You may know Emily Ratajkowski from one of her thousands of bikini shots on Instagram. Or perhaps you remember her from her roles in the controversial music video “Blurred Lines,” or the movie Gone Girl. Or maybe you’ve heard about her new line of skimpy swimwear and barely there “suiting” called Inamorata, which recently landed her on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list. On top of all this, the 28-year-old model-influencer is the second coming of Gloria Steinem, blazing a path toward women’s equality for her 25 million Instagram followers—or so she, and much of the media, is willing us to believe.
Consider the “powerful statement”—according to the Daily Mail—that she issued last month to Harvey Weinstein: the words “fuck harvey” scrawled on her upper inner arm, which she flashed while running her hand through her hair for the cameras at a movie premiere. What this denunciation of the obviously indefensible accomplished for Weinstein’s 90 victims (whom she’s not among) is unclear. But the stunt prompted reams of headlines for Ratajkowski, all praising her courage for “standing strong” and “speaking her mind.”
The incident was only the latest example of such exalted acclaim. Outlets from Cosmopolitan to Glamour to Harper’s Bazaar have tripped over themselves to praise her as, respectively, “a badass feminist,” “feminist as hell,” “a rising figure on the modern feminist scene,” and so on, in response to such activities as speaking in a P.S.A. for Planned Parenthood and getting arrested at a rally denouncing the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Beyond that, her advocacy has included periodic progressive virtue-signaling—like a post about the backward abortion laws in Alabama … which, as it happened, was a caption alongside a delectable naked picture of herself.
Grin and Bare It
Indeed, the majority of Ratajkowski’s followers don’t seem to come for the politics. They come for the free, endless postings (nearly 2,000 as of press time) of hyper-sexualized pictures of EmRata herself—taut, high butt, perfectly round breasts, Barbie-size waist—pouting, looking “come hither.” Casting her talent for mass titillation as “empowerment,” she describes her display this way: “I’m positive that many of the ways I continue to be ‘sexy’ are heavily influenced by misogyny. But it feels good to me, and it’s my damn choice, right? Isn’t that what feminism is about—choice?” Many young feminists aren’t sure it’s as simple as that. More skeptical observers see in Ratajkowski a successful attention-seeker who’s using feminism as a talking—and selling—point.
“But it feels good to me, and it’s my damn choice, right? Isn’t that what feminism is about—choice?”
It seems Ratajkowski has been giving puzzling messages for some time. Born in London and raised in San Diego, the daughter of a painter father and an English-professor mother, Ratajkowski told an interviewer how “terrible” it was being thought of as nothing more than “the painting teacher’s hot daughter” in high school. An understandable complaint, to be sure. But after one year at U.C.L.A., she bailed on college to pursue modeling. Three years later, in 2013, she helped birth the first mainstream topless video, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’s “Blurred Lines.” In it she is one of three topless women prancing around, wearing flesh-colored bikini bottoms, with game expressions on their faces, as Thicke and Williams, both fully clothed, coolly sing to them, “You know you want it,” and the rapper T.I. chimes in, “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”
Textbook misogyny, a slicked-out version of Girls Gone Wild, the video was banned on many college campuses. Recently, Williams disavowed it, saying he’s “embarrassed” by it. Yet Ratajkowski has had trouble denouncing it. In one of the most revealing interviews she’s done, for British GQ in 2015, she explained, “The girls [in the video] make eye contact with the camera, which I think is really important because in a lot of shoots you have the women looking off, which makes it voyeuristic and weirdly sexist.” Even in this age of reckoning, her attitude about the video remains unclear. True, she now calls the video the “bane of [her] existence,” but not, it seems, because she acknowledges its offensiveness. Rather, because people don’t quit asking her about it. “It’s just, I can’t believe people aren’t over it. I don’t even remember it,” she recently wrote.
“Blurred Lines” put her on Hollywood’s radar. She soon landed the role of Ben Affleck’s hot girlfriend in Gone Girl and a part in the movie version of Entourage, playing Emily Ratajkowski, a superhot model being courted by a movie star and a billionaire. But then her acting career slowed down, and she couldn’t understand it. “I have some serious criteria for what I’m looking for in a role, which has really fucked me,” she told British GQ, elaborating, “The ones that I really want have to be a really interesting script and story and usually the girl is ugly.” For example, she wanted the role of Masha, in The Seagull, but, as she reported, she was told she was “too pretty.” (The role went to Elisabeth Moss instead.)
She turned to feminism, but not just “like Beyoncé saying, ‘I’m a feminist,’ or Nicki Minaj, or all these popular figures who maybe don’t have so much to say,” she explained in the same issue of British GQ. Her feminism would be about her—a performative juggling act aimed at explaining herself. One day, she might be performing for Love magazine’s online Advent calendar, writhing around in greasy spaghetti and lingerie, suggestively licking her fingers and lying across a table. Another, she’d be expounding in a first-person essay on Lenny: “Where can girls look to see women who find empowerment in deciding when and how to be or feel sexual? Even if being sexualized by society’s gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be.”
One day, she might be performing for Love magazine’s online Advent calendar, writhing around in greasy spaghetti and lingerie, suggestively licking her fingers and lying across a table. Another, she’d be expounding in a first-person essay on Lenny.
She continued her crusade to liberate the body online—as if the world was crying out for it. In 2016, she joined forces with Kim Kardashian in a famous naked bathroom selfie in which they claim to be giving the finger to the viewer as a political act. “We are more than just our bodies, but that doesn’t mean we have to be shamed for them or our sexuality. #liberated,” Ratajkowski declared in the accompanying caption. Dozens of Web sites ate it up. The middle-finger moment in the bathroom topped the list of a Vogue article published online called, “All the Times Emily Ratajkowski Has Fought the Patriarchy.”
A Kingdom of Thongs
The media praise, the nonstop stream of selfies—all of it brought EmRata to Kardashian-level stardom. Like those sisters, she parlayed Insta-fame into a fashion business, Inamorata, in 2017. It started with ultra-skimpy, thong-centered swimwear, priced for the teenage set. This fall, to complement the bikinis, she launched a line of suits, the thong version of business attire, which she models, blazer open, wearing nothing underneath—a man’s fantasy of a sexy secretary. The drops—of $135 blazers and $75 miniskirts—have been consistently selling out. In another sign of her sheer ability to sell, she was among the Instagram models who got paid to shill the Fyre Festival on their respective feeds. (She was recently sued for failing to mention, in an Instagram post about the festival, that she was getting paid to promote it.) If empowerment means figuring out how to use one’s cis-sexiness to milk the Instagram-fame industrial complex, she has unequivocally succeeded.
Ratajkowski has inoculated herself against criticism by claiming that anyone who questions what a woman wears or doesn’t wear is “sexist.” It’s a clever trick, often deployed by women in Donald Trump’s orbit, chiefly Kellyanne Conway. (“Wow, that’s really pro-woman of you” is a line Conway likes to aim at Nancy Pelosi whenever Pelosi treats her like the aide that she is.) As New Yorker culture writer Jia Tolentino writes in the book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusions, “The pattern—woman is criticized for something related to her being a woman; her continued existence is interpreted as politically meaningful—is so ridiculously loose that almost anything can fit inside it.”
Living by the Likes
While Ratajkowski has every right to do as she pleases, what impact do her images actually have in the fight for women’s equality? Perhaps you’ve noticed that teenagers really enjoy looking at their phones these days: 76 percent of teenagers aged 13–17 have Instagram accounts, and 25 million followers are mainlining images of Ratajkowski on a daily basis.
Inevitably, a very narrow, idealized picture of womanhood—almost exclusively focused on looks—takes shape for these young followers. The picture is unattainable but many are determined to try—through constant dieting, obsessive exercising, and more. Ratajkowski herself reported that lots of young women go to plastic surgeons’ offices asking for her breasts. In the name of empowerment, girls are following these women’s lead—stripping down for the bathroom selfie, and then anxiously waiting for the “likes” to arrive—or not—as their self-esteem hangs in the balance. Numerous studies by social scientists about the effects of selfie-babe imagery, several presented in the new book Perfect Me, by Heather Widdows, point to a rise in anxiety and body dissatisfaction among young women.
Gen Z feminists themselves see this toxic dynamic happening, even as they consume social media. Amelia Cogan, 15, an organizer with N.Y.C. Teens for Elizabeth Warren, acknowledges that “in a time of burgeoning rape culture and slut-shaming, a girl owning her sexuality is a true act of resistance. That self-ownership can come in many forms, including posting pictures considered ‘racy’ or ‘provocative’ by patriarchal institutions.” Yet the EmRata-perfect images currently flooding social media seem to be undermining that very effort, she suggests. “I find myself and my friends constantly comparing ourselves to these often inauthentic images of female perfection. I have come to recognize this self-fueled motivation in girls my age to change our own bodies into those that we are taught to worship.”
Ratajkowski herself reported that lots of young women go to plastic surgeons’ offices asking for her breasts.
The sentiment is echoed by Betty Kubovy-Weiss, 16, co–editor in chief of the Highly Indy Project, a progressive online magazine run by teenagers. In a recent post, she called out the Web site Elite Daily for including Ratajkowski in a piece about body positivity. “EmRata represents EVERY standard of beauty and perfection in the fashion business [and] makes her living off them,” Kubovy-Weiss posted. “Listening to her speak about loving yourself makes me feel MORE like in order to love myself, I have to look like her.”
Fifty years ago women fought like hell not to be objectified by men in magazines like Playboy, to be valued beyond their looks. Now, thanks to the elevation of these stars, we risk going back in time on that front—particularly if we mis-identify their message as progress. As the actual Gloria Steinem recently said about this trend, “It’s completely foolhardy to think that taking your clothes off with no content is empowering.” One hopes that enough young women are finally getting a clue and are ready to move on. “Our culture is obsessed with women’s appearances, and it’s holding us back as a gender,” actress Jameela Jamil (of The Good Place) recently wrote in Glamour in a welcome rallying cry. “I know too many interesting, varied, bright, and wonderful women to give any more f-cks. I just need a rest.”
Evgenia Peretz is a journalist, screenwriter, and adjunct professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at N.Y.U.