The media is quick to mock and dismiss Scout Willis’s topless protest against Instagram and her campaign to “Free The Nipple.” But if more celebrities used their social media, high profiles and boobs the way Scout Willis did, the world would be a better place. Because as Willis herself knows, the issue is bigger than her own nipples. Scout Willis, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, had her Instagram account deleted for “instances of abuse.” The abuse was posting a photo of herself in a sheer top and another photo of a jacket with the image of her two friends bare-breasted.
So, last week, to protest Instagram’s censorship, Willis decided to walk around New York City topless and document it on Twitter.
Of course, and predictably, Willis has been mocked by the mainstream and the right wing media. But she’s also been criticized, of course, and predictably, by people who support challenging the patriarchy. In The Guardian, Jamie Peck writes, “But can this type of protest – one that mainly involves showing off a body the male gaze is likely to enjoy – ever be terribly subversive on this (or any other) front?” In an article called “Scout Willis needs better women’s studies classes,” Anissa Ford criticizes Willis for failing to understand that “the liberation of the female body will not begin until women are financially capable of making incredibly comfortable livings without having to sell their bodies either by profession or in outdated, uncongenial marriages that keep women financially afloat.” OK. So, Willis has not been able to disrupt patriarchy or abolish capitalism. But is she doing anything of value? I would dare to say yes.
First of all, Willis is not oblivious to her privilege. As she explained in XOJane on Monday,
I understand that people don’t want to take me seriously. Or would rather just write me off as an attention-seeking, over-privileged, ignorant, white girl. I am white and I was born to a high profile and financially privileged family.
It is her very privilege, she realizes, that enables her to attract attention to the issue:
I didn’t choose my public life, but it did give me this platform. A platform that helps make body politics newsworthy.
Willis is very clear that she’s not a persecuted minority or victim: “My situation was in no way unique; women are regularly kicked off Instagram for posting photos with any portion of the areola exposed, while photos sans nipple — degrading as they might be — remain unchallenged.” Nor does Willis portray herself as a revolutionary, trailblazing savior: “I am certainly not doing anything novel. A group here in New York called Topless Pulp gathers in parks to read topless regularly, and the Free The Nipple campaign has been protesting for the same rights for the last four years. If my coming from a high-profile family could help spread their message, so be it.”
Willis could have made her fight a parochial one that focused solely on her spat with Instagram. Instead, as her statement and Twitter feed demonstrate, Willis is connecting the dots between nipple policing and larger issues of gender, sexuality, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and body politics:
Why can’t a mother proudly breastfeed her child in public without feeling sexualized? Why is a 17-year-old girl being asked to leave her own prom because a group of fathers find her too provocative? Why should I feel overly exposed because I choose not to wear a bra? Why would it be okay with Instagram and Facebook to allow photos of a cancer survivor who has had a double mastectomy and is without areolas [sic] but “photos with fully exposed breasts, particularly if they’re unaffected by surgery, don’t follow Instagram’s Community Guidelines.”
(Interestingly, this is the inverse of the Facebook problem with breast cancer photos. In the case of Facebook, images of mastectomies were banned as inappropriate. They were hyper-sexualized. In the case of Instagram, the breasts of women who have had cancer and have had their aureolas removed are de-sexualized. Obviously, both trends are problematic and inappropriate. )
Sadly, the facts are on Willis’s side, as institutions continue to police and control the way people dress and present their bodies. Just over the course of the past week, we learned about a Utah high school that photo-shopped the year book photos of certain female students so their necklines would be higher and their sleeves would be longer.
In a page straight out of the “you can’t make this shit up” book, the school did indeed apologize– for not being more aggressive and vigilant in their puritanical digital altering.
And between 20 and 30 female students in Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador province were sent home from school for daring to wear tank tops that revealed their–wait for it–bra straps! Though some male students were also made to leave the school over their lack of sleeves, they were not slut-shamed or reprimanded for inviting lust or sexual attention. One female students said she was told to go home “because of our bra straps, and that it was inappropriate because some of the male teachers, and male students, found it distracting for them.” Another female student recalled being told bare shoulders could “invite unneeded attention” from male students and that “boys will be boys.”
The good news is people are fighting back. Fourteen-year-old Tallie Doyle called out her school’s sexism after she was reprimanded for wearing a spaghetti-strap tank. And after 15-year-old Lindsey Stocker was berated and humiliated by the vice-principals over the length of her shorts, she responded by printing and posting these posters around her school:
We should commend Willis just as much (no more and no less) as we commend these students and everyone who challenges a system which tries to moralize, legislate, criminalize and pathologize people’s bodies. Hollywood is widely and justly characterized as insulated and out of touch with the real world. When stars take up movements or causes, they tend to be on behalf of others with whom they have little in common culturally or geographically. Willis’s awareness of her self, her role, and her connection to the lives of other people and larger struggles is rare, especially for a celebrity.