In the middle of January, actress Caitlin Stasey (who you may know from Reign or Please Like Me) made ripples across both the feminist and entertainment blogospheres when she launched Herself, a website profiling women who are willing to strip down both emotionally and physically to tell their stories and talk about their lives.
The women of Herself are always photographed naked, by a female photographer, with the intention of flipping the script on what it means to have nude photos on the internet. What happens when the woman depicted is subject and rather than object? What happens when she's exposing herself by choice, and without the intention of titillation? What happens when she is in control of her own image?
Each photo series complements an in-depth profile, in which subjects discuss what womanhood means to them. Their entries are moving, humanizing and revealing. You might see yourself reflected in their images and stories, or you might not—but either way, participants are real and authentic in a way you don't often see on the internet.
After becoming interested in Herself and discovering Stasey's social justice-slanted Twitter account, I decided to call her up to talk about her new project and what it's like being an outspoken feminist "killjoy" in the entertainment industry. Here is our lightly edited conversation.
Jezebel: What was the motivation behind starting Herself?
Caitlin Stasey: It was born out of a dissatisfaction with the way women were being presented across all forms of media. In the past year or so, I've had my eyes opened to so many brands of feminism—the intersectionality of it, GamerGate, #YesAllWomen, #WhyIStayed—and I felt like I finally had words to truly articulate how I was feeling about the way I'm treated as a woman within the industry I was working in.
I have so many female friends who don't see themselves reflected back in the entertainment that they're consuming. We're always made to feel like we have to apologize for our physicality, whether it's for having hair on our bodies or fat on our legs or hair on our faces.
Or not having those things.
Or not having those things. And the thing is, everyone in my circle—because I associate with a lot of actors—we're all good at concealing the things that we're most ashamed of. We work overtime to make sure that they are concealed. I go through so much home bleach in the course of a week. I should invest in Jolen. Because I bleach my body hair like it's no one's business.
Also, I think modern medicine has left women in the dust a little when it comes to UTIs, yeast infections, sexual discomfort or disfunction. I think we pay such close attention to male sexual discomfort, to male sexual disfunction because without the element of a turgid penis, the idea of sex in a broad and clinical term can't happen. Having suffered from UTIs horribly since I was young, I had nobody in my world who I could talk to about it. My mum was horrified because it meant that her teenage daughter was having sex and there was no way around it.
Initially, I wanted Herself to be a forum for women to talk about these things and maybe share homeopathic remedies, then it extended into what I was talking about before—instead of just addressing medical issues, I thought why not have a space where women can be asked things that they're never asked.
It's interesting that you feel like the internet, in many ways, opened your eyes to so many of these feminist concepts because a lot of women feel very shut down by the the online world.
I think that the internet and social media has betrayed women in huge, immeasurable ways and I don't see that slowing down anytime soon. But I also think that women are becoming more empowered to speak out against these injustices. Things like the Fappening targeted women. There are these "meninist" websites that are horrifying—they're talking about what women owe them sexually and emotionally. It's terrifying. It's this open vast world of anonymity and people can say whatever the fuck they want to you and not care about the consequences.
I suppose the internet, like you said, is fucking terrifying, but I've made some connections with women who are refusing to stay quiet and I think that's where I found empowerment and solidarity. Solidarity is something I've missed out on a lot in my life because I dropped out of high school when I was 16 and I went to an all girls high school where it was just nasty and cliquey. I never really had groups of women to talk to about these kinds of things. I was never able to ask their opinions because every time I'd bring up feminism in the circle I was moving in, I'd sort of get shut down and told that feminism is an archaic ideal that we no longer needed.
Herself is a really cool way to reclaim the conversation.
I just wanted to create a one-way flow of information because, as you fully know and as I fully know, to be a woman talking about her experiences on the internet only leads to negation from many many people and so I didn't need women to lend their stories and their images to a space dedicated to them to then have people tell them why they're wrong. I can't think of anything more horrific than a comment section on Herself because none of these points that these women are making are, you know—you can't really contradict their experiences or their stories or their opinions. Of course, you may not agree with everybody, but I'm just so tired of going on Twitter and saying "This is how I feel when I get catcalled" and having people respond "No, you don't."
I don't know why I don't have the right to my own experiences and my own feelings.
Or your own body.
Yeah. Women are expected to be naked to appease our male counterparts. Whenever a woman is naked on film or television, she's doing it to gratify somebody else—to gratify the audience or the man she's sleeping with or, very rarely the woman she's sleeping with or—even better—the group of women she's sleeping with. The point is generally titillation, isn't it? It's never about a woman's comfort, it's never about a woman's freedom. It's always seen through the scope of how much she has to offer sexually, which I think is a very tired and obvious statement, but people always criticize the observation anyway. You say, "You notice in films that women are generally fuck objects." People tell you not to be sensitive. They tell you to get over it.
It's hard to be an actress because you're so often asked to take on roles that you feel betray your entire agenda. Whereas men very rarely have to do that. To play a woman in something—and I've been really lucky. I've played some empowered, incredible women, but I've also played some incredibly pathetic women who are at the mercy of the men in their lives or are at the mercy of the sex that's wanted from them and are shamed out of their agency. It's so subtle and so insidious that it just slides by people, but it sticks.
Do you find that the longer you're working, the better you've become at avoiding those sexist roles or is it one of those things that you have to accept in your industry as something you have to do every now and then?
It's tough because I'm definitely not at a position in my career where I can pick and choose willy nilly the work I won't do. Of course, if something comes along that I find particularly offensive, I would probably not go into audition for it. I suppose now, at the stage I'm at in my career, it comes down to whether or not I'm willing to read for a role. And within the roles that I take, particularly if they're long term ones, you can find opportunities for empowerment within it, but if you work for any big corporation, any big studio or network, you are a product. And you're a product that's peddling a narrative that's so out of your control. That's actually the hardest thing for a lot of actresses—they love what they do, they love their jobs, they love the opportunity to act, but you get handed things sometimes that you can't begin to argue with or contradict for fear of losing a job or never working again. That's something I fear all the time—that somebody somehow will get wind of something I said and it'll cost me a job that I really want.
I have to just maintain that on my deathbed, I'm not going to be worried about the jobs I didn't get. I'm gonna be worried about the things I didn't say or the things I didn't speak out about.
Have you gotten blow-back from comments you've made?
No, not professionally. I definitely have on Twitter. Generally speaking, I'm pretty glad to receive the criticism that I do because it's all incredibly defendable and archaic and twisted.
The criticism you get on Twitter proves your point.
Yeah, but what's incredible and what I really appreciate about Twitter and the criticism I actually listen to is stuff like "Ok, you're using ableist language" or "What you said was transphobic."
Our language is evolving so much and I feel like in this past year we've become acutely aware of it. Like appropriating African-American vernacular. Again, that's the kind of thing that slips by—that really insidious and subtle kind of oppression. And I'm grateful for Twitter and social media because I've learned so much. I've learned how problematic myself and many of my idols have been or continue to be because of a lack of understanding or exposure to that conversation.
So whilst Twitter is rife with some of the most heinous creatures to have ever walked the planet, it also hosts some of the greatest minds. People shy away from these conversations in social settings because they can be really polarizing. I got into a huge fight on New Year's Eve with a guy who said he didn't "subscribe" to white privilege because he was third-generation American.
Sure, because that's how "white privilege" works.
Yeah! I was like "I don't think you get to choose…"
Right, it's subscribed to you, not the other way around.
I've learned the hard way that you can—and I don't know if you've ever had this experience yourself—but you can very quickly and easily cement yourself as a total killjoy because if you care about something, you're going to pull people up on it. If they reference trans women as "trannies" or refer to lesbians as being dykes, you're going to be like "Don't say that. You could say so many other words that are so much better and more fun to say."
Yeah, you can be smart and funny as opposed to dumb and unfunny.
That's the whole argument against rape humor, isn't it? These comedians are so fiercely defending their right to ridicule the victims of a horrific crime, but no one ever turns the spotlight onto those who are committing them. Like, "Why aren't you making jokes about what fucking losers rapists are?" It's a silly term to use for someone so heinous, but they are fucking losers.
The problem is laziness and also people don't want to be made aware of their privilege, because when they are, it means that all of their failings are their own. It took me a long time to understand my privilege as a white woman who grew up in a well-to-do family and gets to do a job that's incredibly coveted. I felt very resistant to that idea, to that concept of being a person of privilege, because I've been discriminated against and abused because I'm a woman. It's all on a sliding scale and I think that the more we allow ourselves to understand that we are directly effecting those who are less privileged than us, the more we'll move forward.
So far, Herself has been very diverse. Where do you see it going and who will it include? Do you plan on profiling different ages, transgender women, etc?
The thing about Herself and the nature of the project, which has been the most difficult thing to overcome, is that it is a reflection of the people who want to take part in it. That might seem like an obvious statement, but people lose sight of the fact that it's a two way participation effort. I have to put out the call, but you have to want to be a part of it.
I can't think of anything I'd love more than to have women ranging from age 18 all the way through to 118, women with disabilities, women of varying ethnicities, larger women, smaller women, masculine women, gender queer women, trans women—it's just that those who are most needed are the ones who've generally been told that they're not worthy of immortalization. And the saddest thing is I get emails from women—we've had 3,000 since the site started—I've had emails from women that are like "I really love Herself. I just want to know why there aren't more women like me on it." And I respond with "Well, if you'd like to take part, we'd be more than happy to have you." And they respond with "No, no, not me. Women like me."
I completely understand that. I don't begrudge any woman who desires to see herself in a project without physically taking part. It's just finding those people—and that's been a really difficult realization as well: Of 3,000 emails, about 500 are accessible to us by resources and geography and of that 500, I mean, there will probably only be several or so who offer the diversity that we so sorely need. And to put out a call, like "Hey, we're looking for women of this particular physicality or this particular look," it then looks like it's tokenism, doesn't it?
Yeah, it looks like we're trying to push an agenda. It's my biggest fear that Herself will end up just appealing to white, able-bodied, cisgender women. We're trying as hard as we can to incorporate as many women as possible and I'm hiring women from all over the states to help me recruit. Honestly, like, and maybe it sounds defeatist, but I just have to let those who want to take part take part because all of these women have incredible stories.
But yeah, it would be my fucking dream to have the largest catalog of thought from women from around the world.
What does your recruitment process look like?
We have an email address on the site and we cycle through the emails and sort them into folders of cities. It sucks because there are some women we'd love to feature who are in, I don't know, Idaho and I just don't have any reach there. Because that's the thing about the site that I'm probably most proud of—as of today, I've been able to pay everyone for their efforts.
I've always been so distraught by the fact that so many people ask creatives to do their jobs for free because they figure they love doing it, they're good at it, why wouldn't they want an opportunity to do it? While in theory that sounds great, it completely undermines how hard they've been working and the fact that they're professional—not kids who are playing around.
Doubling back to what you were saying about female pleasure being portrayed in entertainment only for the benefit of men, it reminded me of the uproar that happened when Reign first premiered and your character was depicted masturbating.
If it had been a boy doing it, it would have been played for laughs and it would be fine.
Male sexuality is always portrayed as very funny. They've made so many films about men discovering their sexuality and I can think of very few about women that mirror that same experience and almost none of them are comedies because the idea of—particularly in film or television, the act of sex is always a transaction of dignity for gratification. Whenever a woman sleeps with a man, in a show or whatever, she instantly relinquishes some power to him. And it might not be scripted that way, it might not be intentional, but it is this build up of "Look what I'm giving to you, I'm giving myself to you," instead of a woman being like, "I would like to have sex and that is it."
It's the way people treat their teenage daughters as well—like their sexuality is this precious gift, that their virginity is this sacred thing that needs to be guarded from the world at large because it will be used against you. Nobody ever turns to young girls and says, "Your sex is yours and your body is yours and if you consent and feel safe and you want it and you want to partake in sexual activity, then that is your choice as a human being that I've given birth to and am sending off into the world."
The idea that a woman might like sex—I can't tell you over the years how many times I've been told I have "daddy issues."
Because if you're a woman and you like sex, then there must be something fundamentally lacking. Your morality must be missing or your moral compass is askew, pointing at your pussy all the time.
Which it is and that's fine!
[Laughs] Which it is! But whose isn't? They all are and all of us, I'm sure at one stage in our lives, are guilty of having felt like we were less because we partook in some sort of sexual activity. And there are times when that feeling is right—rape is on a sliding scale. We like to think of rape as an attack of a woman by a man she doesn't know as she's minding her own business on the street, but rape can happen in your home, in your marital bed, in broad daylight. It can happen anywhere, even in the middle of consensual sex. That's something that we're only just beginning to understand as a society. People are incredibly resistant to that truth because it makes a lot of men rapists.
And not to say that all men are—and I fucking hate that I have to specify that, but it's a very sobering realization. As far as I can remember, whenever I watch films about college, frat boy films, the mantra was always "Go for the drunk girl. Go for the drunk girl." If I heard someone say that in real life at a party, I would probably call the police because that kind of—if a girl has to get drunk enough to consent to having sex with you, does it not cross your mind that she maybe wouldn't do it if her judgment wasn't impaired and therefore maybe you shouldn't have sex with her?
Have you found responses to Herself to be condescending because of your age or profession?
Any woman who acts or writes or speaks publicly will be condescended to by a lot of people, but I think my age plays into it, the fact that I'm an actor, which is an incredibly self-indulgent and vain profession, and also the fact that I can't pretend to be an authority on these wider issues. The only thing I can speak to is that I wanted to create something that I thought would be interesting and mean a lot to a lot of different people. I wanted to give women an opportunity to represent themselves because that representation is so lacking elsewhere.
I think the condescending nature of some of the articles only bother me because there are so many points within them that I could easily argue against. One article was like "Sorry, if you have your tits out and expect people to pay attention to anything other than them, you're naive."
I was like, "Wow, that's a fucked up thing for someone to say." Are we supposed to apologize for having tits the rest of our lives? Whereas other women have to apologize for the fact that they don't have tits? At what point do you draw the line? And what was really upsetting to me was that people refuse to see the link between rape culture, victim-blaming and what they do to women who are naked by choice. To say that anyone naked on the internet is asking for anything is tantamount to saying that they're asking to get raped or be assaulted in some way.
The most important thing I've learned since starting Herself, or becoming, I guess I'll say "a person of principle" (while trying not to sound like too much of a wanker), is that you have to learn to defend your beliefs and not yourself. Because a lot of people are going to come at you in a way that's very personal. They're going to attack me—my intelligence, my body, my thoughts, basically any angle they can get at, They're going to find a way to make me ugly, as ugly as they possibly can. But if I maintain a truth through all of that that pertains only to my message and not to myself, then they can't hurt me.
I can't lie and say there aren't times when I'm like, "The world is terrible! I'm fucking done with it!" but, you know, if you're for progress, equality and basic civil liberties for all people, then you're on the right side of history. People might not agree with how I'm doing it, but I have to take solace in the fact that I have 3,000 emails from women who really love the website and really love the women they've found there
I won't pretend that those emails are the whole world or that Herself is gonna fix all of our problems, but I put it out there not expecting much, expecting to be criticized, and then a lot of women came to me and I've had some incredible stories shared with me. I don't feel worthy of the trust these women have placed in me because it's a truly astounding thing for a woman to say, "You know what? Fuck it. I believe in this, I want to take part, I will appear naked in these images and I'll tell you everything you need to know."
Because all she has to gain from that is a sense of empowerment that only comes from herself People can tell her what they think of her and say horrible things (or lovely things!), but, at the end of the day, all she's left with is the sense that she did something that was right for her. And I hope that that's what all of our participants are able to walk away with.