On Wednesday, the model, actress, and political activist Emily Ratajkowski posted an Instagram photo of herself without a top on, bedecked in layers of jewels, staring straight into the camera with the caption, “Cannes.” As a post, it’s inarguably successful.
But the image is also a potentially problematic feminist statement, which is probably why Ratajkowski just deleted it.
The series of photos Ratajkowski posted of herself on Instagram, wearing a red bikini on a yacht in the French Riviera, seem to be part of her campaign of defining feminism. As she states in a pinned tweet on Twitter, “women choosing when and how they want to share their sexuality and bodies.”
But the aggressively sexual posturing seemed explicitly for the male gaze, and it only seems to reinforce the strict set of norms long-associated with the presentation of feminine identity and female sexuality rooted not in women’s empowerment, but in what men want.
women choosing when and how they want to share their sexuality and bodies.
— Emily Ratajkowski (@emrata) November 30, 2016
As The Daily Beast’s Lizzie Crocker, for one, wrote: “It’s easy to see why many card-carrying feminists have criticized Ratajkowski’s argument as self-contradicting. She wants to topple the patriarchy and fight oppression of women’s bodies while she profits from selling her own body, which, I might add, looks like an adolescent boy’s sexual fantasy — an hourglass-shaped Western ideal.”
Crocker added: “It will take some time for society to adjust to Ratajkowski’s dreams of being known as much for her acting and political ambitions as for her body. Until then, her feminist statements would be more convincing if she admitted they don’t always align with the sexy image she’s selling.”
A post shared by Emily Ratajkowski (@emrata) on May 17, 2017 at 4:50am PDT
After all, as Juliet A. Williams, a professor of gender studies and the chair of the social science interdisciplinary program at the University of California-Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Beauty, even raising the question of whether a bikini body is feminist or not speaks to the problem of “how quickly instigations like those photographs devolve into finger pointing [and] to ‘You’re a feminist’ and “You’re not a feminist.'”
“That’s a really negative cycle,” Williams says. “That really makes a spectacle of women attacking each other.”
That said, Williams argues, “I think it’s a strain to come up with ways that [Ratajkowski’s photograph] is a feminist gesture.”
At best, Williams says that one possible feminist interpretation of Ratajkowski’s seemingly body-positive, sex-positive imagery would be to acknowledge that we live in a culture where body-shaming is pervasive and that most women feel that their bodies are either not good enough or are in some ways something shameful. Because of that, “having confidence is an accomplishment and is a rare experience,” she says — which is why one might be able to make the argument that Ratajkowski’s photos are feminist, since they speak back to the cultural instinct to body-shame women.
“But I would argue that is a pretty reactionary form of feminism, to say in a culture that wants me to be ashamed of my body, I’m not,” says Williams. “It’s also problematic because just because in our society there is a culture of body shaming, that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a huge imperative for women to be super-exposed and ‘sexy.’ Sexism is vaunted both ways, so we have to be a little more complex if we want to have a feminist response.”
A post shared by Emily Ratajkowski (@emrata) on Apr 13, 2017 at 10:58am PDT
Williams says that while indicating that you take pleasure in the sexual objectification of yourself can be a powerful statement, it also “risks ignoring that, for too many women too much of the time, that sexual objectification is compulsive.”
“The problem with that photograph is that some women may look at it and say, ‘I am so inspired by an image of a woman so clearly proud of her body’ — but others, men and women, who spend time on porn websites or in other activities that degrade women will be equally thrilled by it,” Williams notes. “How do you display pride in your body while also displaying all the reasons that women are burdened by the constant imperative to be sexy? Unless you bring that question into it, too, it’s really incomplete as a feminist gesture. That doesn’t mean you can condemn the whole thing, but you have to acknowledge that among women, this isn’t an equally enjoyable activity.”
Or to put it more succinctly, “Feminism isn’t just, ‘I love myself!’ but about all of us.”
Williams says she hopes that the younger generations of women who have grown up in the shadow of second-wave feminism will challenge themselves to engage in feminism in a way that speaks not just to their own individual experiences, but also to other women who face a wide-range of challenges that go beyond their bodies.
“If you’re Emily Ratajkowski, you can’t stop with, ‘It makes me feel awesome to look this good and I want to share that with the world,'” says Williams. “You’re entitled to all those feelings, but you need to ask yourself, ‘if I put this picture out into the world, how will it make me feel? Well, it will make me feel great. But what will the impact be?’ The impact will be to reinforce that for most men and women, this is how women are supposed to look in order to be valued. And from that calculus, you might say, ‘Ok I am still going to look this way and parade around in my bathing suit, but I’m not going to put it out on Instagram.’ You can find some pathway to have strength and not be condemned or ashamed because of your body, but also have responsibility for the impact that it has on other women.”
That said, Williams also cautions that we must be wary of trying to create a prerequisite image that a woman (or any person) must embody in order to be called a feminist. After all, to do so would be antithetical to the idea of feminism itself, which Williams defines as, “a social vision committed to the idea that everyone should be loved and have the opportunity to flourish regardless of what their sex or gender is, with a particular focus on the persistent inequalities that are tied to sex and gender.”
Williams adds that “there are a ton of creative possibilities for being incredibly hot and also really affirming women.” She points to Beyoncé as the ultimate example.
“She’s isn’t just posting on Instagram of herself living the high life and looking awesome,” Williams says of Beyoncé. “She’s an incredible artist. Lemonade burst apart much of the whole concept of female authorship and agency. And Beyoncé is very ostentatious in her appropriation of the word ‘feminist’ to really mitigate [the chances of] her images being misappropriated. And that is very different than just Instagramming yourself looking good and loving looking good. It’s not a thoughtful enough gesture.”
Which isn’t to say that the work of feminism itself is to call out which acts are feminist and which acts aren’t — especially when it comes to women’s understandings of their own bodies. Williams notes that an integral first step is to recognize that, for women, if you don’t love yourself and your body, that lack of acceptance is itself coming from “a deeply misogynistic and woman-controlling society.”
But the work doesn’t end there. “You can’t just naively put something out there and say, ‘Because I feel good about myself, I’m a feminist,'” she says.
The work, she explains, comes from avoiding reactionary gestures and instead always seeking context. Only then can we deeply and most effectively explore how any act will further the push for equality, selfies and all.
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