scarlett_johanssonPop culture can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives us a set of shared experiences that we can use to find common ground with even a complete stranger. Who trifles with discussing something as prosaic as the weather anymore when you can instead discuss your mutual reactions to Captain America 2?

But on the other hand, sometimes those shared experiences can lead us to take shortcuts we probably shouldn’t. Why go to the trouble of describing a character physically when you can just tell us what well-known public figure she looks like? Or why not use that universality of experience to build a book on what happens to someone who happens to look like a well-known celebrity?

But this is not necessarily a good idea, as we find in the case of French author Grégory Delacourt, who wrote a book featuring a character who is described as the spitting image of Scarlett Johansson. Johansson was not amused, and is suing for 50,000 Euros and to obtain an injunction against it being translated or adapted for film.

As you might expect, the lawsuit probably isn’t doing Johansson any favors. By suing, she’s simply attracted more attention to the offending book and probably boosted its sales with the controversy. (Yes, it’s our good buddy the Streisand Effect again.)

And it’s unclear whether she really has a leg to stand on. She is, after all, a public figure, and public figures don’t have all the same privacy rights as we little folk. There are no pictures or other material in the book directly taken from her; it’s simply the mention of her name. Furthermore the book isn’t making any claim to be about her directly, but is rather about the hardships imposed on someone who just looks like her.

It’s amusing to consider the contrast between this and the reaction of Johansson’s Avengers and Captain America 2 co-star Samuel L. Jackson in 2002 when he learned Marvel had explicitly used his likeness for the new Nick Fury from its “The Ultimates” universe.

“It was kind of weird,” Jackson said. “I just happened to be in a comic store, and I picked up the comic because I saw my face. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not sure I remember giving somebody permission to use my image.’”

But instead of suing over it, he contacted Marvel and secured the right to the role if and when Marvel ever made any movies featuring the character. And the rest—culminating in Jackson’s guest shot on last night’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode—is history.


  1. If French law is anything like American law in this situation, SJ is out of luck. Heck, some fiction has used the names of celebrities in the title.

    The major problem with using a celebrity name is that it dates a book, song, or whatever. Some music standards, for example, use celebrity names from the Twenties which no one except a history geek like me knows.

  2. But why stop there?

    She looked like Scarlett Johannsen, and when she did that thing that Uma Thurmann did in Pulp Fiction, it made Larry feel like the guy from Lost. “Hey, babe.” he said. “I’ve got a little pad just down the road from where they shot Scarface. Wanna come home with me and see if your jar jar binks?”

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