The Sony hack of November 2014 made accessible, through illegal means, a vast selection of confidential information pertaining to the company’s employees and corporate operations. For scholars studying the politics of gender and employment in the media industry, the hack offered material evidence exposing Sony’s sexist hiring practices. Disclosed emails divulged that actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid less than their male co-stars in Sony’s 2013 film American Hustle. The hack also made news when it revealed a pay disparity amongst the company’s top seventeen executives who earn over $1 million: 94 percent of whom are male, and 88 percent who are white.
More devastating than the multi-million dollar salaries of movie stars and executives, the cyber attack exposed a corporate culture of privilege and unaccountability regarding its below-the-line employees. Formal complaints by an African American female Executive Assistant were published in the press and detailed the racial discrimination and sexual harassment made by her male boss. The employee’s plea, “I need someone to protect me from Keith [Le Goy],” had gone unanswered by Sony’s Human Resource department. Activists critical of the film industry’s legacy of employment discrimination wondered if Guardians of the Peace's vandalism might signal a tipping point in how female employees—at all levels—are treated in this business.
While the evidence of Hollywood’s institutionalized sexism and racism is available for public consumption by the press, social media platforms, and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, researchers face an ethical dilemma: is it “good” scholarship to use illegally sourced documents? Sony threatened the mainstream press with lawsuits if media outlets continued to publish the company’s “stolen material.” The studio’s legal counsel went after individuals on Twitter, specifically musician Val Broeksmit, for posting screenshots of emails between executives suggesting screenwriters and film directors for hire—the overwhelming majority of whom are men. For feminist, anti-racist scholars, who see their work functioning as a tool for social justice, these are invaluable primary sources, but does their unlawfulness incriminate those who study them?