Do Nude Selfies Negate Feminism?
On a recent episode of The Pandolly Podcast, Dolly and I discussed the proliferation of beach-side pap pics on The Daily Mail. In particular, the articles seemed to largely focus around model and actress Emily Ratajowski, best known for her role as a topless dancer in Robin Thicke’s controversial music video, Blurred Lines and for small roles in Entourage and Gone Girl. We couldn’t help but scroll through them; she has a stupendous body. “Is it weird that we like looking through these pictures?” I asked Dolly. “I think it depends on our gaze” she replied – i.e. one of admiration rather than sexual objectification. “We aren’t trying to bang her.” Would she be upset by the pictures of her, topless in a rolled-down bathing suit, on the beach with her mates? We thought she probably wouldn’t love being the recipient of a photographic erection, but that she was unlikely to be devastated (nor surprised: famous chick + boobs out + public beach = pap); it’s part of her shtick to be publicly naked and ‘own it’. She regularly poses naked and shares nude selfies with her 9.7 million Instagram fans.
A few weeks later, the news broke that a book of nude portraits of Emily was to be published, without her permission – the outtakes from a shoot she did in 2012 with an ass-hat of a photographer, clearly (just read his quotation on the publisher’s page and also, just call her and fucking tell her!?) called Jonathan Leder – and I started thinking about this all over again.
Emily addressed the issue immediately: “The book and the images within them are a violation” she tweeted, before issuing the following thread: “These photos being used w/out my permission is an example of exactly the opposite of what I stand for: women choosing when and how they want to share their sexuality and their bodies / To be clear: I signed no release & was not paid. That said, the legal side of this is private and I would appreciate it if people waited / to base their opinions on facts rather than speculation or assumption.” From my reading, the publisher’s note also insinuates that the two were lovers, when the pictures were taken; which makes this even more of an betrayal.
It is worth noting at this juncture that what Emily is less known for – in the UK, at least – is her eloquent and impassioned views on feminism. When I was in New York in September, I discovered not one but two US publications with pieces by Emily. One, for US Glamour, was titled ‘Why Women Can Be Serious and Sexual’. The other, frustratingly, I cannot locate, but it was a debate with a famous feminist about feminism, I seem to remember. Emily’s essay denotes an awareness and eloquence on a cultural phenomenon that she is implicit in; that you may not expect her to be privy to (and why don’t we expect her to be privy to this? More on that later.)
To publish nude pictures out of context, without permission, is straight-up wrong. But some serious field research (read the tweets and Instagrams) around naked pictures like this, have made me realise that for many people, Emily is a hypocrite: she posts naked pictures of herself but despite being a model, gets cross when someone else does; that she posed for the photos and knew that Leder was taking them but now, four years on, she doesn’t like them and well, whose fault is that; that her ‘feminism’ is a flimsy justification of her showing off her amazing body; that feminism, for her, is predicated on her career going her way. Incidentally, the only one of those that I see any kind of value in, it the last. I think that like many of us (I have definitely been guilty of this) Emily may be dependant on ‘feminism’ as something she can name-drop to shore up her personal decisions.
I ring up Paula Goldstein, the editor of Voyage d’Etudes, who is currently posting a series of naked pictures of her pregnant self (Instagram recently deleted one. In riposte, she re-uploaded it with larger nipple covers.) “I’m a very naked person” she laughs. “Let’s make it clear, women have many, many more pressing issues beyond “freeing the nipple” – for instance, I’m giving 15% of sales of my book (buy Paula’s new book, here) to Planned Parenthood and preparing for the Women’s March against Trump – but at the same time I don’t think that nudity is this horrifying thing that we have to shield children from. When Emily posts sexy pictures, she is conforming to those swimsuit ideals. But whether or not other people are able to profit from her image without her permission is not a feminist issue – it is a legal one.”
Earlier this year Elle.com published a great piece by Hayley Phelan featuring a quote from a media psychologist Pamela Rutledge in reference to Kim Kardashian and her nude selfies. This sentence is the best thing I have read on the topic. (I am a bit sad that I didn’t write it, but not so sad that I won’t include it.)
“Kim Kardashian’s nude photos are empowering for her, but exploitive of her audience.”
I was talking all this over with a 19-year-old, whip-smart, art student recently. “You have no idea how shit [Emily and other models] make teenagers like me feel, when we scroll through Instagram” she said clearly. “I don’t think anyone has any idea how much it affects teenage girls, constantly confronted with naked, flawless models. I don’t find it empowering. I don’t know anyone who does. It just makes us feel like you cannot get ahead in the modern world, unless you have a body like this that. It also feels really boastful. Like, good for you that you have that body! None of us do.” That’s not the model’s fault, though, I countered; models tend to have excellent bodies. They always have. It’s what makes the entire image, for better or worse, ‘aspirational.’ It’s as old as time; let’s not forget, before Alexa Chung and Instagram, there was Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “But I don’t need to see them naked, all the time” she batted back. And maybe that’s it: do we need to see quite so many images? Your body is heavenly. We get it. But we live in an image-addled world, where the weight on nudity may have tipped the scales too far. Is it time to redress the balance?
There is no doubt that Emily, et al, feel empowered when sharing naked pictures of themselves. Her bod; her lense; her context; her Instagram account. She can control the intention and the caption, sure. But how many people are thinking about Emily’s ‘my body, my choice’ when they screenshot said nudey pic to one another? For every Benny that thinks that Molly should be cooler about stripping off at Johnny’s pool party; for every Molly who thinks that unless she has tits like that, she’s fucked. How many people are caring about the incisive essays on feminism that Emily is penning, when they send that screenshot? It’s all very well to say that modern feminism should allow for naked women to be taken as seriously as a suited and booted barrister, but when the actual image is laid forth: does anyone really care about the context?
When Kim was lambasted earlier this year for her naked selfie, she wrote a blog post and questioned “why am I a bad role model for being proud of my body?” The suggestion, of course, is that to criticise Kim’s publicly naked body, is to shame her. I disagree with the idea that to caution against nude selfies is to ‘body shame.’ It is not body-shaming. It is about what Dolly likes to call, “mode of appropriateness.” Kim is not being chastised for having hips. Or an ass. Or a teeny waist. She is criticised, quite simply, for her media output. “At the end of the day” writes Hayley in her piece, “Kardashian is producing media for the consumption of others—and that’s why her selfie is fair game for criticism and analysis.”
Kim Kardashian’s job is the act of being Kim Kardashian. Which means that everything she produces via her media channels, is part of her business. Even that sex tape – she writes in the blog post “I lived through the embarrassment and fear, and decided to say who cares, do better, move on. I shouldn’t have to constantly be on the defense, listing off my accomplishments just to prove that I am more than something that happened 13 years ago” – was brokered by her momager, Kris. It turned in to a business deal, thus ensuring its preservation, rather than letting it, say, die down. Both mother and daughter made money of that tape and it went on to be her springboard to fame. Let’s just take a moment here to remember possibly my favourite realiTV line of all time, when Kris found out about Kim’s sex tape. “As her mother, I wanted to kill her. But as her manager, I knew that I had a job to do.”
Kim Kardashian’s sex tape is Emily Ratajowski’s role in Blurred Lines. Their controversial springboards to fame, which both of them may well wish to be forgotten. Both have been heavily criticised for their mode of ‘coming out’ and have struggled to shed it. Emily, who defended the video, at first, hasn’t said anything on the subject of it for a long time, so it’s hard to know if it’s a choice she now regrets or feels compromised by. Like Kim, her platform for fame was a misogynistic sexual lense; Ray J sold a tape that he had made of Kim, Robin Thicke put out a video projecting his version of a woman’s sexuality (naked, begging to be ‘given it’.)
Should a bad career decision stay with you for life? “The song and video are kind of awful” says Paula Goldstein, “but I don’t think you can judge someone on one career choice. It doesn’t mean she is not a feminist. God, when I think of some of my earlier work…!” – and as a 29-year-old woman I am the first to acknowledge that we are still learning. I certainly am. Who knows what journey she has been on since that video? Her nude selfies, her modelling work now and her essay for US Glamour, should not all be seen within the limiting parameters created by Blurred Lines.
And of Emily’s actual body: It complicates. It subverts. It confuses. Why isn’t her body in line with her academic views? Her bodacious proportions – those pillowed lips, full breasts and big brown eyes – betray her. It is a body that speaks of porny ideals.When she pranced around Robin Thicke in latex pants, as he sung “I know you want it”, she became the literal beckoning for men to cream their pants. Should she play down her assets, because of this? No. That is one point I cannot be firmer on. (As Paula says, “I realise that some people, particularly men, view my nudity in a different way [to how I do.] But fuck them.” And not in the sexual way.) Should she keep challenging a culture that says one thing is arty, and another is porn? Yes.
Emily’s vital stats are the reason why her naked pictures are not seen as art, in the same way that they are of other top models like Dree Hemingway, Lara Stone, Freja Beha, Angela Lindvall, pictured naked by photographic duo Inez & Vinoodh. But it can’t just be about her tits, can it? It’s also about the lense. Emily is not just the subject of her selfies, she is the architect. A cursory look at Emily’s Instagram would suggest a woman beguiled by her own beauty – and not just posed for the lense of others, like those models above. A model is expected to don and shed clothing depending on the campaign. But Emily sheds her clothes in order to titivate. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard friends and peers dismiss her, without cruelty, as “that girl who always gets her kecks off.” Not, “that girl who speaks really interestingly about feminism and challenges our relationship with female nudity and sexuality.” Petra Collins and Arvida Bystrom take on a guise that Emily has not yet taken, because their images are few and far between; the power lies in their angles; and their work exists beyond their own, singular, naked form.
Oh, but it’s all so complicated! Why aren’t there any hard and fast rules? As Dolly pondered last week, “the whole idea of feminism is that we are free of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ but there is are practical issues with an ‘ism’ that is free from any kind of doctrine.” By that, she means, there is no ‘answer’. There is not right, or wrong; which mean that pieces like this one that I am writing can only question; posit; muse. Whatever you want to call it, the discussion is open. Certainly, we are complicit in the confusion. I’m not free from blame. I share pictures of my body which in general standards of modern society is aspirational in its slimness; it just happens to be clothed.
We must confront the fact that we struggle so much for Emily Ratajowski and what she claims to stand for, because we do not see motive. We do not see cause. We see effect. We see result. Emily Ratajowski is motivated by feminism, I believe that absolutely. So when I say that she should not play down her assets because of what other people see her body as, I mean it. When I say that she should challenge what is art, and what is fashion, I mean it. But when I say that I am not sure a nude selfie is the vessel in which to get this message across, I mean this: that when you look at a feed populated with naked pictures, do you see a powerful message? Or do you really, if we’re honest, see a great pair of tits.
LIKE THIS? Check out another piece I wrote on body politics, here.
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