gossip can be a way of wrenching power from an abuser. It can be abusive to share an ex-partner’s messages in a way you know will make them look bad. Even if that was not the case in this context, it seems a mistake to automatically assume someone sharing old messages is a whistleblower.

Separate from what it’s ethical to share about your own life is what works when talking about others. The secret’s already out, so it’s fine, right? People aren’t too sure. So what now seems to happen is, celebrity gossip gets couched in terms of systemic issues. It is not gossip but concern. It’s not about Jonah Hill, accused bad boyfriend. It’s Jonah Hill, purported perpetrator of emotional abuse. This framing serves two goals: the straightforward one (alerting women to red flags, should they come from Jonah Hill or their own partners) but also a more complicated one (making it seem noble to dish, even if that is, in your own case, all you’re doing).

If I seem wishy-washy here it’s because I’m genuinely torn. Do I—a feminist—like the sound of a boyfriend telling his surfer girlfriend not to have male friends or be photographed in bathing suits? No, no I do not. If I had been inclined to date Jonah Hill—which, even if I were not a married lady living in Canada, non merci—this would have put me right off.

In the texts—texts that I’m not sure it’s right that I’ve seen—Hill comes across as yeah rather controlling, as well as annoying in his use of therapy-speak (again, the “boundaries”) to justify his behaviour. It’s hard for me to imagine that simply being Jonah Hill would put someone in a position of tremendous power in a relationship, such that threatening to end things would be so menacing—is the line down the street to date him really that long?—but he is a famous and successful actor and some are indeed making that claim. I don’t know. I don’t know!

So which is it? Is it, as Emily Nussbaum persuasively argues, a bad deed to disseminate the dirty laundry of even big-shot actors? Or have we as a society been keeping women silent about controlling boyfriends for too long, and if a high-profile case gets the word out, all the better?

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz