Can you be a feminist and a beneficiary of the patriarchy at the same time?

Our resident Melbournite Marli Grosskopf is back to talk all things Emily Ratajkowski, Megan Fox, and the women in Hollywood we have let down.

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Huddled curiously behind a phosphorescent laptop screen in a darkened room, I delve into a harrowing story of identity, hyper-sexuality, and assault. Holding my breath at just the right moments, and empathetically furrowing my brow at regular intervals, I notice I’ve been in this situation before. Whether it’s me and the girls telling stories of our own experiences with harassment throughout our lives, or a close friend sitting me down with tears in her eyes discussing her own harrowing and traumatising experience with sexual assault, I still feel the same hot whips of pain at the details of these stories, and extend nothing but my sincerest condolences and a shared sense of grief.

Only today, the story I’m consuming behind a laptop screen isn’t coming from a dear friend sitting in the front seat of my ’94 Ford Laser, it’s coming from international supermodel Emily Ratajkowski. I imagine her leaning toward the millions of readers who have now read her piece ‘Buying Myself Back’ in The Cut (you can read it here), summoning us closer with the curl of her finger, and divulging the 7,000 word essay with the same eloquence and sincerity with which she professed it in The Cut.

Considered within her own right, a sex icon and arguably the embodiment of the male gaze, one need only take a quick scroll through her Instagram to recognise the young actor/model/activist from her debut role in Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video clip, or her role in Gone Girl as the protagonists young student/temptress/mistress. An outspoken advocate for the progression of female rights, Emily Ratajkowski reclaims her image through her own social media platforms, and purports the message that owning and showcasing your sexuality is no longer a shameful thing to do, as was considered in a more conservative yesteryear.

To say the least, Ratajkowski is single handedly acting as the catalyst to move a culture’s mindset into a place that allows women to showcase the many facets of sexuality however they see fit, not just a version of their sexuality crafted by men, to be plastered on magazine covers and to ultimately profit from.

Whilst the first half of this equation seems to be moving in a positive trajectory, it seems that as a society, we’re subconsciously punishing women who have benefited from patriarchal restraints, and then complain about it. As a conventionally beautiful women, who fits within the mould of Westernised standards of beauty – that being skinny, white, and able bodied – Ratajkowski has won the genetic lottery, and is undoubtedly deemed a beneficiary of the patriarchy. Sadly, it would seem that women who fit within this category are not shown the same levels of empathy and protection, that we would to a woman who isn’t conventionally beautiful or openly sexual, detailing the same traumatic experiences.

In her personal essay published on The Cut, Emily Ratajkowski detailed an experience where she was sexually assaulted by a notable photographer who plastered her with alcohol during a naked photo shoot at his home, and then subsequently sold thousands of copies of these photos in art galleries and books. Despite her vehemently rejecting the use of the photographs outside of the limited constrains she approved them to be used, Ratajkowski’s personal protest was met with comments such as “You could always keep your clothes on and then you won’t be bothered by these things” and “This is a case of a celebrity looking to get more attention. This is exactly what she wants”. And from the perpetrator/sexual predator himself? “You do know who we are talking about right? This is the girl that was naked in Treats! magazine, and bounced around naked in the Robin Thicke video at that time. You really want someone to believe she was a victim?”.

The crux of this tilted narrative is essentially about the large grey area that is consent, and where we draw the lines. Through the public perception, it’s as if Ratajkowski has forfeited her right to be defended by the masses in instances of sexual harassment and exploitation, as she’s ultimately been profiting off sexuality her entire career. And because she’s marketed her brand in a way that is considered undoubtedly hypersexual, she does not have the luxury of choosing who, when, and where her brand will be capitalised and profited off. It begs the question, can you be a feminist and a beneficiary of the patriarchy at the same time?

When I think of this question, I immediately think of Emma Watson’s simplistic response to the functionality of feminism. In 2017, Emma Watson was on the cover of Vanity Fair, with her cleavage exposed. Soon after this, a meme went viral mocking Watson with the following statement: ‘Emma Watson: Feminism, feminism… gender wage gap… oh why am I not taken seriously… feminism… oh, and here are my tits!’.

When queried about the response to her “controversial” magazine cover and the subsequent criticism she faced, Watson stated “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t understand what my tits have to do with it”. A classic example of how women in the public eye are forced to choose between being taken seriously as an outspoken feminist, or be considered sexy in any way shape or form – as if the two are not mutually exclusive.

Another woman who has undoubtedly faced the sample public scrutiny as this, is Megan Fox. The Hollywood actress who is most commonly known for her leading role in The Transformer franchise was undoubtedly portrayed as a hyper sexualised product of the male gaze throughout her entire career. The only difference between Megan Fox and Emily Ratajkowski’s grapples with their public perception – and ultimately protection – is Megan Fox was operating in a pre #MeToo era.

The 2016 #MeToo movement which brought down Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein, alongside a string of notable industry men who had long been using their power and status to sexually harass women, was an important component of fourth wave feminism. Before this period, a woman speaking out about her experiences with harassment did not garner as much support as it typically does in present day. Look no further than the recently resurfaced interview between Megan Fox and Jimmy Kimmel in 2009, where Fox recalls an encounter when she was only 15, and director Michael Bay had Fox wear a stars and stripes bikini and six inch heels, dancing under a stream of water as an extra in Bad Boys 2. Rather than extending sympathy to Fox or cringing at the obvious issue within this scenario, Kimmel simply insinuated the normality, and in fact commonality of Bay’s requests with that of all men, completely dismissing Fox’s discomfort, which was ultimately met with agreement and laughter by the audience.

Fox’s eventual disappearance from the spotlight altogether certainly makes her continual discussion of experiences with assault during her career all the more alarming. Because if the repercussions we consistently see from women speaking out about harassment is silencing, than we can only hope that more and more people will pay women the courtesy of listening, rather than blame, and further harassment.

Sure, it’s ultimately really sad that we live in a culture in which westernised standards of beauty and hypersexuality are a cultural currency that are still being prioritised. But considering that women, on an individual level, cannot alter this reality in their day to day life, we should not be punishing women for playing their cards in a way that may gain them more success, or more opportuntity. In the same vein as women who choose to publish explicit content on OnlyFans as a source of income, or who send naked photos to their partners privately, or women who choose to have intercourse with lots of different people, the resounding message is that a women’s right to choose these avenues does not eliminate her from being a feminist, and does not warrant a lack of protection that comes with the feminist movement.

In 2020, pretty privilege is being utilised as a tool for progression and opportunity. But the public’s response to this level of self autonomy feels a little like a knee jerk reaction to a woman profiting off her own oppression, completely negating the purpose of the patriarchy. So I take my hat off to Emily Ratajkowski, Megan Fox, and any other woman in the public eye we have let down, or left behind. Because our pigeon holed perception of another woman’s self expression should never leave her out of the discussion, or protection, regarding women’s health, and fundamental human rights.

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Marli Grosskopf is a twenty-something freelance writer from Melbourne. You can follow her at @marligrosskopf and read more of her work here.

Image from @thesweetfeminist on Instagram.

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