Emily Ratajkowski and the problem with ‘girlboss’ feminism

When do women have control over their own image?

In September last year, Emily Ratajkowski posted her debut essay for New York magazine entitled ‘Buying Myself Back: When does a model own her own image?.’ The essay predictably went viral and, while it seems to have had its fifteen minutes and evanesced from the public consciousness, I’ve been ruminating on the piece and what it represents.

As the title may imply, the essay essentially surrounds Ratajkoswki’s relationship with the ownership over her own image throughout her professional career as a world-renowned model and actress. Using the format of a personal essay, Ratajkoswki details the repugnant ways in which she has found her image to be variously appropriated by men. She writes of a time when she found herself, paradoxically, being sued for posting a picture of herself on Instagram: ‘despite being an unwilling subject of the photograph, I could not control what happened to it.’ The essay also gets strikingly raw and intimate. Ratajkowski recounts a sexual assault she suffered at the hands of the photographer, Jonathan Leder, in the embryonic years of her modelling career. The very same photos Leder took on the night of the alleged assault when he had commissioned her for a shoot then came back to haunt Ratajkoswki years later, when she learned that he was now selling a book entitled ‘EMILY RATAJKOSWKI,’ interleaved with the images from the evening of the fateful encounter. The reappearance of the pictures and physical reminder of the assault served to further emphasise to Ratajkoswki the loss of control over her image, a recurrent theme in her career, despite her ostensible success.

I was not so much interested in Ratajkowski’s actual essay as I was in the discourse it ignited online. Rather expectedly, the piece was met with cacophonous public laud, with Ratajkowski receiving seemingly infinite retweets, likes and shares. As I scrolled through Twitter and Instagram and observed the unequivocal praise for the essay, something did not sit right. I enjoyed reading the essay- don’t get me wrong- but I felt that the online discourse was lacking in exactly that — discourse. Public receipt of the piece was uniformly positive and lacked in any meaningful engagement with the actual value of what Ratajkoswki was saying or what her essay meant in the broader feminist framework.

‘It’s my choice’

Prior to the publication of this piece and throughout her career, Ratajkowski has confidently positioned herself at the vanguard of the choice feminist movement. The raison d’etre of the doctrine centres on the premise that ‘no matter what a woman chooses, from her lifestyle to her family dynamic to her pop culture consumption, she is making a feminist choice, just from the act of choosing.’ Ratajkowski has previously touched on these ideas, in a 2016 interview, she stated, “my response to people saying I post oversexualized images, is that it’s my choice and there’s an ownership and empowerment through them.” This branch of feminism has rapidly metastasized in contemporary society and it is fairly easy to see why. It is a rather attractive philosophy. It is obviously easier and safer to stick with the status quo than to go against it. An even greater bonus is if you can not only stick with the status quo but also feel the same self-aggrandisement and vindication as you did when you were actively resisting it — it’s a win-win situation. Except it really isn’t.

Ratajkoswki is not the only member of the celebrity guard that has found a philosophical home in the choice feminist camp. The movement has become the cause du jour amongst the elite, with many clamouring to identify with the credo. Sheryl Sandberg is largely regarded as one of its pioneering architects. With her 2013 book ‘Lean In,’ Sandberg ‘urge[s] women to take ownership of their ambition.’ As Jia Tolentino writes in Trick Mirror, ‘Sandberg was the COO of Facebook… she has impeccable mainstream credibility: she was a powerful, graceful, rich, hardworking, married white woman, making an argument about feminism centred on individual effort and hard work.’ Thanks to Sandberg, choice feminism has also gained the moniker ‘lean in feminism’ or more recently, ‘girlboss feminism.’ Much of the language surrounds being ‘unapologetic’, ‘shame-free’, ‘getting your bag’ or feeling ‘empowered.’ In 2016, Ratajkowski posted a topless mirror selfie with Kim Kardashian captioned ‘we are more than just our bodies, but that doesn’t mean we have to be shamed for them or our sexuality. #liberated.’ In an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter entitled ‘Baby Woman,’ Ratajkoswki wrote: “to me, ‘sexy is a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated.”

Another popular notion that Ratajkoswki seems to employ is the idea of the ‘reclamation of the male gaze.’ The male gaze is quite self-explanatory, really. It is the lens through which heterosexual men view women- primarily as sexual objects for their pleasure. Ratajkowski argues that she is ‘reclaiming’ the male gaze by posting the pictures of herself topless on Instagram because of the inherent power in her making the active choice to objectify herself, over a man objectifying her, again, circling back to the choice feminist foundation that there is instrinsic power in the act of choosing. Ratajkowski’s framework reminds me of some poignant words in Lisa Taddeo’s debut book, ‘Three Women’: ‘one inheritance of living under male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would,’ or in Ratajkowski’s case, look at themselves the way another man would. To me, the whole concept of ‘reclaiming the male gaze’ is a complete fallacy and more often than not, results not in the reclamation of the male gaze but rather the revelation of that gaze as additionally your own.

Knowing that Ratajkowski harboured these views and then reading her essay for The Cut left me confused. Surely, the fact that her image has been exploited by men despite her attempts to ‘reclaim’ it (as argued in her essay) is evidence of the limitations of the choice feminist doctrine she has been touting? Surely, this essay was actually an opportunity for her to address some of these shortcomings? In amongst the seemingly endless compliments for Ratajkowski’s essay, I stumbled across a piece written by Haley Nahman for her newsletter Maybe Baby. In her essay ‘the Emily Ratajkowski effect,’ Nahman offers a refreshing riposte to Ratajkowski’s piece hidden amongst the golf claps. Nahman writes far more eloquently and concisely than I could, delving deeply into many of the issues I have brought, and will bring up, in this essay. In a podcast following the publication of her article, Nahman speaks with her former editor Mallory Rice. They discuss Ratajkowski’s piece and Rice felt that in Ratajkowski’s essay:

‘There were certain things she was taking for granted about her own decision making that I don’t take for granted.’

Nahman: ‘like what?’

Rice: ‘like the idea that your best option is to work within a completely broken system.’

Feminism but make it market-friendly

The problem with the ‘lean in’ feminist stance is that it does not take into account the impact of the individual decision on other women. In her book ‘Perfect Me’, Heather Widdows wrote “choice cannot make an unjust or exploitative practice or act somehow, magically, just or non-exploitative.” It comes down to what Rice suggests Ratajkowski takes for granted, the idea that our best option is to work within a completely broken system. Patriarchal capitalism would certainly like you to believe it is your best option. If capitalism and patriarchy had a lovechild it would be choice feminism. As Sandberg wrote in Lean In, ‘I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but fully support those who focus on the egg’; with the chicken being the individual solutions and the egg being the systemic change. But as Tolentino aptly retorts, ‘unfortunately the chicken also happens to taste better.’ Patriarchal capitalism wants you to lean into the system as much as you can as it is what makes corporate giants continue to generate profit. “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,” Ratajkowski said in the same Women’s Wear Daily Interview. “I am not wearing the makeup to please men, I’m wearing it to please myself.” What a dream for patriarchal capitalism! Not only can it get you to continue to spend your hard earned money in the multi-billion dollar makeup and cosmetic industries but it can make you feel self-righteous as you do it by convincing you that you are participating in a feminist act. The two mutually reinforcing systems can give each other a huge high five as they continue to flourish by, on the one hand, continuing to churn money through massive profit-maximising corporations and therefore propping up the economy, and on the other, doing so by profiting off female insecurity. A win-win for the capitalist patriarchy.

As Tolentino writes, ‘at a time of unprecedented freedom and power for women, at a time when we were more poised than ever to understand our lives politicially, we got, instead of expanded reproductive protections and equal pay and federally mandated family leave and subsidized childcare and a higher minimum wage, the sort of self-congratulatory empowerment feminism that corporations can get behind, the kind that comes with merchandise — mugs that said “Male Tears,” T shirts that said “Feminist as Fuck.”’ The triumvirate of capitalism, patriarchy and feminism really did come together to dish up what Tolentino has termed ‘market-friendly feminism.’ This is where the problem with Ratajkowski’s stance arises: ‘her own political view amounts to a justification to continue profiting off the very same system she criticises,’ so how is it a radical or liberatory stance? She’s literally in keeping with the status quo.

To think of a hyperbolic parallel, imagine if slaves suddenly turned around and decided to rebrand slavery. So instead of slavery being the oppressive, violent and involuntary system we know it as, the slaves started marketing it as a choice and arguing that it was not oppressive but in fact empowering. Then huge corporations with insurmountably influential marketing and branding power pumped massive amounts of money behind the ‘empowering’ rebrand. The result would be Stockholm Syndrome but on a macro-scale.

Neoliberalism — the root of all our problems

What is also interesting is how closely linked choice feminism is with neoliberalism. I do not think Ratajkowski and other left-leaning celebrities realise the similarities in the choice feminist doctrine they have continued to perpetuate and its first-cousin neoliberal conservatism. In my mind, neoliberalism is a big word which means many different things. To me, it is synonymous with Ronald Reagan, free-market economics, deregulation and phrases like ‘getting the government out of your bedroom.’ Neoliberalism and the fallacy of meritocracy go hand-in-hand to give you fairly purist capitalism, founded on individualist principles. Neoliberalism is essentially a narcissistic extension of philosophical thought, where individuals can make every observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings and fail to view them as a reflection of systemic conditioning. Haley Nahman writes ‘the primary tenet of neoliberalism as it’s currently employed is the idea that these societal problems can be solved through individual action.’ Essentially the same kind of rhetoric conservative politicians employ in defence of greater deregulation and privatisation. The ‘you’re poor because you don’t work hard enough’ rhetoric. Choice feminism follows a similar logic as neoliberalism by focusing on the individual at the expense of the system. Neither praxis takes the system into consideration. This is why I think choice feminism slots so well into the patriarchal capitalist system we all already live in.

News flash — you’re not poor because you don’t work hard, you’re poor because you are operating within a system which is systematically and deliberately engineered for you to remain poor and for the rich to grow richer.

Ratajkowski’s views and their convergence with small ‘c’ conservative ideas really got me thinking about the counter-intuitive ways initially well-meaning social justice endeavours can actually end up being extremely counter-productive. I see it as a symptom of ‘woke’ culture and the societal pressure to self-identify as ‘feminist’ or ‘anti-racist’ or ‘anti-homophobic’ and so on. In her novel, ‘Such a Fun Age,’ Kiley Reid explores these concepts through the vessel of her protagonist, Alix. Alix, a wealthy white new mother and blogger from New York, strikes up a well-meaning friendship with her young black babysitter Emira in post-Obama America. The friendship soon becomes complicated through various external factors but at its heart lies Alix’s intense need to over-compensate for the asymmetrical racial power dynamic present between her and Emira. When discussing the novel on the Literary Friction podcast, Reid stated ‘Alix is a person for whom, and I think this happens often, where liberalism and feminism meet at this point where the thoughts are “if I am so concerned with not being racist, there’s no way that I could benefit or contribute to white supremacy, there’s just no way.” This sets her up to not really understand what she’s saying and only sets herself up from an individual standpoint not a societal standpoint, because the truth is, if Alix was a perfect employer, nothing is going to change for Emira… the wage inequality isn’t going to change… she is just so obsessed with her individual actions that it often gets the best of her.’ Alix’s actions mimic society’s relationship with feminism on a granular level. We have collectively become so obsessed with individual actions that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. The emphasis on individual actions has been a carefully orchestrated distraction by neoliberal patriarchal capitalism and we have all fallen putty in their hands. We must recognise that it is a far from radical act to stick with the status quo. In fact, sticking with it reinforces an already immovable system by making it more resilient.

Does everyone have to be a social justice warrior?

I think Emily Ratajkowski likely feels pressure to justify her actions and thought that the best way of doing that was by employing a feminist stance. The problem is, as Nahman highlights, Ratajkowski fails to acknowledge that some of her actions are incongruent with her purportedly feminist beliefs. Instead, she tries to force her actions into the framework of her beliefs in a way that is actually dangerous for feminist thought and progression. In an episode of the High Low, Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes discuss Ratajkowski’s essay. Alderton ponders similar thoughts to my own: ‘I wonder if her positioning her work in a feminist logic… is something she feels she’s been forced into saying, defending or doing.’ Given the ever more public and hyper-visible world we live in, celebrities can feel immense pressure to use their platforms for the advancement of social justice causes. There exists this idea that because they have massive followings and great influence that they should use them for good. It comes from a well-intentioned place but I do think sometimes they miss the mark and can actually cause more harm than good. And should they really have to use their platforms for anything other than their own brand at all? Is there anything really wrong with that? Alderton goes on, ‘I do take great issue with this idea that every individual in the public eye or not needs to dedicate some or all of their life to social change. I think it’s amazing if people do that but you can just live your life for yourself if you want to. So maybe she’s someone who has capitalized or even derived joy from traditional structures of femininity that aren’t progressive and are arguably oppressive but she doesn’t believe that the damage that they’re inflicting is larger than her desire to do it.’ Maybe Sheryl Sandberg thought the same thing in the preamble to writing Lean In.

As a society, we have moved from the age where celebrities were just celebrities and that was it. With increased visibility and accessibility to the rich and famous, we are hearing people’s opinions, views, going into their homes, learning about their families and having an unprecedented amount of familiarity with people who once were under a veil of mystery to most of the population. Celebrities are now centre-stage in the amphitheatre that social media apps have created and we, the users, are pushing them to give their best performances in return for more followers, more likes and increased engagement. This has now led us to the situation where celebrities are meeting this increased pressure to take on social causes and are now muddying the water with flawed understandings which are projected to millions of people every day.

Social media — why it’s okay to sit on the fence

Ultimately, the panopticon that is social media is much to blame for this pressure celebrities feel to attach themselves to social causes. Take the Black Lives Matter resurgence in 2020 as a paradigmatic example. Following the death of George Floyd, social media feeds flooded with black squares as celebrities, corporations and ordinary app users alike vowed not to post on their accounts in support of ‘Blackout Tuesday’ as a collective action demonstration. The stated aim was for Tuesday to be a ‘day to disconnect from work and reconnect with our community’ through ‘an urgent step of action to provoke accountability and change.’ A well-meaning enough objective. Some dismissed the demonstration as ‘performative allyship,’ arguing that the activism was virtue-signalling rather than a genuine expression of devotion to the cause. The controversy surrounding this online phenomena is demonstrative of the difficulty in debating complex arguments through social media. I think Emily Ratajkowski’s feminism has fallen victim to this loss in translation as well. I do not think those who did not post black squares are all racists but if you judged purely based on Instagram that was what the implication was. Social media is an inhospitable habitat for nuance. The black square debacle put people in two camps — those who posted black squares and those who did not, fostering an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality. This inadvertently puts people in diametrically opposed positions, and the implication is that that position is the anti-racists vs. the racists and that is, of course, not necessarily the case. This is why I think Emily Ratajkowski’s essay was received with apparently homogenous praise. There is this fear that if you disagree with some of her argument that you could be deemed anti-feminist when the fact is, there is not a clean black and white dichotomy to this debate. I can be a feminist and disagree with choice feminism.

Overall, nuance is not transmitted well over the Internet. Nahman touches on this in her podcast appearance on Oenone’s ‘Adulting.’ She talks of how the middle ground is lost in an online discourse and how we must be able to critique people’s ideas without it being viewed as a character assassination. Fundamentally, the truth is ‘despite their stated goal of ‘building’ community, the largest social media companies, as currently constructed, are antithetical to the concept of reasoned discourse. There’s no way to reward listening, to encourage civil debate and to protect people who sincerely want to ask questions in a business where optimizing engagement and user growth are the two most important metrics for success. There’s no incentive to help people slow down, to build in enough friction that people have to stop, recognise their emotional reaction to something and question their own assumptions before engaging. The unfortunate reality is lies are more engaging online than truth and salaciousness beats out wonky fact-based reasoning in a world optimized for frictionless virility.’

Choice feminism mimics social media’s flattening framework by creating a brand of feminism that oversimplifies complex ideas. The idea that every choice a woman makes by virtue of choosing is feminist is a self-defeating school of thought. Celebrating the election of Kamala Harris as the first female VP while simultaneously vilifying anyone who shines the light on her controversial Senate voting record is a flattening. Celebrating Emily Ratajkowski exposing the exploitation of women at the hands of men without questioning her feminism is a flattening. The conversation, unfortunately for us, is far more sophisticated and nuanced but the human brain does not do well at comprehending nuance. Instead, we would rather flock to a beguilingly simple doctrine like ‘girlboss’ feminism and leave the conversation there simply because it is easier to wrap our heads around.

Concluding thoughts: the feminist scammer

As a society, hopefully, posterity can consign girlboss feminism to the past. In a chapter in Trick Mirror entitled, ‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,’ Jia Tolentino talks of what she terms ‘the feminist scammer.’ Tolentino writes: ‘the feminist scammer rarely sets out to scam anyone, and would argue, certainly that she does not belong in this category. She just wants to be successful, to gain the agency that men claim so easily, to have the sort of life she wants… The problem is that a feminism that prioritizes the individual will always, at its core, be at odds with a feminism that prioritises the collective. The problem is that it is so easy today for a women to seize upon an ideology she believes in and then exploit it, or deploy it in a way that actually runs counter to that ideology. That is in fact exactly what today’s ecosystem of success encourages a woman to do.’ To combat the feminist scammer, we have to actively resist the reductive credo that choice feminism offers and counter it with more radical and ambitious goals than thriving within a system which is itself fundamentally flawed. We must also create environments which are more conducive to reasoned debate or at least alter our responses to information we receive on social media to accommodate for the fact that these platforms are engineered to polarise us. Take a moment to appreciate the shades of grey within these ostensibly black and white arenas.

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