In art critic John Berger’s 1972 book Ways of Seeing, he describes the male gaze throughout art history as one that has made female-authored expression in visual culture impossible: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”
This double bind of looking couldn’t apply more to the model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, who as she frankly notes when we speak, has capitalized on her image: “My whole thing when I was younger was that when they [men] looked, I stared right back ― I always gave back.”. But now, at thirty years old and a decade in the industry being gazed at behind her, she feels differently ― “I don’t believe that anymore. I feel very differently about things now.”.
It’s this change of perspective that Ratajkowski explores in My Body (Quercus), her first collection of essays following the viral article Buying Myself Back that ran on New York Magazine’s The Cut, were she detailed an image use battle and sexual assault by photographer Jonathan Leder. Like her 2020 essay, My Body explores the knotty status of being a woman who monetizes her looks and how even when working on supposedly artistic projects, her image is still taken and re-imagined over and over again, without her permission. From her insider position as a woman who “has successfully capitalized on my image”, she explores the unchanged status of the female body as an inanimate muse to men in visual culture, and the lack of power many women find themselves in over intellectual property rights.
In the essay Buying Myself Back Ratajkowski details how the artist Richard Prince enlarged a screen grab of a photo she posted on Instagram and sold it for $81,000. “I suppose this is the life cycle of a muse,” she says in the essay Men Like You, “Get discovered, be immortalized in art for which you’re never paid, and die in obscurity.” And she’s right, the reason there’s a figurative canon in art history is because women have been used for display for the creative benefit of men ― from Manet’s 1863 Olympia, to Prince’s image of Ratajkowski.
As she moves forward, Ratajkowski now believes she’s critiquing that misogynistic system from within. She no longer subscribes to the choice feminism that led her to defend the “Blurred Lines” video in 2013 as “empowering.” Using her sexuality isn’t feminist progress, she says, but has given her a platform she wouldn’t have had otherwise. Of her earlier modeling days she says: “At the time I thought it was really empowering to capitalize on your sexuality, but ultimately you’re trying to appeal to men.”
Her views on the female gaze have also changed ― the mid-2010s feminist buzzword that used Laura Mulvey’s theory “The Male Gaze” from her 1989 book Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, where she suggests women in film are “the bearer of meaning and not the maker of meaning” ― to create a counter, “female gaze.” Mulvey has since said a female gaze existing isn’t possible, and Ratajkowski agrees. “My ideas around the female gaze are still formulating, but I guess how I feel is very similar to how I feel about female desire. So much of female desire is male desire, because our experience has been sort of looking outside of ourselves and being constantly aware of how we’re perceived.”
Ratajkowski also highlights the extreme dangers models face today — that range from sexism, ridicule, diminishment, sexual assault and the near-constant threat of it — and the long overdue #MeToo reckoning needed in the modeling industry. It’s difficult not to be shocked that such an established industry is still operating this way, from sending 20 year old girls out to castings at the homes of strangers to allowing them to be groped by a drunk celebrity on set. In the essay Blurred Lines, Ratajkowski describes the controversial “Blurred Lines” video featuring Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and TI, in which a drunk Thicke, stinking of alcohol, comes up behind her and gropes her. The all-female team, lead by film director Diane Martel — the main reason Ratajkowski took part in the video — fail to step in. The fact she doesn’t blame Martel hints at the power roles these sets silently observe: “I felt embarrassed more than anything” she says, “that I had allowed the situation to happen. I didn’t say anything because it was my responsibility on the day to be as nonchalant as possible.”
I ask if it would have made a difference to that professional experience if one of the crew had stood up for her. “I think that in a different world, maybe, potentially, somebody would have said something, or it would have become a bigger deal.” Ratajkowski suggests that a different environment is needed, one in which models are able to work without risk of assault, and without having to silently understand dangerous power codes on a set. “If I had left or if one of the women had made a really big thing out of it, I could have been replaced, the record company would have just been annoyed. And that’s the reality of the situation, it was my big chance and it did change my career.” She speaks about the dangerous misogyny of her industry throughout the essays. In Pamela, at a seedy Hollywood party with her husband, she describes the room as “full of men who only two years before would have been kissing Harvey Weinstein’s ring and encouraging their young female clients take meetings with him in hotel rooms.”
Ratajkowski believes strongly in men’s responsibility to create societal change in the battle against misogyny and hopes that they read her book. “It’s my hope that the more women tell their stories, and the more that men understand what it’s like to be a woman and to experience sexism, that they’ll be more aware of how they perpetuate the power dynamics and misogyny.”
My Body by Emily Ratajkowski is out now.