Even women from the left, who fully supported the purpose of my protest, made comments about my missing bra underneath my white tank and jeans. In their minds, the fact that my body was at all visible had somehow discredited me and my political action. But why?
I often think about this. Why, as a culture, do we insist on separating smart and serious from sexy?That is from Emily Ratajkowski's essay on feminism in Harper's Bizarre. Later, she writes:
And there is no right answer, no choice that makes me more or less of a feminist, or even a “bad feminist,” to borrow from Roxane Gay. As long as the decision is my choice, then it’s the right choice. Ultimately, the identity and sexuality of an individual is up to them and no one else.Ratajkowski makes two principle points in her somewhat short essay. The first is that we shouldn't discredit a woman's message just because she chooses to express herself in a hyper-sexual way. The second is that absolutely any way a woman chooses to be is a valid form of feminism.
I like Emily Ratajkowski. She's intelligent, she has good taste in art, and her Instagram account makes it look like she has a lot of good fun with good people. But on the two points she makes in her essay, I think she is wrong.
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To wit, in Ratajkowski's telling of it, her privilege comes from the fact that she is "heteronormative," meaning that she is a heterosexual, biological female who considers herself a woman by gender and who has sexual and romantic interest in heterosexual, biological males who consider themselves men by gender. (Phew! What a mouthful!)
Nowhere in her essay does she ever acknowledge the possibility that her privilege comes instead from another important fact about Emily Ratajkowski: that she is an extremely physically attractive and highly paid supermodel. Throughout her essay, she refers to her proclivity for dressing in scanty clothing and putting on makeup as "playing with sexiness" or "playing at being sexy." It doesn't appear to occur to her - and her essay makes no references whatsoever to the fact - that less-attractive women with a different set of physical features do not have access to this kind of "play."
The image accompanying Ratajkowski's essay is a photo of her dressed only in a lace bra and panties, with her arms raised, revealing a thicket of armpit hair. When you're a young and successful model, presenting yourself in a such a way means something remarkably different than it would if you were an old, overweight woman, to say nothing of what it might mean if you were a transsexual with a very non-traditionally attractive body type. Ratajkowski's "play" with armpit hair has roughly the same effect as Kim Basinger's "cross-dressing" scene in 9 1/2 Weeks. When beautiful actresses and models do such things, they're essentially acting as constumed tourists, able to return at any time to the beautiful life.
For the rest of us, ugliness is our permanent state. We don't get to "play at" being supermodels, or rich-and-famous superstars.
This is the true source of Emily Ratajkowski's privilege, not that she is a heteronormative cisgendered woman, but that she is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful people in the world. It doesn't much matter what she does with her arm hair or what she wears to a political protest. People are going to purchase her swimsuit line or pay her for photo shoots regardless of what she chooses to "play at," and for that matter, the sexier she tries to be, the better it is for her financial bottom line.
Normal people do not operate under those circumstances. Emily Ratajkowski has never had her analytical credibility evaluated on her performance in a boardroom in front of an overhead projector. She is free to post sexy photos of herself at political protests on social media or write feminist musings in fashion magazines without suffering any career setbacks for it, because "playing with sexiness" is her brand.
Every other normal woman in America has to make a deliberate effort to ensure that her physical appearance is consistent with the message she intends to convey that day, because if she doesn't, then the one thing detracts from the other. A woman who shows up in the courtroom braless and in a tank top can kiss her intellectual credibility goodbye. A woman who shows up on a first date wearing see-through underwear and displaying patches of body hair can be sure that she will not receive a call for a second date, and that the attention she gets in the meantime will be decidedly negative.
This isn't because society is insufficiently feminist or that women are insufficiently liberated. It's because when you're not a gorgeous supermodel, you're held to the full set of operable social mores. It's because people who have to make money doing things other than looking pretty must present themselves as serious, capable, credible, reliable, and sane.
If Ratajkowski's question is, "Why can't I play at being sexy while people take me seriously as a woman?" then the answer is, "You can, but only because you're a supermodel." If her question is, "Why can't a female data scientist play at being sexy while reporting confidence intervals to the VP of Risk Portfolio?" then the answer is "Because millions of dollars are riding on this decision, and nobody can figure out if she's reporting the facts or trying to get a date."
But why though?
This is a business, for chrissakes!
* * *
Ratajkowski's error of judgment regarding exactly where her privilege comes from leads her to an overall highly confused take on feminism: that pretty much anything goes, so long as it's the woman's choice. Were it true, this idea would absolve all women of any responsibility they ever had toward feminism. Anything can be feminism because women can do anything they want.
The problem here is that no real feminist anywhere actually believes this. Feminist theory was developed to articulate a precise theory of women's issues and equality. If the culmination of all this theory boils down to, "Well, as long as you chose what you chose, then it doesn't matter," then society could have skipped feminism entirely from the beginning.
No, the core question underlying feminism is, "What would a world without misogyny look like?" What would women's choices be if they weren't influenced by the corruptive power of the "Patriarchy?" Women can and do make choices that run counter to the objectives of feminists; as long as they make these choices freely, how can the likes of Emily Ratajkowski complain on feminist grounds at all? Ratajkowski is, after all, an outspoken advocate of abortion rights. Is she now saying that, so long as female pro-life advocates make their case by choice, they're still good feminists?
Perhaps this is Ratajkowski's contradiction, or perhaps it is a contradiction inherent to feminism itself. Perhaps the notion of choosing freely was at one time controversial, but is now so pervasive - at least in American culture - that we must now recede into a sort of meta-feminism, in which every outward expression of being a woman makes is a feminist statement, so long as it reflects her free will.
What Ratajkowski fails to realize is that in making this case, she's no longer talking about feminism. She's talking about self-confidence. Observe:
Two summers ago, while vacationing with my friend and her girlfriend, my friend made an offhand remark about me being “hyper femme.” It kind of threw me because in many ways, probably like anyone would, I felt that her comment was an oversimplification of my identity.Her friend didn't stop Ratajkowski from expressing herself any way she chooses to. She also didn't "shame" her for being who she is. She simply attached a phrase to it, "hyper femme," that Ratajkowski herself believed to be "an oversimplification of her identity."
I'd be surprised if anyone's identity could be well-encapsulated by a two-word phrase. People have called me lots of two-word phrases from time to time. Sometimes they've attempted to explain me in one word, and other times they've dedicated whole sentences to the task. Even a book is an oversimplification of the human condition. It's impossible to capture a person's identity in words; that's merely a fact of language. Language is a close approximation of meaning, and only the poet and the great writer of literature has ever managed to present adequate language for describing something as complex as identity itself.
It seems odd that Ratajkowski would take offense to or feel ashamed of her friend's quick attempted description of a part of her identity. But feminism isn't the cure for that. Her friend doesn't need a more feminist vocabulary or a better understanding of women's choices. The antidote to this kind of situation is self-confidence.
Ratajkowski needed the self-confidence she reportedly discovered later that night: "The truth is, I thought, I love being feminine." Great. Now if only she had the confidence to accept that one fair descriptor for that disposition is "hyper femme."
So, the reality of it is not that feminism is expressed any time a woman chooses to do anything, so long as it's a choice. The reality of it is that feminism at times interferes with a woman's true expression of self. And, you know what? That's perfectly alright.
Perhaps Emily Ratajkowski is on the precipice of discovery. Perhaps she's nearing the point where she realizes that it's more important to be yourself than to be a feminist. Maybe she's coming to understand that feminism is a set of academic theories, not a pattern of existence or a description of an identity. All she needs is the confidence to own that realization, to know in her whole heart that some people will always find something to criticize, and that critics will use any theory available to them to make their criticism.
When she realizes that, she'll be something better than a feminist. She'll be an individualist.