A group of women in New York are starting a campaign to make it possible to walk around shirtless for women as much as men. Young journalist With (Lina Esco) hears about them and gets in touch. At first, she just wants to write a story, but intrigued by the charismatic Liv (Lola Kirke), the leader of the group, she becomes more engaged with the cause itself.
Free the Nipple builds on an actual campaign that Lina Esco started in New York, but the film gives it the fiction treatment in an attempt to condense it. Unfortunately that condensation just makes it very clear that the film is built on cis feminism which severely weakens the activism that is at its core.
It may seem trivial to campaign for women’s right to go topless in public, but it is an issue that does tie into many core feminist concerns: while men going topless is no problem, women’s bodies are sexualized so much that breasts are seen as inherently sexual. That in turn feeds into the rape culture that would protect women going topless even less if they were assaulted. In fact, going topless would read like an invitation for sexual violence. And underneath it all is not just the question of how we treat male and female bodies but what constitutes a female or male body in the first place: how big or small do your breasts have to be to make them female or male? Is there such a thing as a male or female body at all or isn’t it rather that someone is male/female/non-binary, therefore their body – no matter the parts or the looks – is male/female/non-binary?
These are big questions that have huge implications for how we deal with people, and they are all implicit in the question of who is allowed to go topless where and why. But the problem with the film is that it doesn’t step out of the binary at all. There’s barely a queer perspective featured in the film and there is definitely no trans take – but the question of what makes nipples male or female should be at the center of things. It would have made the film more interesting. In fact, it would have made the film, period. Plus, since we almost only see thin, young women showing their breasts in the film, there seems to be a certain aesthetic concern there that didn’t sit right with me either. Even more unfortunate though is the fact that the film gets stuck on the level of “men and women should have the same rights”, making their argumentation for toplessness shallow and repetitive.
Since that argumentation was at the core of the film, it still does get more depth than the characters though who are one-dimensional on a good day. And in the middle of all these women being activists, we get a cigar-smoking male mentor whose benevolence, money and advice makes their activism possible in the first place which adds another creep factor.
I really hate to shit on this movie as much as I do. At least it’s trying to be feminist and I really love that Esco – a young latina filmmaker – got the chance to make this film at all. I would rather that we were flooded with attempts at feminism than with all the tortured-white-dude movies that we get. But it doesn’t change the fact that Free the Nipple really misses its mark.
Summarizing: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.