Emily Ratajkowski and the male gaze

(Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Model Emily Ratajkowski has published a book of essays about herself and her experiences titled “My Body.” I haven’t read the book but there’s a new podcast about it at the NY Times which makes it seem sort of intriguing. Honestly, the interview itself feels very much like a tease in the sense that it continually raises interesting topics and then never quite delivers a clear view or conclusion about those topics. I don’t know if that’s because Ratajkowski is trying to sell books or because Kara Swisher isn’t great at follow-up questions. Whatever the reason, the interview sort of leaves you wanting to know more.

According to Swisher, who did read the book, one of the issues that comes up repeatedly has to do with the topic of “the male gaze.” Maybe you’ve heard this phrase by now but it comes originally from film criticism. Here’s a bit of description of “the male gaze” from a site online:

British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey described the concept of the “male gaze” in her 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which was published in 1975 in the film theory magazine Screen.4 In the article, Mulvey, who is a professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London, explained the way that mainstream media objectifies women, showing the female body through a heterosexual male lens as a passive non-actor secondary to the active male characters.

This concept extends from film to any medium in which women are portrayed as well as, generally, to their experience in real life. For example, think about how women are often shown in advertisements, magazine covers, and social media compared with men, as well as how their bodies are typically framed by the camera. Consider the emphasis typically placed on how women look, dress, and comport themselves—even on their expressions—as opposed to for men…

Since its inception, the male gaze has reached beyond the silver (or iPhone) screen to encompass how the female sex is portrayed and viewed in any context, from being catcalled while walking down the street to being dismissed as golddiggers or for having “hissy-fits.” By extension, simply worrying about your appearance, relative attractiveness, seeming “too smart,” or how you will be “seen” can also fall under the guise of living under the male gaze.

As a bit of a classic film fan myself, I sort of find this whole idea interesting. I’m not saying I agree with every possible take which someone might categorize as part of “the male gaze” but there definitely is something to the idea that women in film are at least partly there to be looked at and appreciated for their beauty. I mean, there’s a reason you can still easily find photos and photos of Marilyn Monroe everywhere.

And that’s something that Emily Ratajkoswki has some inside experience with. She started modeling as a young teenager and her career really took off in 2013 when she appeared topless in the music video for “Blurred Lines.” She has since appeared on countless magazine covers, in films and has about 28 million followers on Instagram where she shares pictures of herself that are undeniable meant to attract the male gaze. So what does she think about all of that? Well, Kara Swisher titled her interview with Ratajkowski, “Emily Ratajkowski Isn’t Ready to Quit Profiting Off the Male Gaze.”

Swisher: It’s given you money, fame, relevance. And to get that you traded what you call — the title of this book — “My Body.” But in it, you seem not to like it. Like, you seem not to enjoy that transaction or that trade that you’re making. So I guess my question to you is, why did you not leave earlier, or make this shift earlier? Was it just, the money’s too good, or you liked the attention, or what was it about it? Easy money?

Ratajkowski: Both. Definitely easy money. I mean, I also think — you know, my dad was a painter and my mom was a writer. And they both had held day jobs as teachers. So I had this idea of, you don’t always do what you love for how you make money. Like, those things don’t often go hand in hand. You do the work in order to do the things you love with the time that you have off. So that was sort of one part of my approach. And then, yeah, the money was easy. I had graduated high school in 2009, a year after the economy crashed, and I had seen my friends come back to their hometown saddled with student loan debt, take the shitty job at the cafe that they hated. And I was like, this is incredible. Not only do I not have to work as hard as my friends, I get to make more money, and also, it’s extremely validating to have these, like, beautiful pictures of myself. And even just the way that people would be like, oh, you’re a model, you know, at 19, that made me feel really good…

Swisher: Well, throughout the book, you explore the idea of empowerment and the power that comes from beauty, but you also say, quote, “Women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place.” That’s essentially the male gaze concept. How do you think about those power dynamics? Is the power of your body ever just yours?

Ratajkowski: I don’t know. That’s a question I ask in the book. I have found moments of control in my experience as a model and just as a woman that have helped me feel better about how I operate in the world…

I mean, at first, Instagram was that way for me. It was a way of controlling the images that were put out of me, and now I see young girls or women playing with OnlyFans. You know, every woman has to be afraid of revenge porn. And so you know, saying, like, OK, no, I’m going to be the one who decides what images go out of my body. And I think that I have always liked to think of myself as somebody who’s very radical, burn the system down, and I do want that. But at the same time, I wouldn’t fault any woman for trying to navigate the system as it is and to succeed in it.

As the conversation goes on, Ratajkowski says she was heavily influenced as a young teen by Britney Spears who she saw as someone who had sort of mastered the power of the male gaze, i.e. gaining power and fame by making herself desirable to men:

To me, she was the example of a powerful woman. I knew there were presidents and rock stars and all kinds of powerful men that came in many different shapes and forms. But for me, what I believed at that point was that the most desirable women — not just the most beautiful, but the most sexually desirable through the lens of the male gaze, those were the most powerful women. But Britney was kind of this example, and she was so young. I felt connected to her, and it felt almost attainable. And I do think that — you know, I said to my mom, I think I’m ready to try modeling, when I was 13 or 12. And I was thinking about Britney Spears, and how cool she seemed, and how powerful she seemed also.

Even when it comes to the video with Robin Thicke that made her famous, Swisher seems to be setting her up to say she regrets it and that Thicke was a monster but Ratajkowski sort of pushes back on that and says at the time she felt it was just a job, a paycheck in exchange for a bit of nudity:

I think that there are points where I was really actually having fun. There’s some shots where I’m dancing, where I remember cracking up with a female DP, and just being silly and kind of like — she felt like she was on my team, and we were kind of, like rolling her eyes together at the situation. But yes, I was knowing. I don’t think I had thought about power dynamics in the same way. I don’t think my politics were there, but I certainly wasn’t like, how much fun! Like, naively coerced into this video. I was like, I’m getting paid. I was just very — it was work.

Like I said, the interview is never quite as satisfying as you’d want it to be, clearly not to Swisher who seems to want her to become June from the Handmaid’s Tale. Ratajkowski never quite goes there though. She doesn’t regret doing to video for “Blurred Lines” she says. She’s glad she was able to make an extremely good living doing something that was often a lot easier than what some of her classmates in school were doing to earn money. She may be critical of the male gaze but she’s not critical of her own efforts to profit off it or of anyone else’ efforts to do likewise, except in one case where pictures were stolen and sold without her permission.

I have to say I think she’s got a point though, at least in the conversation, she doesn’t articulate as well as she might have. While it seems to me there is something about the male gaze that is real and worth discussing, it’s also not clear it’s completely objectionable. Ultimately, men and women are always going to be attracted to one another in a physical way. That behavior has to be channeled and controlled in socially acceptable ways but isn’t that what modeling and movies are in some sense? Put another way, if Emily Ratajkowski can make a good living being photographed because lots of men (and quite a few women) like how she looks, maybe that’s not really a problem, or at least not necessarily so.

Like I said up top, it’s not really easy to parse what Ratajkowski is thinking from this interview. I’d probably have to read the book to really get a better sense of it.