What We Talk About When We Talk About Emily Ratajkowski
I am wary about writing this piece. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while - probably for as long as I’ve been writing professionally - and I’ve started and stopped articles on the model turned actress various times during that short period. Sometimes, the fury of words poured from my brain to my fingers and other times I struggled to get out a complete sentence. As someone who has chosen the field of pop culture journalism and celebrity studies for their career, I find it somewhat irritating when I am unable to do my job and actually parse my thoughts on a particular individual. Emily Ratajkowski is the strongest embodiment of that conundrum for me: I have more thoughts about her than I’m probably able to verbalise, and yet when it comes time to do so, I panic. I fear that talking about her and everything I feel about what she represents will become ammo for the kind of people I loathe. I cannot help but think about what would happen if the words were wrong or if they were right but used by bullies for the wrong reasons.
And so I begin my piece on Ms Ratajkowski with a preface. To any man who wishes to take my labyrinth of thoughts and analyses on the subject of today’s piece and use them as a battering ram against her or any biases they have about women, feminism or sex: This piece is not for you. The conversations of feminism and the female experience are not an open door for you to start screaming about how feminists are ruining men or trapping poor souls with topless selfies. The Piers Morgans of the world can evacuate this space now, for they are not welcome. This piece is for us, not you.
Emily Ratajkowski is the kind of contradictory puzzle that represents much of modern day, media-savvy, Instagram filtered feminism: The 26-year-old London-born American was signed to Ford Models at the age of 14 and made a splash with cover-shoots for treats! magazine and ad campaigns for Carl’s Jr. It was her nude photo on the former that led to her being cast as one of the women in the video for the now infamous Robin Thicke song Blurred Lines.
It seems like decades ago already, but the meteoric rise and fall of Blurred Lines took place over a very odd 2013. The song of the Summer went from unmissable smash hit to audio pariah in the space of a few months, becoming the stand-in for every instance of misogyny in the music world. It’s not hard to see why: Listening to the song now, and watching that explicit video, feels like a throwback to decades past (and not just because of the Marvin Gaye rip-off). It’s cock-pop steeped in what it believes to be irony; a video directed by a woman that feels like something from Boogie Nights, without the budget; an experiment in humour with a total tin ear for it. Ratajkowski and her two co-stars, topless in the unrated video, strut around and hold various confusing props, like a goat, and watching them slunk around with undistilled disinterest while three fully dressed married men say they know they want it leaves you feeling something between disgusted and bored stiff. It’s objectification that believes the basic acknowledgement of that fact is enough to get the dudes off the hook. The women roll their eyes but the joke’s on them.
The video was a major launching pad for Ratajkowski’s career, although she would later confess to InStyle magazine that she ‘wasn’t into the idea all at first’, and that it was ‘the bane of my existence.’ It’s hard to describe the persona this work evoked for her beyond ‘very beautiful and naked’, which is basically the preferred default mode for the patriarchy when it comes to women, but it also pushed her into the mainstream in a way few could expect from music video stars. Having admitted she’d always wanted to be an actor more than a model, Ratajkowski made the jump to the big screen. She’d done small-screen work in her early days, appearing on the Nickelodeon show iCarly for a couple of episodes, but the true debut of her career as an actress came with David Fincher’s Gone Girl, wherein she played Andie, the student turned lover of Nick Dunne. Ben Affleck was the one who recommended Ratajkowski to Fincher, having seen her in the Blurred Lines video. The part is small but crucial: An eager young student who becomes another notch on Nick’s bedpost, the representative of his desperate need to cling to his playboy status, the woman he underestimates because he sees her as just a girl. Like the chamelonic Amy Dunne, Andie is savvy to how people’s perceptions of her can change in an instant, and she leverages that for immediate effect when she turns against Nick. All it takes is a nice Peter Pan collar and she goes from wanton schoolgirl fantasy to woman the world can sympathise with. It’s a cruel system, and the savvy power of Gone Girl lies in its noir-esque take-down of those assumptions. For Ratajkowski, it’s a perfect role that embodies a lot of what we would come to know about her - don’t judge her by her looks, but admit it, you kind of are already.
The acting work that followed wasn’t especially inspiring: She played a fictionalized version of herself in the Entourage movie, then earned her first leading role in EDM drama We Are Your Friends. Neither performance earned her much in the way of critical praise, but to be fair to her, it’s not as if the roles gave her much to do beyond be ‘The Blurred Lines girl’. Grantland described her appearance in Entourage as ‘a presentation of the model and actress… as a combination of Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, and a walking Viagra dispenser.’ The same publication noted in their review of We Are Your Friends that ‘If someone put a pencil in my mouth and asked me to draw a beautiful woman, Ratajkowski is what I’d come up with. She’s no actress, not yet.’ You’ll struggle to find a review of this film that mentions Ratajkowski without reminding you of Blurred Lines or how beautiful she is. Like every woman in the public eye, especially those whose careers have their foundations in beauty, Ratajkowski is constantly treading a thin tightrope between using her sexuality and attractiveness to benefit her career and trying not to be exclusively defined by it. In that aspect, she follows a proud lineage of women in Hollywood who spent decades trying to shake off such stereotyping, but what they didn’t have was Instagram.
Being active on Instagram is as much a part of the job of modelling these days as the runway walk. It’s self-promotion for the masses, and a way to define yourself both in terms of visual appeal and personality. For Ratajkowski, Instagram is where she embodies her contradictions the most effectively: You’ll find the expected artsy modelling shots and candid nude pics (nipples covered, of course) with feminist slogans and support for birth control and abortion rights peppered amongst them; You can enjoy the countless glamorous slices of supermodel life, and occasionally see a text piece where she calls out a male journalist for sexism in an interview. It’s bite-sized feminism for the like and subscribe age, and it’s one that’s very easy to package for glossy magazines.
I do not wish to dismiss Ratajkowski’s feminism. Lord knows we could use more feminism in our world today, and getting the message across to the kind of people who may not have listened otherwise - like the guys who obsessively watch her Instagram page - can only benefit us all. I’m not here to claim what Ratajkowski does is not feminism. However, I struggle to overlook the way her ethos has been packaged, both by herself and the media, and the implications that has for everyone. Feminism is not cool. It’s not pretty or sexy or rock & roll. Truthfully, it shouldn’t have to be. The basic tenets of equality and liberation are not something that need a shiny PR makeover.
Ratajkowski is savvy to the ways that being a provocateur can instigate necessary conversations about misogyny and women’s sexuality. Take that topless selfie with Kim Kardashian, an obvious ploy to piss off pearl clutchers, but mostly Piers Morgan, which is always an admirable move to make. In an interview with Naomi Wolf in Harper’s Bazaar, she talks about the photo - a cheeky ‘fuck you’ to men like Morgan, who make their careers in simultaneously objectifying women while demanding they adhere to archaic standards of femininity - in depth that feels sharp and knowing:
‘A selfie is a sort of interesting way to reclaim the gaze, right? You’re looking at yourself and taking a photo while looking at everyone. But also who cares? Kim’s allowed to do what she wants. So I issued a series of tweets; she sent me flowers, thanking me, which was very sweet. We ended up running into each other and had this idea to take a similar selfie with our middle fingers up… Also, Kim is someone who could be criticized for a lot of different things about what she represents, but to me it was an important moment to say, “Even this person who you could criticize for all these different things doesn’t deserve this response, right?”’
Ratajkowski, like Kardashian, knows how people see her and how pushing that button can be used for maximum efficiency. Later in the piece, she recalls a quote from Kardashian, who notes the double standards in how women’s naked bodies are received by the press, comparing the ‘brave’ responses Lena Dunham gets for nude scenes versus the ‘all grown up’ narrative that surrounded Justin Bieber going topless, and how women who are defined in sexual terms are always scorned for using that. That’s very true, but it’s also a tough area to dig into, simply because such decisions don’t happen in a bubble.
The rest of the Bazaar interview sees Ratajkowski talk of wanting to reclaim her sexuality and the world needing to be inclusive of all bodies and sexual ideals. Once again, none of this is false, and in terms of her basic feminist rhetoric, Ratajkowski is on the money. Yet she’s also in many ways the complete embodiment of those ideals that are repackaged and sold back to us as the female dream. She, an undoubtedly beautiful woman, is the exact sort of beauty the world already adores and will pay attention to. She talks of wanting to break trends in modelling by being shorter and bustier, but in an industry that fetishises youth, whiteness, thinness and nakedness, how do you preach for the rejection of social norms while helping to strengthen them?
This is in no way unique to Ratajkowski or any woman in the modelling world. Indeed, it’s a symptom of our society’s sickness: Radicalism must be filtered, softened, smudged away and commodified into something that doesn’t scare away key demographics. It’s how you get Dior selling t-shirts emblazoned with ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, on sale for $710. It’s easier to sell magazines full of expensive ads and aspirational living advice when Emily Ratajkowski’s on the cover. That means she can bring her experiences and philosophies to the page, but it will always be boxed up into the glamorous and aesthetically pleasing: Hence Free The Nipple feminism or the empowerment of being a beautiful skinny white woman with no clothes on. And once again, neither of these causes are bad or without merit, but they consistently become the capitalist feminist concerns of magazines, ad campaigns and media narratives who prefer the pretty and safe over the abrasive reality of liberation from misogyny.
The media also doesn’t do Ratajkowski any favours: She’s a politically active individual - she’s a Bernie Sanders supporter and dedicated advocate for reproductive rights who raises funds, campaigns for and does public service announcements for Planned Parenthood - but those issues seldom come up in even the most fawning profiles because the interest is squarely on the nudity. She’s a woman who grew up quickly and dealt with being sexualised and fetishized throughout most of her adolescence, from teachers to family members, as detailed in a piece for Lenny Letter, but how do you make your sexual appeal your calling and have total control of that? You can call out the misogynists and get your message across, but those positive cries cannot help but be blurred out by centuries of societal norms and patriarchal traps.
I don’t know what to think of Emily Ratajkowski, but I also wish she had better opportunities to express herself in ways that didn’t confine her words to the status of add-ons to her beauty. I do not disagree with anything she says - women shouldn’t have their bodies, clothes, or sexual appetites dictated to or shamed - and yet I struggle to see the power in those words when accompanied by a video of her writhing around in lingerie while slathered in spaghetti. Our choices are our own, but we’re foolish to pretend that every choice we make is a feminist act, or that each is made completely separate from the sexist world we live in. Emily Ratajkowski is like any woman, playing life with the hand that’s been dealt to her, but some women are playing with a much fuller deck.
🎄On the 3rd day of Christmas my true #LOVEADVENT gave to me @emrata’s amazing polemic on female empowerment. “To me, female sexuality and sexiness, no matter how conditioned it may be by a patriarchal ideal, can be incredibly empowering for a woman if she feels it is empowering to her. The way I dress, act, flirt, dance, have sex - those are my decisions and they shouldn't be impacted by men. Being sexy is fun and I like it. I should never have to apologize for that. My life is on my terms and if I feel like putting on sexy underwear, it’s for me. Personal choice is the core ideal in my concept of feminism. Katie directed us to say ‘Stay Strong’ at the end of each video and I think it's a message from one woman to another. You're watching a video of a girl grinding in lingerie or whatever else and she is looking into the camera at the end saying, ‘you do you, however YOU want to, fuck the rest’. In the wake of the Harvey fallout and women coming forward with incredible amounts of sexual harassment cases, I have been so disappointed to hear women talk about "modesty" and "our responsibility" as if we need to, yet again, adjust to make it "easier" for the rest of the world. I'm tired of having to consider how I might be perceived by men if I wear the short skirt or post a sexy Instagram. I want to do what I want to do. Feminism isn't about adjusting, it's about freedom and choice. Do you think viewers will understand that, given the current wider conversation about the sexual objectification of women? why or why not? What are the risks? This is something I've battled with personally and publicly. I've had men comment on sexy images of me online and say "this is empowering to you? Ha! I just masturbated to it so hope you feel good about yourself!" I guess that's the way people can react, which ironically, ultimately serves my point. I don't care about your reaction or what you do with my expression of self. In fact, it has nothing to do with you at all and that's the point-which is why it feels good. Ultimately, if a woman wants to wear a burka or nothing at all, it's great if it's what she wants and feels good about.”💥#STAYSTRONG Link in bio to full film
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