What are TikTok’s most viral videos? Women shaking their asses. These videos spark two opposite reactions: passionate support or violent condemnation. Some men point out the hypocrisy of so-called “empowered” independent women so sexually displaying their bodies for the admiration of men (“We’re not objects!” several men say sarcastically in one such comment section) while others lavish the viral video stars with excessive compliments (“Damn” is probably the most common). Women’s reactions are equally ambivalent. While some demonstrate a “go girl” feminism (“Yes, get it queen!” some enthusiastically applaud in the comments), others criticize these women for reinforcing the idea that we’re just pretty faces and fat asses to be objectified and ogled at.
No matter how you feel about women posting sexually suggestive content, the reality is when beautiful women show their bodies, they get millions of views and comments.
In feminism, sex is a historically contentious topic. Indeed, probably no other issue is more divisive. Sex-positive feminists challenge traditional, religious notions about sex. They believe the idea that women have to be virginal to be “good” and “pure” is outmoded. Instead, women should be free to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh without being slut-shamed or punished. No longer is sex restricted to heterosexual couples within the confines of marriage— women can explore their sexuality before tying the knot and in all kinds of relationships.
According to sexologist Carol Queen, sex positivity is the “cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life.” Rather than view sex as something shameful, sex-positive feminists encourage women to prioritize their own sexual pleasure and resist sexual repression. To them, anti-porn feminists are puritanical and priggish. Expressing sexuality is not exploitation but empowerment.
Sex-negative feminists, on the other hand, question this notion. They’re not against sex per se— they’re merely critical of sex that’s grounded in unequal power dynamics and tailored mostly for male pleasure and the male gaze. Unlike sex-positive feminists, they find strip clubs, burlesque, BDSM, prostitution, and pornography degrading. In a patriarchal society, they contend sex for women is most often disempowering.
In her at turns heart-breaking and beautifully-written essay collection, My Body, supermodel and Instagram influencer Emily Ratajkowski asks a pressing question: is sexuality a kind of exploitation or empowerment?
As a feminist, I’ve never been entirely sure where I stood on this question.
One one hand, I completely support women’s sexual freedom: I think women have the right to exhibit their bodies as they choose and would never slut-shame a woman for dressing provocatively or posting a thirst trap. On the other hand, I’m not so sure I buy into the sex-positive sham that sexualizing ourselves is a kind of empowerment.
For Ratajkowski, a tantalizing beauty with an otherworldly physique and dark, striking features, her sexuality has been a source of power. Her good looks have made her one of the most recognizable supermodels on the planet, earned her millions of dollars, landed her coveted movie roles, and attracted 28.9 million Instagram followers. By commodifying her body— posing in racy photos for Sports Illustrated, posting pictures of her impossibly perky breasts in bikinis— Ratajkowski has achieved worldwide celebrity.
But does objectifying our bodies give we women any real power?
Ratajkowski suggests the answer is no. Her stunning exterior may grant her access to glitzy Hollywood parties and some of the most glamorous places in the world (at one point, she’s treated to 5 days at a luxury Maldives resort for posting an occasional Instagram photo and paid $25,000 to accompany a Malaysian billionaire to the Super Bowl) but it also makes her a target for harassment and assault.
In one of the collection’s strongest essays, “Blurred Lines,” Ratajkowski expertly explores the blurred line between sex as powerlessness and sex as power. In 2013, the then 21-year-old was catapulted to superstardom after she starred in the now infamous music video for Robin Thicke’s song of the same name. In the uncensored version, Ratajkowski and two other models prance around in flesh-colored thongs as Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. gawk at their bare-assed beauty.
Ratajkowski describes the women on set as friendly and accommodating. “Are you comfortable?” the hip, cool costume designer asks as she gets ready. “She was was the kind of girl I’d want be friends with,” Ratajkowski writes, she “wore Doc Martens” and had “bleached hair cut into a pixie.”
Interestingly, the video’s director, Diane Martel, viewed “Blurred Lines” as a feminist project. Though detractors denounced the video as mind-bogglingly misogynistic, she claimed it supported women’s empowerment. In her words, the women in the video embodied “the best kind of girl” who was “100% confident.” In her eyes, their nudity wasn’t demeaning— it was a testament to their “unbelievable sensual visual power.”
And Ratajkowski certainly has visual power. She commands the video like a star: her banging body, messy bedroom hair and sticky red lip gloss virtually render the male singers unnecessary props.
However, her beauty doesn’t give her any real power: at the end of the essay, Ratajkowski reveals Thicke groped her. Though the incident constitutes assault, no one— not Ratajkowski, not even Diane Martel, the so-called “feminist” director— even acknowledges Thicke’s completely inappropriate behavior. “No touching” is the only thing Ms. Martel says after the incident, addressing no one in particular.
“Robin Thicke reminded everyone on set that we women weren’t actually in charge. I didn’t have any real power as the naked girl dancing around in his music video. I was nothing more than the hired mannequin,” Ratajkowski writes with equal parts dejection and disillusionment. Despite her status as one of the most famous models of the 21st century, Ratajkowski is still at the mercy of men who control the industry. Throughout My Body, we witness how Ratajkowski is powerless in the face of the artists, photographers, and fashion designers who profit off her image. Much like the women who came forward during the Harvey Weinstein scandal and helped launch the #MeToo movement, Ratajkowski didn’t speak about her experience for fear of ruining her career and burning bridges. After all, what if Thicke retaliated? At the time, he was a star on the rise; she was nobody. Challenging Thicke would have been career suicide.
Is it problematic that Ratajkowski criticizes an industry that she willingly participates in?
that she— too— profits from exploiting her body and tailoring her image for the pleasure of men?
that her seductive photos encourage men to continue to see us as objects— not to mention contribute to wildly unrealistic beauty standards for women?
Of course, but these issues don’t undermine the brilliance of her essay collection. Though some might dismiss it as just another celebrity memoir, My Body is timely and thought-provoking. Turns out Ratajkowski is more than just a body— she’s a literary talent with something to say.