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Did you read Emily Ratajkowski’s viral essay? This week I delve into my perhaps controversial reaction to it, and my thoughts on her general figurehood, which I’ve been wanting to write about for a while.
(photo by Tina Tyrell for New York Magazine via The Cut)
A very personal essay
Last Tuesday, Emily Ratajkowski published a story in The Cut called “Buying Myself Back: When does a model own her own image?” In it she details the nefarious ways in which her image and personhood have been exploited throughout her modeling career—by photographers, by artists, and by various men in her life. The story is well-written and at times heart-wrenching, and after reading it, I had a suspicion about how it would be publicly received, so I checked Twitter to see if I was right. Within seconds: a barrage of blue checks praising her as a brilliant and honest writer, implicating themselves as underestimating her because she’s hot, and invoking the piece as if it were a powerful political statement.
In my vindication I felt unusually apathetic. My response to the piece was different, but I didn’t hate it. I read it in one continuous gulp on a sunny bench while drinking an iced coffee and pretending, for five blissful minutes, that it was all I cared about. I’d do it again! Had I then logged on to find a deluge of people shit-talking Emrata for not staying in her lane or whatever, I wouldn’t have felt good about that at all. Nor do I want to be one of those people. But I do think she represents a very particular type of cultural figure, one worth examining and even criticizing as an exercise in understanding the role a person’s stated ideals play in the pursuit of progress (especially as they contrast with action).
In reading the piece, my foremost emotion was disgust at the men who used her and a desire to protect her and women like her. I also enjoyed her prose and found the piece useful on the level of exposing a threatening side of celebrity most people would never think about. But close behind, by way of a few details that jumped out, was a suspicion of another agenda. There was the way she spoke about money: “I was 23,” she writes, “I hadn’t made enough money to comfortably spend $80,000 on art.” (So she splits the cost with her boyfriend.) She later mentions she hadn’t made as much money as she’d hoped, and towards the end, that she couldn’t afford to engage in a legal battle unless she were to sell a prized possession. These little comments are telling inclusions that hint at an awareness of class, but with a tone-deaf insistence on situating herself as an underdog within its context. Then there’s the gratuitous inclusion of how much weight she lost during a particularly anxious period (“ten pounds in five days”)—a detail that, given the flavor of “thinspo” she regularly doles out, functions more effectively as a whistle for a vulnerable type of girl than genuine exposition.
These are small gripes, and I don’t think they would necessarily be prohibitive to the soundness of her point (we all want to be the underdog; we’ve all been poisoned by diet culture), except for the fact that, by the time I reached her conclusion, I got the sense that this piece wasn’t so much about criticizing a system as it was a brand exercise for Emily Ratajkowski. Not necessarily by intention, but by impact. There is no broadening of her point to include people other than herself; there is no genuine analysis of the complexity of modeling (a profession that is literally defined by selling one’s image) and female agency. There is no mention of actual copyright law, or the photographers and makeup artists and producers who helped create the image that she posted on her Instagram, who were also exploited by Richard Prince. The most interesting parts, where she paints herself as complicit in some way, are never further unpacked, and so seem included for extra honesty credit. It’s not that I think she elided meaningful criticism in bad faith, or on purpose—I think she did so compulsively, as an expression of her (and many people’s) general approach to systemic change, which is to assume that by simply calling out a problem, or exploiting it in her favor, she takes away its power.
She ends the piece on a high note: “Eventually, Jonathan will run out of ‘unseen’ crusty Polaroids, but I will remain as the real Emily; the Emily who owns the high-art Emily, and the one who wrote this essay, too. She will continue to carve out control where she can find it.” It’s curiously optimistic given the horrors she’s just described, and unsettlingly detached. Maybe it’s meant to transmit female resilience, but to me it registered as the same benign argumentation you might see on her Instagram, whereby she supposedly subverts the toxicity of misogyny by embracing it herself. They feel like different contingents of the same choice-feminist doctrine that says any choice a woman makes is inherently feminist, and any criticism of those choices is therefore anti-feminist. As we’ve witnessed with the fall of the girlboss, it’s not a belief system that scales.
I’ll admit I went into reading Ratajkowski’s essay with some cynicism. I’ve never found her defensive posture about what is and isn’t feminist to be compelling or particularly salient. But I do think it’s important to account for evolution, so let’s go back a little: After the “Blurred Lines” music video put her on the map in 2013 and she became known for posing semi-naked on Instagram, Ratajkowski started narrating her comfort with nudity in interviews. “Mom was topless on the beach every summer in Majorca,” she told the New York Times. And in response to the idea that American women are more shy: “Go to Europe. Travel,” she told The Cut. “If you spend any time there you notice it right away—their comfort level is different.” The implication, I think, was that her propensity for being naked in public wasn’t about shock value, self-exploitation, or attention-seeking; she was simply comfortable in her body. Of course, the photos she shared never showed her naked in a casual way, say, hunched over at a table, or cooking, but rather taut, tan, posed, cropped, and filtered, betraying a different motive. “I hope that with my modeling and with the things that I do,” she told Maxim in 2015, “I’m able to walk that line and show young women who are developing and becoming sexual that they don’t have anything to be embarrassed about, and instead of being exploited, it’s something they embrace and feel empowered by.”
In 2016, she took up this position more seriously, claiming that this kind of self-empowerment was a radical act. In “Baby Woman,” an essay she wrote for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, she said, “To me, ‘sexy’ is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up?” A month later, she posed topless with Kim Kardashian on Instagram, their stomachs flexed and middle fingers up, with the caption: “We are more than just our bodies, but that doesn't mean we have to be shamed for them or our sexuality. #liberated.”
This has been the basis of her outspoken political views ever since. “My response to people saying I post oversexualized images is that it’s my choice and there’s an ownership and empowerment through them,” she told Women’s Wear Daily. She explains that, yes, the beauty standards that made her rich and famous are the result of sexist oppression, but she doesn’t have to act outside of those forces to resist them. “I may wear makeup that enhances my features [and] that plays into the standard of beauty that has been set up by a patriarchal society, but I’m living within it,” she said, rather conveniently. “I’m not wearing the makeup to please men, I’m wearing it to please myself.” A couple months later, she told Harpers Bazaar that taking and posting a selfie was a way to reclaim the male gaze. This I agree with: nothing about her photos subverts the male gaze; they simply reveal it as her gaze, too.
I do think that there are multiple valid ways to resist someone taking your power away—you can separate yourself from the oppressor, you can redefine what you think is powerful, you can beat them to it by oppressing yourself first. If Emily Ratajkowski grew up feeling like she was never thin enough, as she alluded in her Cut essay—I suspect as a result of seeing supermodels in magazines—and posting photos where she looks extremely thin makes her feel better about herself, that is her personal right. The cycle continues. She is working within a system instead of against it—something many people have no choice but to do. What I struggle with is the fervent line of argument that such a path is equally effective in the pursuit of progress. Or that something that is personally empowering is necessarily progressive. Given how sophisticated the online left has gotten at parsing the limits of lean-in feminism, it feels redundant for me to even point this out, but the opportunities persist.
In her followup interview on The Cut’s podcast, Ratajkowski implicates her former self by saying, “There’s sort of a wave of feminism that’s like, ‘Listen, we live in a patriarchy, the way to get powerful and get money is [to] commodify yourself, and, you know, learn to capitalize on your sex appeal and your image. And there’s some truth to that—I own a home, I live a life that I wouldn’t have lived had I gone to UCLA for art. But the truth is that, ultimately, there’s only so much control that you can have.” But when host Avery Trufelman asks what the lesson is in all this, instead of disavowing choice feminism, Ratajkowski doubles down on it. “I think that writing this essay is the best way I can reclaim power.”
Is that it? If you scroll through Emily Ratajkowski’s Instagram, aside from the occasional #hotgirlsforBernie post, it doesn’t look so different from, say, Kim Kardashian’s—a person famous (and often celebrated) for capitalizing off the worst parts of modern culture. You will find photos of tiny waists, flexed abs, the pursed lips and darkened skin of Instagram face. You will find promotion for clothing collaborations, sponsored ads for beauty products. Their impact, in other words, is quite similar. So what, really, is the difference between the two? Emily writes thoughtful essays about power and consent; Kim is decidedly less interested in feminist theory. Emily defends her choices as radical; Kim doesn’t (not really). They have both been deemed feminist icons.
I’m not that interested in debating what is and isn’t feminist at this point. It feels irrelevant and also boring. But what bothered me about the reception of Ratajkowski’s essay—which, of course, she could not control—was that broadly deeming her piece politically expedient revealed something about how we currently define activism. If the piece feels a little empty when viewed through that lens, it may be because Emily Ratajkowski has accumulated mass wealth by riding the very currents she is indirectly criticizing—the male gaze, female objectification, self-commodification. And by writing this piece she did not compromise that wealth or general position; if anything, she likely increased both and will continue to do so. It goes without saying that how she was treated was unspeakably horrible and not deserved, but what is she actually aiming to change?
What does it mean to participate and benefit from a culture you also want to denounce? Is denouncement enough? It’s a question that’s dominated another arena of online discourse over the last year: literary criticism. There was Lauren Oyler’s viral criticism of Jia Tolentino’s popular book Trick Mirror, where she accused Tolentino of pointing out problems in culture as a means to an end, as if she had no option to actually resist them through behavior. “Tolentino’s elective self-confinement,” Oyler wrote, “is supposed to make her seem like a martyr, but what she sells is not herself; it’s a shoddy mode of thinking that says everything a person does… remains a matter of ‘survival’ rather than a demonstration of priorities and desires.” You’ll find a similar line of thinking among those who defend ‘selling out’ with the idea that it’s everyone’s right to “get their bag,” no matter how much doing so compromises their stated moral framework.
Last month, in a piece for The New Yorker called “Has Self-Awareness Gone Too Far in Fiction?,” Katy Waldman made a similar point to Oyler, but about novelists instead of essayists. “These self-conscious times have furnished us with a new fallacy,” Waldman writes. “Call it the reflexivity trap. This is the implicit, and sometimes explicit, idea that professing awareness of a fault absolves you of that fault—that lip service equals resistance.” Obviously this issue was at the center of the media reckoning this past June—that many brands and online personalities had stated values they didn’t actually uphold through action, as if making the statement had been enough.
In a recent piece for The White Review about Natasha Stagg’s popular book, Sleeveless, Amber Husain referenced this same ideology but gave it a different name: “Such writers [as Anna Wiener and Jia Tolentino] have rightly been criticized for attempting to justify what are, of course, choices, via a manoeuvre a friend of mine now casually refers to as ‘informed exceptionalism’—the effort to write oneself out of corrupted alignments by conscientiously demonstrating an ability to comprehend them.” (Emphasis mine.) Husain used this as a means of comparison against Natasha Stagg’s response to our far-gone culture: which is not to imply that her awareness makes her virtuous, like Tolentino, but to instead embrace that she herself is toxic, and that resisting the toxic forces would only sap her life of pleasure.
I could be implicated in both lines of argument. In fact, what initially drew me to Jia Tolentino’s writing was that she was seemingly able to critique a culture while also enjoying its spoils, integrity intact. It was a duality I recognized, or at least strove for, in my own writing—gently criticizing fashion and capitalism while working for a fashion site and pushing product on my own Instagram. Obviously I began to see these things as incompatible, which led to my discomfort and eventual departure from my role at that fashion site and as a paid-for influencer (although I still enjoy Tolentino’s writing for other reasons). But that doesn’t mean I always have the willpower to resist the things I find ethically dubious—like Stagg, my tastes and desires continue to be molded by the very culture I aim to critique. The question, then, is how should I define those departures (not as radical or inevitable, I’d wager), and how do we possibly address a deep-seated value system that inspires us all to act, over and over, against our own interest?
This is the question that critics of mainstream Democratic thought, a.k.a. neoliberalism, want us to consider. The primary tenet of neoliberalism as it’s currently employed is the idea that societal problems can be solved through individual action. But we know by now that these issues are systemic and will persist even if the majority of us learn to behave. So what does liberation actually look like? If it’s not simply personal choices—whether as a means to reclaim one’s power, as Ratajkowski might argue, or as a means of survival, like Tolentino might argue, or in one’s own disinterested pursuit of pleasure, like Stagg might argue—then perhaps it’s something much bigger and disruptive. Something that would challenge our beliefs, and completely revolutionize our desires, rather than simply justify or recontextualize them until we can live with ourselves.
At the end of her piece about Natasha Stagg, Husain put it this way: “[If] political agents, rather than exposing venality only to bemoan it as a given, [were] to commit themselves to more emancipatory forms of (ideally collective) action, then it seems reasonable enough to believe that the contours of a desirable career and covetable ‘lifestyle’ might eventually look different from what Stagg as a writer and we, as readers, are currently able to envisage.” I think she means that instead of focusing on “putting the ladder down” so that we may help more people escape the toxic runoff of a toxic culture, we move the ladder to safer ground. Or perhaps get rid of it altogether.
Imagine, for instance, that instead of fighting for everyone to have a seat at the corporate table, we dealt with the harm of an exploitive upper class? What if, instead of fighting for all bodies to be exploited for likes on Instagram, we simply redefined the contours of aspiration? What if, instead of celebrating having a Black woman candidate for vice president who has a dubious and racist record, we fought for policies that actually helped Black women? Marx might call this a revolution of values. He was concerned with valuing one’s time—and thus, one’s freedom—over one’s money, power, or status. It’s hard to locate a single enduring strain of mainstream culture that currently embodies this idea, and it’s just as hard to locate a single issue plaguing modern America that doesn’t ultimately trace back to the blind pursuit of wealth.
Emily Ratajkowski’s solution is different. It’s personal, and applies only to women who look and live like she does, and that’s fine. But the idea that her approach is broadly liberatory, I think, is complacent at best, inhibitive at worst. There are plenty of reasons for her to tell the story she told last week that go beyond simple catharsis (which has personal value), or the right anyone has to tell their story (an important cultural tradition), especially a victim of assault—but I wonder whether she can possibly lay claim to them when her own political point of view amounts to a justification to continue profiting off of the very system she criticizes. Did anyone praising the piece on Twitter as politically powerful walk away from reading it with a sense of what needed to change, or how it possibly could within the constraints of the value system Ratajkowski so baldly proliferates? If not, or even if so, I wonder what it says about our collective liberatory prospects that no one seemed to care.
1. This week’s Small Good Things is, of all things, Kitten, my friend Catherine’s low-stakes Instagram zine in which artists of different disciplines respond to a one-word brief. The first brief was romance, and the responses are a perfect mish-mash.
2. Countless tweets about the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who led an inspiring career and whose death should not compromise an entire country’s democracy, although it might. I’ve also been thinking about this prescient essay from 2018—“What the Cult of Ruth Bader Ginsberg Got Wrong” —by Stephanie Mencimer for Mother Jones and what it means to worship political figures.
3. This series of waterfalls talking to each other by comedian Julio Torres’ that truly could only have come out of his brain.
4. A new (used) bike, which I’ve been riding all over town like a kid with a new toy.
5. The most recent season of Search Party, a show I love very much made by people I love very much, especially John Early. I’m also not sure I’ve ever been as involuntarily compelled by someone’s face as I am by Alia Shawkat’s?
6. The unflattering realization that unless I’m in a very particular mood, I need my meal preparation to take less than two minutes flat.
7. Various clips from the Fast Times at Ridgemont High table read for charity, which honestly brought me more joy than I’m comfortable admitting…
8. Rick Owens’ interview for The Cut’s series on the state of fashion, which I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. “All the designers you’re talking about, we were a departure from the generation before us. At this point, we are the generation that somebody needs to reject. That’s just who we are. We’ve established ourselves. And somebody needs to violently reject us. And they will. I’m waiting.” I love him?
9. Two definitions:
mammonism, meaning the greedy pursuit of wealth, used by Rei Kawakubo in her interview with The Cut (a great/quick read)
ineluctable, meaning inescapable, seen twice in three hours, most memorably used by Ben Schott in his incredible, readable takedown of the “bland brand” phenomenon for Bloomberg.
10. This precious cartoon about Maybe Baby by a reader, which I forgot to share when I first saw it:
11. “If God Is Dead, Your Time Is Everything,” a life-changing essay by James Wood for the New Yorker that I sought out after several people suggested I look into Martin Hägglund’s ideas on death, secularism, and socialism. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
12. Too many frozen Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips, eaten plain.
13. This video of what “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life” would sound like if it had been written by Blink-182. The niche pop punk content I live for.
14. The beginnings of a new Fall 2020 playlist, which will not feature any pop punk and which I’ll eventually share here. In the meantime, my @halemur playlist, which I still regularly add to, is necessarily autumnal since that’s basically my entire musical taste. (Join its 3,500 followers!)
15. The comments section of my last newsletter, which is full of highly relatable takes on this strange and alienating time. Thank you for weighing in. Related: a reader’s genius term for “the fear of missing out on something you don’t even really care about”: fauxmo.
Finally, thank you for all the extremely nice DMs about my podcast episode with Danny last week! They made me really happy. This week I’m bringing on my friend and former editor Mallory Rice, as she’s the first person I texted when the Emrata piece came out and she has just as many thoughts as I do. Tune in on Tuesday if you’re interested—we’ll also address comments!
Thanks so much for reading,
This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be donated to The Bail Project, a non-profit combatting mass incarceration by disrupting the cash bail system.