Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Emily Ratajkowski Reckons with Her Objectification

“I’m trying to succeed in a capitalist system," she writes in My Body. "But that doesn’t mean I like the game.”
Emily Ratajkowski Reckons with Her Objectification
Image: Emma McIntyre (Getty Images)
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It was the 2013 video for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” that first rocketed Emily Ratajkowski to fame. Thicke repeated the lyric,I know you want it,” surrounded by three beautiful, nude women, one of whom was Emily Ratajkowski. Nearly a decade after the fact—an entire cultural eon later—she has revisited the moment in an essay that forms part of her literary debut, My Body.

The video was directed by a woman, Diane Martel, and the crew was comprised largely of women—an intentional decision on Martel’s part so that the women involved would feel safe. Creating this space was meant to be something akin to empowering, allowing Ratajkowski and the other models to feel comfortable enough to really be themselves on set, away from the pesky male gaze. Instead, Ratajkowski writes, Thicke put his hands on her breasts during the filming of the video, and his violation burst the bubble of safety Martel created on set, reducing Ratajkowski to a beautiful body meant to serve as set dressing or decoration and nothing more. “I didn’t have any real power as the naked girl dancing around in his music video,” she writes. “I was nothing more than the hired mannequin.” 

It’s something she’s grappled with her entire life, and her book is an attempt to come to terms with it. The model and actor sets out to litigate her chosen vocation and her feelings of discomfort around her job, but the framing is curious: She often presents her life’s work as her only option and not a choice. Throughout the essays that make up this collection, Ratajkowski works through the pains of being beautiful in ways that feel occasionally refreshing. As Sarah Hagi wrote in her review of the essay for Gawker, My Body stands on its own as a peek behind the curtain into the mind of a famous, beautiful woman, and attempts to elucidate how alienating the experience of being conventionally attractive can be.

My experience of the book was similar to Hagi’s. As an ordinary woman unaccustomed to the privileges afforded to the very beautiful, Ratjakowski’s book offered some insight into that particular experience; but true introspection requires distance—and Ratjakowski is still to close to the source material to complete the task at hand.

Much like any individual’s process when working out a particularly troublesome personal issue, there’s a lot of circular logic at play, as Ratajkowski finds herself butting up against the same conflicting concerns: Like everyone else, she needs to make money in order to survive, but her method of doing so becomes more and more untenable as her fame grows. Early on, she writes, Ratajkowski recognized that money is the key to control. By making her own money by selling her image—and by extension, herself—as the product, she was in charge of the capital she acquired. But the cost of this sacrifice, which Ratajkowski paints as a particularly troublesome one, was her own burgeoning understanding of the limitations of the “empowerment” promised by some strains of modern feminism. When Ratjakowski saw a video of the the Victoria’s Secret’s angels, playing in the lobby of their headquarters as she waited to be seen for a casting, these women looked like they were in control. That kind of power, which she eventually acquired over time as her career took off, is what she craved: to be able to use what she was given in order to extract money from those willing to spend it.

But that sort of “empowerment” ultimately never worked out in her favor. The music video for “Blurred Lines” launched her into the white-hot center of celebrity, but Ratajkowski takes issue with any press that leads with this fact, writing that she “resented” the mention because, oh, couldn’t they see, she is more than just a pretty face? “I didn’t know how to marry the identity and ego that I’d kept as separate as possible from my work with the one the world was now labeling as a sex symbol,” she writes. Despite this growing unease, Ratajkowski continued her work, treating the vocation she’s chosen as both very easy and also emotionally taxing and difficult. Conceptually, this conflict is easy enough to understand, but relatable it is not—very few people are so beautiful that their looks are enough to make them rich.

The music video made her famous, but she is savvy enough to publicly question her own complicity. In a particularly memorable anecdote, Ratajkowski finds herself on a sponsored vacation to the Maldives with her husband, Sebastian Bear-McClard. In exchange for her stay at the luxury resort, she has to take a few pictures of herself for Instagram, tag the appropriate brands, and then is otherwise free to enjoy the spoils her beauty affords. Sitting poolside with her husband, Ratajkowski indulges in a bit of critical thinking around their place in the resort amongst the other, paying guests. As she realizes her place in the system that props everything up, her husband cuts through her revelation with a fact: “C’mon baby,” he says, “You’re a capitalist, too, admit it.”

Ratjakowski bristles at this assertion, and attempts to make a distinction that is perhaps the most relatable of all: “I’m trying to succeed in a capitalist system. But that doesn’t mean I like the game.” This conflict is the thread that holds the book together, and it is relatable in that it is a shared sentiment commonly shared by many people trying to make a living somehow. But most people who have internalized and processed this for themselves do not wrestle with it in the same way Ratjakowski does for the duration of these essays. What drives her personal introspection and the examination of her work is guilt—that she is a cog in a machine that ultimately does not have her back. This too is a fairly common sentiment; the system in place that oppresses us is also what sustains us. Thinking about this daily, on the granular level, is paralyzing; for Ratjakowski, the burden is much heavier. She is literally a commodity, and while she understands her role, it seems that at some points, she wants to have it both ways.

“I was tired of feeling guilty for the way I presented myself,” she says in the intro, seemingly inoculating herself against sexist criticism that might come from the book’s premise. Ratjakowski is well aware of how she looks and is already prepared for anyone who might be surprised by the cogency and occasionally brilliant turns of phrase presented within. That criticism, is, of course, sexist: It is rude to think that because a woman is conventionally attractive, she cannot also be smart. And Ratajkowski writes her way through her own feelings with this directive very much at top of mind. Every essay in My Body wrestles directly with its subject and finds Ratjakowski working out in real time her place in the systems that she condemns.

“This is a book about capitalism,” Ratajkowski said in a recent interview with the New York Times, and that much is abundantly clear: She is well aware of her role in the system, but does little work to disentangle herself from it. Arguably, the book’s thesis is to dismantle the notion that her experience in the modeling industry and the larger ecosystem of celebrity was empowering at all—but the end result is sort of toothless critique that serves to just pull back the curtain on what it’s like to be very beautiful, in a world where that sort of beauty is most definitely currency.