Here’s a modern riddle: When is it good news for everyone when a millionaire wins £2.7m? When the millionaire is Rebel Wilson, and she’s just been awarded one of the biggest defamation payouts in Australian legal history. Wilson brought a libel case against Bauer Media, the publisher of Woman’s Day and Australian Woman’s Weekly, after both publications falsely claimed that Wilson had lied about a range of things including her age and real name. Wilson tweeted: “The judge accepted without qualification that I had an extremely high reputation and that the damage inflicted on me was substantial. He said the nature of the aggravated defamation and the unprecedented extent of dissemination makes vindication of particular importance.” She added that she plans to support Australian charities and films with the money she will receive.
The judge ruled that the publisher had timed its stories – which portrayed Wilson as a serial liar – to capitalise on the success of Pitch Perfect 2, profiting from Wilson’s success while setting out to damage her profile and reputation in a way that could significantly harm her career. This wasn’t about gossip, but money and power. Or rather, gossip about high-profile women isn’t simply sneaky and mean. It has weight because it brings profit to the outlets that circulate it. Society doesn’t set out to celebrate and empower high-earning, high-achieving, successful women. It looks for ways to exploit them, profit from them, and rewards those who take power by undermining women and making them vulnerable.
Wilson could have walked away. (In fact, it’s rumoured she offered to settle out of court for $200,000 but Bauer “dug their heels in”.) In her position, many of us might have dismissed the stories as preposterous and too exhausting to pursue. However, by taking the time to fight, and win, she’s sending an extremely powerful message. Women’s lives aren’t fair game, regardless of their occupation, profile or public position.
I believe this case is also going to have a significant impact on the way we talk about women in the media, and which stories are considered to be important. Wilson is a celebrity because she’s a talented actor. The details of her personal life might fascinate us, but no one has a right to know about them. They’re her business, and it’s up to her to choose what she shares and how she presents herself. This case could set a precedent, and make other publishers think before they try to make money out of the private lives of other high profile women.
A cursory glance at any newsstand confirms that we’re mothers, wives, girlfriends, curvy girls, skinny girls, slutty girls, cougars or gold diggers before we’re women who work
When we define Wilson or Jennifer Aniston or Beyoncé or Hillary Clinton by their relationships, families and feuds, we’re saying that we don’t value the work that women do. I believe there is a link between the pay gap and the fact that women are far less likely to be MPs and CEOs, with the labels we give to women in the public eye. A cursory glance at any newsstand confirms that we’re mothers, wives, girlfriends, curvy girls, skinny girls, slutty girls, cougars or gold diggers before we’re women who work. We can’t be what we can’t see, and when the world is applying these labels to us, we’re going to struggle not to give them to each other. Of course this happens to men, to some extent, but there are too many examples where the sexist double standards are painfully clear.
In a perfect world we could all consume celebrity gossip freely, with a clear conscience. Yet Wilson’s case reminds us all that we don’t live in that world. We need to use all our strength to defend women’s rights to do the work of our choice, unimpeded. We need to be alert to any parties that are malicious and pernicious enough to stop us from doing that work, no matter how silly they might seem. Wilson’s win is a triumph for all of us, and I hope it inspires us to remember that no one has the right to tell our stories but us - and it’s not who we are, or aren’t, that’s important. It’s what we do.