Joan Smith: Scarlett isn't red-faced, why should she be?

There's nothing wrong with posing in the nude and I just wish more women felt comfortable enough with their bodies to do it
  • @polblonde

You take some nude photos of yourself on your mobile phone. You send them to your partner, who thinks they're fab, and that's the end of the matter. But it isn't, because unknown to you some snooper in Glasgow or Miami is hacking into your emails. He posts your private pictures on the internet, where they're viewed by thousands of people who were never, ever, supposed to see them. How do you react?

Finding herself in exactly this situation, the movie star Scarlett Johansson has caused widespread astonishment by displaying not a jot of embarrassment. "I know my best angles," she joked. Startled headline writers have described her as showing "nerve"' and laughing off a "scandal", as though they had expected her to go into voluntary seclusion for a period.

Where many women would supposedly have been "mortified", Johansson has taken a quite opposite course and posed for the cover of Vanity Fair, wearing a wasp-waisted (and mostly undone) ball gown. Inside, she gives her verdict on Barack Obama – she's disappointed but intends to support him again – and sounds genuinely unfazed by the theft of private images which were taken three years ago.

"They were sent to my husband," she explains in the magazine, referring to the actor Ryan Reynolds whom she divorced in July this year. "There's nothing wrong with that. It's not like I was shooting a porno. Although there's nothing wrong with that either." Johannson's response is refreshing at a time when women are endlessly encouraged to worry about cellulite, wrinkles and the slightest evidence of ageing. True, she's only 26 and a movie star, but women's magazines are full of articles suggesting it's never too early to start having "work" done and asking which actors and models are starting to show their age.

Another movie star, Demi Moore, is the current target of choice for eagle-eyed celeb-watchers, scrutinised daily for signs of strain and weight loss after the collapse of her marriage to a younger man. (Could I just mention here one headline I absolutely guarantee you'll never see: "'Cougar' McCartney marries for the third time.") Moore has never really been forgiven for posing nude for Vanity Fair when she was seven months pregnant in 1991, an image that's since been much copied but was regarded as breaking a significant taboo at the time.

At a moment when privacy is being invaded on a breathtaking scale, I'm delighted that Johansson isn't blaming herself for someone else's (alleged) bad behaviour. A 35-year-old hacker has appeared in court in California, charged with 26 counts of cyber-related crime including hacking into the emails of Johansson, Mila Kunis and Christina Aguilera; according to the FBI, his computer hard drive contained dozens of photos of famous people with a mass of personal information.

There's nothing wrong with posing in the nude and I just wish more women felt comfortable enough with their bodies to do it. I've never been tempted to pose for a nude centrefold, as a friend of mine did in the Seventies, but I've been photographed without clothes many times, most recently last winter. I'd be cross if the pictures appeared on the internet without my permission, but only because I think everyone is entitled to decide how much of their private selves they expose in public.

Happily, there is reason to think that Johansson's insouciant response is part of a wider fight-back against prurience and press intrusion. For years, anyone in the public eye has had to worry about youthful indiscretions being blown up into scandals; in the summer, it seemed to be on the verge of happening to the Tory MP Louise Mensch, who was contacted by journalists who claimed to know that she had taken drugs, got drunk and danced with the violinist Nigel Kennedy while she worked for the record company EMI. Mensch published her reply, which made her sound a great deal more human than her accusers: "Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable... since I was in my twenties, I'm sure it was not the only incident of the kind; we all do idiotic things when young". Mensch emerged from the episode with her reputation enhanced when Kennedy fondly recalled, "having some great times with my beautiful and very clever right-wing friend when she was at EMI".

Against the still-unfolding scandal of phone hacking, it's becoming clear that for far too long the arbiters of what should be considered damaging have been precisely the wrong people. The popular press has mistaken prurience for morality, and intrusion for transparency, while clinging to a set of ideas about human behaviour that belong in the Fifties. Yesterday, a British newspaper described Johansson as a "busty beauty" who has "bounced back from her nude pictures scandal". I think I know who's got a problem with nudity – and it certainly isn't Scarlett Johannsson.