“Men Act, Women Appear.” Reading Emily Ratajkowski and Catherine McCormack
Veronica Esposito on the Complicated Intersection of Theory and Practice
“Look closely at the history of art,” writes Catherine McCormack, “and it is unusual to see women enjoying themselves on their own terms, without the involvement of a male character or performing like Venus, for a male gaze.” In that one sentence—characteristic of McCormack’s book Women in the Picture for its economy, authority, and intellectual depth—she neatly summarizes the fulcrum around which swung one of the great recent Internet flamewars over feminism and women’s bodies.
I speak of the debate following the release of Robin Thicke’s music video for “Blurred Lines” in 2013.
For those who don’t remember and/or missed this debate, it was thus: the video—made by a female director, with an all-female crew, and starring three female models—cut an “unrated” version which showed its three models dancing in little more than G-strings. With the models interacting with farm animals and bizarre props (at one point there are even giant balloons reading “ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG DICK”), throwing their bodies around with abandon, the video took on an energy that felt more than a little dirty and clearly pushed people’s buttons. Thus the polarized reactions.
Some saw the making of this video as a glorious instance of what McCormack finds so uncommon in the artistic world: women enjoying themselves on their own terms. But others saw it differently. They pointed out that this party is intruded upon by three powerful men—Pharrell Williams, T.I., and Robin Thicke—musical superstars whose mere presence seems to turn these models from partiers to performers for a male gaze. So is the video female empowerment or female subjugation?
In her recent book of essays, My Body, Emily Ratajkowski, who used her star turn in the “Blurred Lines” video to catapult herself from just another promising model to an international superstar, registers her own opinion on the matter. She makes it clear that she saw the video shoot as a female-centric space in which she felt fundamentally safe, yet it is also a space that was undeniably complicated: she closes the essay by leveling accusations at Thicke for drunkenly groping her breasts during the shoot, and she also expresses very conflicted feelings at using her beauty and sex appeal as a way to gain career empowerment.
The fact is that the “Blurred Lines” video brought Ratajkowski a level of renown she could only dream of before. It became a complete sensation, and suddenly Ratajkowski had millions of new fans. Brands that had shunned her now begged to establish partnerships. Yet, for all that success, she was disappointed to realize that attaining the markers of success and desirability that she was taught would make her whole in fact did not solve her problems: “Strangers greeted me with enthusiasm,” she writes. “Famous men I’d had crushes on as a child hit on me. Beautiful women talked to me as if I were one of them. . . . Yet I felt like I was spinning out of control.”
Regardless of attaining recognition that few women ever will, Ratajkowski was still caught up in negative self-talk and self-loathing, still undermining and diminishing herself. She was in her early twenties, and it is a moment of realizing that the journey to a satisfied, happy womanhood will be much longer and more complicated than she had believed.
The whole episode reads like just another chapter in the millennia-long story of women in art that McCormack so painstakingly chronicles in Women in the Picture. McCormack is looking all the way back to ancient myth, investigating the very earliest origins of the demeaning archetypes and sexist narratives that have defined women for millennia, and she is taking her investigation all the way up to 2020, offering a fascinating reading of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s celebration of female sexuality, “WAP.”
Throughout, her interest is in documenting how certain ideas about women have become encoded into the stories Western society tells itself through its art, popular mythology, and entertainment. She wants to document these stories so that she can then undermine them, transforming their female victims into active agents.
Women in the Picture is a work of scholarship in which McCormack’s personal experience as a woman coping with the pressures of such stereotypes and biases only seldom appears, and she writes with a scholar’s methodical, magisterial voice. By contrast, Ratajkowski’s book is passionate and snappy, limiting her purview to her personal experience and the relatively short time frame of her life—as she writes, “I’m still grappling with how I feel about sexuality and empowerment. The purpose of this book is not to arrive at answers, but to honestly explore ideas I can’t help but return to.”
Even as My Body and Women in the Picture are very different in how they approach their subject—and how they feel to read—they also seem to go together, the two inquiries into sexism coming from women at different points in their lives make for charming complements.
Perhaps it is because these books take such opposite approaches to similar territory that I feel them resonating so well. They are deconstructing—often angrily and with sass—the things that women are made to believe about themselves, asking where these beliefs come from, why they are so pervasive, and why women continue to participate in them, despite living in an age in which we are supposedly so much more enlightened and empowered.
In this inquiry it is crucial to both understand the long history buttressing the institutionalized sexism in which women live, and to hear vivid dispatches from the experience of women who are attempting to thrive in a world that is still fundamentally patriarchal.
At heart, both of these books are calls for women to have more control over the ways they are depicted, be it in the world of art or that of fashion. In demonstrating the lack of agency women continue to experience, each author namechecks John Berger and his Ways of Seeing; Ratajkowski does so in the epigraph to her book—“The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.”—while McCormack discusses him in her preface, drawing on his insight that “in the history of painting, ‘men act, women appear.’” The fundamental issue for both is that, even in 2022, women are still treated as visual pleasures constructed by a world dominated by men.
McCormack makes her aspirations very clear. She hopes that “by writing about women in pictures and charting the histories and tangled roots of the archetypes that limit the complexity of female experience, I [can] bring a sense of meaning to women’s place in history . . . that goes beyond the roles that Western culture has created for them as mothers, monsters, and maidens or that has fueled their pursuit of the unattainably perfect Venus.”
This is a project of reclamation. McCormack does not want to censor or expurgate problematic artwork, she wants to re-interpret it so that this art does not disempower and objectify women but rather opens up possibility for them to take up space and write their own narratives.Ratajkowski’s book is a kind of primal scream by a woman who just wants to feel seen, validated, and respected.
McCormack’s reformulations of widespread ideas about women, and her re-readings of key pieces of art from Western history, demonstrate how spaces that have long existed by and for the benefit of men can begin to be reimagined as places where women’s voices are heard and women’s values are prioritized. As she writes, “the way forward is not through censorship of the art of the past that offends our current feminist sensibilities but by interrogating it and taking the opportunity to rethink the stories that have shaped our understanding of power and gender and race.” Women in the Picture was so satisfyingly thorough and so thought-provoking that I am excited to read whatever McCormick writes next.
By contrast, Ratajkowski comes across as a much more bouncy and uncertain writer, sharing vivid and often grotesque dispatches from the trenches of the battle between the sexes. One place she frequently returns to is the conflicts she feels over using her body as a means to empowerment; she both agonizes over her current career trajectory and charts out the youthful experiences that taught her that her body was not her own and that underlie these present conflicts.
As I read her book, I sensed that Ratajkowski deeply longed to stop the ceaseless back and forth as to whether or not women have a right to use their bodies in this way: “To me, girls sexualizing themselves wasn’t the issue, as feminists and anti-feminists would have us believe, but shaming them was. . . . I was tired of feeling guilty for the way I presented myself.” Her book is a kind of primal scream by a woman who is tired of being at the center of such debates and just wants to feel seen, validated, and respected.
I appreciated Ratajkowski for being so genuine and vulnerable about how difficult and deeply wounding these questions have been to her, and how they are profoundly linked to her own experiences being mistreated by men. This honesty and openness makes her a compelling writer who struck me in very deep places, and from whom I want to hear more.
I read both My Body and Women in the Picture at a time of personal turmoil and confusion over where my own womanhood was heading, and so the vision that each author brought to her project became absorbed into my own struggles. As Ratajkowski had stated about herself, I too felt as though I had received the validation I believed was supposed to make me feel whole and happy as a woman, and yet I was confused to find that these successes had not chased away my inner demons.
After spending years transitioning to the female gender, I had attained all of the things that the trans community had told me would make me happy: I passed as my gender effortlessly and in any situation; I was accepted and celebrated by other women and desired by cis-het men; I was considered pretty, stylish, and put together; I had emerged through my medical transition without any debilitating complications and had a healthy, fit body.
I could plainly see that I had achieved so much, and yet all of it was still not enough to make me really believe in myself and to dispel the ways I could so easily undermine myself in the face of adversity. Slowly and with some angst, I was coming to see that, while these forms of validation were necessary parts of my answer, they were not on their own sufficient to give me what I wanted. I realized I would have to reassess what more I needed to nourish me in doing the work of true self-acceptance. In making the journey to that realization, these books felt like important companions.
Drawing toward the conclusion of Women in the Picture, McCormack quotes Helene Cixous, who instructed women to “write about women and bring women to writing.” McCormack sees this as a call to “stop listening to men” and for women to “claim knowledge of themselves, their fantasies and pleasures” to “listen to the uniqueness of their bodies and language and speech.” This is a call for women to look within themselves and to imagine that what we find there is enough. This is work I have been doing on myself, and work that I imagine McCormack and Ratajkowski have also undertaken in their own way. It is not easy, and nor is it clear how it is to be done.
I see both writers seeking their own answers to this question, just as I have sought mine, trying to imagine things outside of the limits of what we have been told is all there is to our world. This is work of true imagination, work of making space where none has previously existed and where we are enough.