Emily Ratajkowski is topless again on Instagram, back arched and shoulders bronzed and glistening, like a mermaid figurehead. A spectacular emerald pendant grazes her cleavage in the photo, which she captioned—wink wink—“Cannes!”
Minutes later, the image was a Daily Mail news headline—“Emily Ratajkowski dares to bare as she poses TOPLESS in ornate jewels ahead of Cannes Film Festival opening gala”—then was quickly re-posted on other entertainment sites.
You may be wondering what Ratajkowski is doing at the Cannes Film Festival, given that she hasn’t been in any movies this year. After her breakout role in 2014’s Gone Girl, Ratajkowski’s acting career has yet to take off. Last year, she played the Hot Girl in the unspeakably bad We Are Your Friends, and played herself in the unmemorable Entourage movie.
Ratajkowski is best known as the busty brunette who pranced around naked in the uncensored version of Robin Thicke’s contentious “Blurred Lines” video, which she has somehow parlayed into a career as a (self-identifying) feminist sex symbol, or—to the rest of the world—just a sex symbol.
Indeed, the 25-year-old model-actress’ Instagram feed is pin-up gold: Here she is in a red bikini in Cannes earlier on Wednesday; here she is topless, again, in a black-and-white photo last week; and modeling black lingerie in a bathroom selfie earlier this month.
But unlike the other attention-seeking, Kardashian-esque models and social media influencers—the ones who suck in their cheeks and pout their lips so aggressively that they appear to be drinking milkshakes with invisible straws—Ratajkowski isn’t just making a spectacle of her body for clicks. She has a political agenda, too: displaying her sexuality is a feminist act.
A selfie is “a sort of interesting way to reclaim the gaze,” she said in a 2016 Harper’s Bazaar interview with Naomi Wolf, the famed third-wave feminist and Vagina: A New Biography author. “You’re looking at yourself and taking a photo while looking at everyone.”
Ratajkowski was discussing another bathroom selfie of her and Kim Kardashian West, both topless and defiantly flipping off their critics, that had gone viral earlier last year. (“We are more than just our bodies, but that doesn’t mean we have to be shamed for them or our sexuality,” Ratajkowski captioned the post.)
Wolf’s response—that she’d “love a world where women could get plenty of attention for a picture like that clothed”—was a soft-ball challenge to Ratajkowski’s particular brand of feminism, which argues that flaunting your sexuality can be a feminist statement in itself, even if you’re objectifying yourself and making money from titillating men.
It’s easy to see why many card-carrying feminists have criticized Ratajkowski’s argument as self-contradicting. She wants to topple the patriarchy and fight oppression of women’s bodies while she profits from selling her own body, which, I might add, looks like an adolescent boy’s sexual fantasy—an hourglass-shaped Western ideal.
So what is feminist about Ratajkowski’s bikini selfies? How is she different from the genetically blessed models in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition, which perpetuates unrealistic body ideals? She claims to be an agent of her sexuality, but can you model for lingerie companies and fashion magazines without being the object of someone else’s sexual agenda?
Ratajkowski seems conflicted herself. She has correctly identified the absurd stereotype that women cannot be both beautiful and political, and the fact that Hollywood pigeonholes actresses who look a certain way. But she also refuses to take responsibility for perpetuating the standards that pigeonhole her, preferring to pin the blame on “society.”
“It’s not our responsibility to change the way we are seen—it’s society’s responsibility to change the way it sees us,” she wrote in an essay for Glamour.
It will take some time for society to adjust to Ratajkowski’s dreams of being known as much for her acting and political ambitions as for her body. Until then, her feminist statements would be more convincing if she admitted they don’t always align with the sexy image she’s selling.