Emily Ratajkowski has kind of shocked the world with her radical personal and professional evolution over the last decade. In 2013, she rose to fame as the mostly naked model in the controversial “Blurred Lines” video. By 2023, she’s established herself as a feminist author and thinker, and has announced she quit acting because Hollywood is a sexist, “f-ed up” place that treated her like a “piece of meat.” Emily reminds us that only we should get to define ourselves, and that there’s power in examining the countless assumptions we take for granted about our bodies and how we exist in the world.
Emily Ratajkowski has kind of shocked the world with her radical personal and professional evolution over the last decade. In 2013, she rose to fame as the mostly naked model in the controversial “Blurred Lines” video, and defended the creepy Robin Thicke creation as being “playful” and “celebrating women’s bodies.” By 2023, she’s established herself as a feminist author and thinker, and has announced she quit acting because Hollywood is a sexist, “f-ed up” place that treated her like a “piece of meat.” So how did she get here, and what happened to so drastically change her mind?
In her personal life during those years, Emily got married, had a child, and went through a divorce.
Meanwhile, her professional evolution arguably began with the publication of her essay Buying Myself Back: When Does A Model Own Her Image? In The Cut, which unpacked how little power she’s had over pictures of herself even when she never consented to them. She followed up with a full essay collection on feminism and power entitled My Body – playing on how so many of us did first get introduced to her as the woman with the perfect body, but probably didn’t think much about who she was beyond that. Some criticized the work, suggesting she might be capitalizing on a cultural moment prioritizing feminist essays. But that opportunity is mostly gone now as the MeToo backlash rages in full swing, and famous women pay a major price if they’re too outspoken about feminist issues. EmRata, on the other hand, is becoming more vocal than ever, putting out a podcast and speaking out about sexism in her career – so clearly her beliefs and frustrations are fierce enough that she’s motivated to spread this message about exploitation despite the climate. Here’s our take on Emily Ratajkowski, how she evolved from being just the Blurred Lines girl into an inspirational icon, reminding us that only we should get to define ourselves, and that there’s power in examining the countless assumptions we take for granted about our bodies and how we exist in the world.
In an interview with the LA Times, Emily Ratajkowski said “I feel like I’m coming into myself…my life as a creator and not as a muse.” But…what’s so bad about being a muse?
The muse is a revered and magical figure. The nine muses of Greek mythology were Goddesses. But in reality for humans, being a muse can be a somewhat thankless job. Elizabeth Siddal was a famous muse of the Pre-Raphaelite era, most famously posing for Millais’ Ophelia, but her own history as a painter has been largely forgotten. Almost Famous is the story of how rock and roll muse Pennie Lane (who’s inspired by real rock muses) is ultimately used by the musicians who get all the credit, and discarded. As author Katie McCabe says “The idea of ‘invoking the muse’ suggests a spirit, not a person,” and it’s this de-personalization that Emily seems to want to push back against.
Blurred Lines launched Emily from an unknown into a global celebrity; at the same time, the video’s popularity hinges on her presence. Many have voiced that it’s that presence (and her body) that really made the song the hit it became – and in fact it turned her into a bigger star than the singer Robin Thicke. Yet there’s limited agency in how she got to define herself on this public stage. She was introduced to us as an object to be looked at, fully naked and dancing around to now infamously suggestive lyrics. There’s something eerily off-putting and disempowering about Blurred Lines’ images of fully clothed men next to nearly naked women. And Ratajkowski admitted in 2015 that she actually wasn’t into the idea in the first place.
As she moved into acting, people saw her as lucky to immediately get into big properties as a model with no acting experience, but her roles played almost solely on her beauty. In Entourage, her role is to make Vinny Chase look good, or she’s treated as property to be fought over by competitive men. In Gone Girl, she’s the mistress who doesn’t have a lot to do besides fawn over Ben Affleck. In I Feel Pretty, she tries to play against that typecasting, with the film giving her more depth and talking about her own insecurities, but the film is still getting a lot of mileage out of the fact that it’s her. So after she auditioned unsuccessfully for Triangle of Sadness – which cast the similar-looking, late Charlbi Dean Kriek as an influencer – Emarata said she gave up on acting, saying: “I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, I’m an artist performing and this is my outlet.’ I felt like a piece of meat who people were judging, saying, ‘Does she have anything else other than her [breasts]?’”.
As a muse, you are the spark that allows others to flourish. But what’s clear from reading interviews with Emily is that this was never her decision. Whenever she brings up the fact that she collects art, or studied fine art at UCLA, it’s met with some surprise. In an interview with Vogue Italia, she talks about this side of herself, and the response comes: “We thought we knew everything about the super-Googled model,” implicitly reducing her to that even as she tries to tell them she’s got more to offer. It’s a testament to how much she does have to offer that she’s been able to dismantle these kinds of questions and be taken seriously, even if it has taken a long time.
So, who is Emily Ratajkowski, the creator? With My Body, it wasn’t simply that she was showing us that she was a critical thinker, and plugged into the contemporary feminist discourse. She was also showing us who she was, and getting us to think critically about the way she’s been treated throughout her career. Speaking about her inclusion in Richard Prince’s “Instagram Paintings” series, she writes: “it felt strange that a big-time, fancy artist worth a lot more money than I am should be able to snatch one of my Instagram posts and sell it as his own.” (That’s not even getting into the more extreme violations she’s experienced like being groped by Robin Thicke on set or having entire books of nude photos published without her consent.)
But criticism of the book pointed out that while Emily engages with these contemporary discourses, the essays don’t really do much beyond that. The New Statesman’s Sarah Manavis wrote: “the book functions as an (admittedly thoughtful) brand exercise that attempts to do little beyond garnering sympathy for Ratajkowski herself.” Perhaps that is the most interesting question here: why did women in the 2010s feel they had to cheerfully prop up and support this whole culture that was exploiting and demeaning them; how did Emily herself get free of that, and is this truly less of a pressure on young women now?
There’s the obvious tension in the fact that Emily’s success now wouldn’t exist if her exposed body hadn’t made her so famous – and she acknowledges in her writings that she was told early on by photographers and industry people that her body was what made her stand out from her peers – one reason she seemed to be encouraged to do nude work. Around the time of My Body’s release, culture was going through a moment where honest, personal, feminist essay collections were gaining a lot of traction. So it felt a little to some like Emily was simply capitalizing on that, knowing that because of her fame and notoriety, and people’s preconceptions of her, any essay collection would confound those preconceptions to some extent.
But were people giving her enough credit? My Body was, after all, a debut collection which even its detractors admitted was a thoughtful exploration of her personal experience. Instead of seeing it as the culmination of who she was, perhaps now we should look at it as the kernel of the creator she was emerging into. With her podcast High Low, she has thrown the lens off herself and onto that wider culture, interviewing everyone from celebrities to sex workers to polyamorous couples. If My Body was self-reflective, here she’s driven more by curiosity, maybe trying to address some of the limitations people saw in that collection. And it’s clear that this is a serious venture for her, rather than a brand exercise. It’s 96 episodes across a year, with Emily at the center of every one. Her interview style is relaxed and informal, but in doing so she holds the space for her guests to be comfortable; to share intimate, sometimes vulnerable moments from their life. So as EmRata leans more into this creator identity, we see how that identity is firming up. As it does, our preconceptions get left behind, which maybe allows us to enjoy and appreciate what she’s making on its own terms.
Taking Back the Power
Emily’s personal journey has been an exercise in reclaiming power and agency that was denied to her upon her initial rise to fame. And part of that manifests in her dating life. EmRata has been candid about her approach to relationships in the wake of her divorce from Sebastian Bear-McClard, and admitted that her history of serial monogamy was in part a defense mechanism, influenced by traumatic experiences she had as a child.
While she hasn’t spoken specifically about her divorce, since their separation multiple women have accused McClard of sexual misconduct, with one incident related to a controversial scene in the Safdie Brothers movie Good Time. But even before these allegations, Emily alludes to McClard being aligned to this predatory masculinity. Writing in My Body, she says: “I thought about the way that [Bear-McClard] had glided through the room, a room full of men who only two years before had been kissing Harvey Weinstein’s ring and encouraging their young female clients to take meetings with him in hotel rooms. I hated that my husband was at all connected to these men.”
Now, she seems to be embracing her status as a single woman. She’s been romantically linked with Brad Pitt, Pete Davidson, Eric Andre, and Harry Styles. And perhaps more importantly, none of these entanglements ever feel that serious, they just feel like fun, and indicative of a woman who is enjoying her freedom for maybe the first time in her life. By her own admission, she used to be defined by fear, and feeling that she had to express her beauty and her body a certain way because of what was expected of women. Now, it feels like she’s let a lot of that go, which is a powerful model for other women.
It’s been nearly a decade since Emily Ratajkowski became one of the most recognisable bodies in the world. But because her body was so recognisable, did that mean we didn’t really pay attention to who she was, even though she was telling us? Are we still guilty of being blinded by beauty to the extent that we don’t ever see the person? The only way EmRata has begun to turn to the tide is through sheer persistence, chipping away at our perceptions until we’re forced to listen to what she’s saying, and see who she is. In holding up that mirror to her, perhaps we’re also holding up that mirror to ourselves.
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Kaufman, Amy. “Column: No, Emily Ratajkowski won’t just shut up and look pretty.” LA Times, 6 Apr. 2023
Williams, Bethany. “The 9 Muses: Inspiring Art Since the Age of Heroes Began.” The Collector, 23 Dec. 2021 https://www.thecollector.com/the-9-muses-greek-mythology
“TOP 20 FAMOUS MUSES WHO INSPIRED ICONIC ARTISTS.” Artland, 8 Nov. 2017
Bergeson, Samantha. “Emily Ratajkowski Quit Acting, Fired Her Team Who ‘All Hate Women’: ‘Hollywood Is f***Ed up’.” IndieWire, IndieWire, 6 Apr. 2023, https://www.indiewire.com/2023/04/emily-ratajkowski-quit-acting-due-to-sexism-1234826325/.
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Tizzi, Margherita. “Interview with Emily Ratajkowski.” Vogue Italia, 6 Aug. 2018 https://www.vogue.it/en/news/vogue-arts/2018/08/06/interview-with-emily-ratajkowski-vogue-italia-august-2018/?refresh_ce=
Manavis, Sarah. “In My Body, Emily Ratajkowski asks difficult questions about beauty and capitalism. Does she have any answers?” New Statesman, 9 Nov. 2021 https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2021/11/in-my-body-emily-ratajkowski-asks-difficult-questions-about-beauty-and-capitalism-does-she-have-any-answers
Nahman, Haley. “#24: The Emily Ratajkowski effect.” Maybe Baby, 20 Sep. 2020 https://haleynahman.substack.com/p/24-the-cult-of-emily-ratajkowski
Siegel, Tatiana. “Sebastian Bear-McClard, Emily Ratajkowski’s Estranged Husband and ‘Uncut Gems’ Producer, Accused of Sexual Misconduct by Multiple Women.” Variety, 29 Mar. 2023 https://variety.com/2023/film/news/sebastian-bear-mcclard-sexual-misconduct-emily-ratajkowski-estranged-husband-uncut-gems-1235567864