Right now we’re in this interesting phase where people are directing a lot of attention to being politically correct, being really careful about the words we use, but we’re avoiding the deep-rooted issues that revolve around those terms. You know, sexism and racism exist even though you can’t say the n-word, or people don’t like to be called a bitch.
Sitting in yet another brick-walled cafe-that-used-to-be-a-warehouse in downtown LA’s suddenly cool Arts District, 25-year-old actress and model Emily Ratajkowski is wearing a camel sweater with only one long sleeve, perfect for this typical California October day, somewhere between hot and cold.
Ratajkowski, who first came to wide attention as a topless, voiceless woman in Robin Thicke’s controversial ‘Blurred Lines’ music video, perhaps knows better than most what it means to possess fame in a state of flux. She has ruminated publicly on gender issues — in a series of recent interviews and essays she makes the case that a woman’s sexiness is most powerful when she remains undeterred by the scrutiny her body receives — and is doing her best to enact this proclamation, parlaying her sudden fame into more substantive turns in the film adaptations of Gone Girl and Entourage, and is soon to appear in two independent films: 80s period romance Cruise and British thriller In Darkness.
Su Wu: What’s worth looking at, for you?
Emily Ratajkowski: Right now we’re in this interesting phase where people are directing a lot of attention to being politically correct, being really careful about the words we use, but we’re avoiding the deep-rooted issues that revolve around those terms. You know, sexism and racism exist even though you can’t say the n-word, or people don’t like to be called a bitch.
Well I think the reason people are interested in being politically correct is because words do matter.
When you live in a country that has systemic racism, you can have all those polite things but you still have a disproportionate portion of, [for example], really poor black people. So how do we fix that? Because that’s really ugly, ugly racism.
I guess it’s a question I’d turn back to you, then. What do you see as reasonable action towards these systemic problems?
I think the thing about it is we need to be organised. But the important part about being a writer, or being in the public eye, is that you can at least share those ideas so someone can read something you wrote and relate to it, connect to it, and then maybe decide to become part of a larger thing.
What about a word like ‘feminist’? What about the words that have a positive impact in terms of the willingness to use them?
Totally. I’m not writing off words in general; I believe in the power of story. I’m just saying we’re in a really weird place in the world right now where we’ve fixed a lot of things at a surface level, but not on the fundamental level.
Speaking of that surface-and-substance distinction, I think one of the perils of being a famous woman is that you’re going to spend more of your life than you ever wanted talking about your looks. So let’s talk less about your looks and more about your work. What is your work?
I have things that don’t necessarily all completely come together. With film — and with modelling too — you’re not in control of the project, you’re a piece of the project. It’s not always up to me to control the message and ideas. What I can control is what I choose to do and what I decide to be part of, but I don’t even know if I’ve necessarily gotten to that point. You can talk about how you’re building your career, but you can’t talk about the ideas that you’re really trying to create and the stories you’re pushing forward.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced navigating the world as a sexually confident woman?
It took me a long time to not take personally the way people write me off; it took me a long time to realise that [it was] ideas our culture has drilled into people about what it means to be an attractive woman and a woman who plays into what sexy is. I always had an anger — I don’t know if anger is too harsh of a word, but a resistance to ever letting anyone write me off. But it wasn’t until I was little older that I realised, ‘Holy shit, this is sexism.’
When all the other teenagers were dealing with this secret wish to be really, really pretty, what did you wish for?
I have worked super hard my whole life to not think about the way I’m perceived by people, which is kind of a weird thing because obviously I have a very visual image. Whatever… I knew sometimes girls were mean to me because they were jealous, and I knew sometimes guys gave me more attention because they were horny. But I never thought that I was any different.
Conversely then, what opportunities may have happened for you because you are able-bodied and beautiful and thin and because your appearance conforms to current stereotypes of female sexuality?
I mean, I don’t think my career would have happened if it wasn’t for the way I look. I think that’s true of everyone though — even if you’re working in an industry that’s not related to how you look, it’s still somewhat related to how you look. But listen, modelling is completely about image, which is a cool thing in some ways because it takes off some of the complications. Like going back to what I was talking about with surface problems and then, like, deep problems — if you have a fashion show and there’s not that many black women, that’s a huge issue in the modelling world. But it’s also, to me, very cut and dried. It is what it is, which is nice.
Is creative expression possible even within this world of images — even as a model?
I always loved visual art and always was around visual art, and it really helped me as a model because I’m super aware. People always asked me, “Are you a dancer?” because I could feel this connection to my body and how it translates into image.
It’s important to note there’s a long legacy of nudity in artwork — in talking about the gaze, in talking about performativity — from Gauguin to selfies. How does your work with your body and your appearance challenge or reinforce tropes in this historical conversation about the female body?
In an episode of Easy, on Netflix, I play this alternate version of myself — say if I had stayed at UCLA and pursued art. She’s this sort of post-feminist selfie artist and that’s, like, her work. She sleeps with men and takes pictures of herself in their homes and it’s about privacy. That feels not very far off from what I’m doing, in some ways. The selfie with Kim [Kardashian] was probably the best example of this: every day taking ownership of and celebrating your body and redirecting the gaze is part of my work which, you know, the art world has tried and failed and sometimes succeeded, just as sometimes I do too — to try to differentiate those kinds of understandings of female sexuality.
To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, a feminist who got a lot of flack for her appearance, it’s better to break the rules than try to work within them, because if following the rules worked — if being sexy made you powerful — then there’d be a lot more women in power. So there is something in being complicit with the rules, instead of breaking them, that sits uncomfortably for me.
But I don’t know that I’m being complicit. I don’t think I’m playing within the rules. Women in the last five to ten years are able to say, “I want to feel this way — it’s not for someone else.” I don’t know if in [Steinem’s] revolution in the 60s if that was really true. I don’t know if there were a lot of women being sexy for their own enjoyment; that’s much more common now. And that’s the difference: it’s about the ownership. You have critics saying, when [Kardashian] posted the original selfie — which is why we [posted a joint image] … People were like, “Ugh, she’s naked again, aren’t we sick of this?” However we go forward we can’t go writing off Kim Kardashian because she somehow plays into a specific standard of beauty. I mean, I think that’s actually excluding people, which is bad.
She has been rewarded for this type of visibility, while that isn’t necessarily the case for other women.
But it’s not always rewarded for her. I mean, look at her Instagram comments. She’s called a slut and a bitch and every awful derogatory word. To say that she’s just completely celebrated every time she takes a nude selfie is not true.
Thinking about the role of technology in feminism, I’m curious where your internet presence begins and ends.
There’s definitely a separation. My private life is my private life. To me it’s almost more of a visual thing — I go back and delete photos if I don’t like the way the layout of my Instagram looks. But I also let people way more into my ideas and beliefs, and in that sense I’m way less separate from my public persona because I’m very outspoken about things.
Would you trade that capacity to have a voice for being less beautiful?
I just don’t think I’m going to have to face that. Maybe? To be honest I think it’s a weird thing to ask that, because how could I know? But I probably would be more fulfilled, in some ways. I mean, it’s just exhausting to think about the way you look, for anyone. It’s just fucking exhausting!
How do you get yourself into a creative space?
It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m making visual art or writing I listen to music, usually the same album over and over again so I’m not getting surprised and snapped out of it. But with acting, usually if I can’t get into the space I’ll go for a drive and then just run lines in my car. You can’t really listen to music when you’re running lines anyway, so I just try to go somewhere else and feel it in a different way.
Is that the hardest thing — remembering, “I am this person, and those are characters”?
No, it is still you. Ultimately I am who I am; I only have my experiences and my emotions to draw from. I know a lot of actors who are all about building the character from the ground up, but I differ in their feeling that they’re able to completely make this other person. Just the raw emotion that they’re applying to that person comes from them. I think [acting] does end up being more personal than some would admit or agree.
It is an easier thing to say, “That’s not me,” and to have that ironic distance.
I wish I could do that, honestly. I wish I could say none of it is me. But it is me, in the best times.
I love the idea of a childhood that encouraged you to be critical and rebellious [Emily is the daughter of painter John Ratajkowski and academic Kathleen Balgley], so I wonder if you see a connection?
We created our own family culture. Some of that was being outspoken, really being unapologetic, but at the same time being really self-critical and aware. I just finished the third season of Transparent and I was like [about the characters], “God, these selfish motherfuckers.” If only they could, you know, see themselves in a constructive light for once and be a little harder on themselves instead of feeling like the victim. But at the same time I have friends who are very much of the mentality that you might die tomorrow: “Give yourself a break! Don’t be so hard on yourself!” And I might have a day like that but overall I don’t relate. I think it must be really fucking nice; I’m just not that way.
Are there choices that you’ve made and jobs that you may have taken at another point in your life that you might not take now?
Yes, of course. I’ve also realised that the only ones I regret are the ones where I wasn’t listening to myself. I would love to find a way to be the master of the ship.
Words: Su Wu
Photography: Max Doyle
Hair: Christian Wood for Christophe Robin @ The Wall Group
Make-up: Rachel Goodwin @ Starworks Artists
Photographic assistant: Mason Stevenson
Hair assistant: Raina Leon
Shot on location at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Los Angeles. Special thanks to Chris Hemmings and Purple PR.