Earlier this year, Scout Willis, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, made headlines for walking around New York City topless. Later, it emerged that the PR stunt was an effort to promote #freethenipple, an Instagram campaign to allow topless photos on social media. After Instagram banned her topless photos, Willis tweeted them with the captions, “Legal in NYC but not on @instagram” and “What @Instagram won’t let you see.” (Topless female nudity has been legally permitted in New York City since 1992, but that hasn’t stopped the NYPD from arresting women who’ve bared their breasts in public.)
Although sites like Facebook have relaxed their restrictions on nudity somewhat, overturning a ban on breastfeeding photos earlier this year, the nipple hasn’t quite been set free from its social media prison. Filmmaker Lina Esco hopes that’ll change, however, with the release of Free the Nipple, her feature film debut about the #freethenipple campaign. Starring Lola Kirke (Gone Girl), the sister of Girls’ Jemima Kirke, Free the Nipple tells the story of a group of masked revolutionaries who set out on the streets of New York City topless in the name of gender equality.
Since the trailer premiered last week, Free the Nipple has attracted equal parts praise and criticism, with some lauding its revolutionary message and others questioning whether the right to go topless should be the top priority in the general fight for gender equality. But regardless of whether you think Free the Nipple is inspiring or inane, the campaign itself has been gaining ground since Miley Cyrus first tweeted the hashtag in 2013, with celebrities like Rihanna, Lena Dunham, and Willis joining the fray.
The Daily Dot caught up with Esco to talk mammary glands, gender equality, and whether the founding mothers of feminism would’ve been on board with #freethenipple.
So how did you first become interested in doing this movie, and in the #freethenipple campaign?
I was inspired by my best friend, who’s my muse. She’s the freest person I know. If you’re at her house, she’s walking around her house naked, and it’s not for attention, she’s just so free and liberated and wants to devote her life to being free. When she was five months old, her mom got kicked out of the Catholic Church for breastfeeding in public, and I grew up Catholic, too. I’ve always been very conservative in the sense of my body. But being around her was so contagious. I wanted to be free as she was. I didn’t understand why I was so repressed. So I started shooting videos of her, and I started researching the history of female equality, back to Susan B. Anthony. Because of her, women were allowed to vote in 1920. And in 2010, I was doing a movie called LOL and I told the director I was thinking about making this movie about girls running around New York City standing up for equality and running around topless. And she loved the idea, so I sat down and fleshed out the script, and by 2012 I was shooting the film in New York City.
Was it always a work of fiction? Did you ever conceive of it as a documentary?
No, not really. When Occupy Wall Street was happening, I sent a few of my friends over and we started testing the grounds. I said, “I want you to be topless and I wanna see the reactions of people.” So I thought about doing a small documentary about that, but I always knew I wanted to do a narrative feature film. So I went to Zucotti Park and shot a few of my friends topless, and within 10 minutes we had dozens of people hounding us. It was like the Beatles. It was crazy what boobs can do to people, in the midst of an economic revolution. All these people came over and they were taking pictures, but the cameras kept falling to the floor because their hands were shaking. And I knew I had to make a movie about this. It proved the point to me.
What is the exact legal status of women going topless in public? My understanding is that it’s legal in a few states, so it’s more of a societal stigma than a legal issue.
No, not really. Even though it’s been legal to be topless in New York City since 1992, I got arrested. A few of my friends got arrested. It doesn’t matter if you tell cops it’s legal; they’re still arresting women. Phoenix Feeley was arrested for going topless on a New Jersey beach. She was in jail for nine days, and went on hunger strike. It’s ridiculous the way they’re treating us. You can get up to three years in prison for Louisiana for going topless.
If you end up watching my film, you’ll see that the first half is censored and the second half isn’t. That was in part an artistic choice, but I also had to do it because I couldn’t shoot topless women in New York. We got permits by the city to shoot in the street, but the second I said “action,” a cop came over and said, “You need to tell your girls to cover up, or I’m shutting your production.” I said, “What are you talking about? It’s been legal to be topless since 1992.” And he said, “Not when you’re shooting, because when you’re shooting, it’s porn.” If I was shooting topless men, no one would be saying anything.
To that point, you said in an interview that you see this as a movie about equality. Given how many other obstacles women face in terms of gender equality, how do you see female toplessness as a step toward that goal?
I mean, people have been saying, “There are bigger issues for women’s rights than going topless for equality.” Well, you know what? If you’re talking about equality, women have been oppressed for centuries. It’s like Rosa Parks said: I wanna sit in the front of the bus with these people. I want the same rights as these people.
So you see the right to female toplessness as more symbolic of the general issue of female oppression.
Were there any other obstacles you guys encountered while shooting?
Oh, my God, like a million. We shot through [Hurricane] Sandy. And what happened was when I didn’t have the permits to shoot from the city because I was shooting topless women, all the shots of topless women in Times Square and at the art installation were lost. So I said, “Fuck this shit. I’m not gonna make a movie called Free the Nipple and not have any topless shots. That’s the whole point.” My entire team was freaked out. They said, “We don’t wanna lose our jobs.” I said, “Do what you want. I’m gonna go with my DP and shoot.” A lot of people bailed on me. They said, “This is crazy. You’re gonna get us all arrested.” But I had to do it. So we went back to Times Square and reshot it, it was literally a one-shot, one-take kind of thing. That was the only way I was able to shoot all the topless women. Some of them, you can see the cops at the end pulling up in their cars.
Was there anyone who came up to you and said they supported what you guys were doing?
Not really. They’re not supportive, because they don’t understand. This June, I went topless with my friends for the Daily Mail, and people were telling us to cover up. This mother came with her three kids and said, “How dare you walk around like that. It’s so shameful. Look at my kids.” I looked at her kids and one of them was this two-year-old boy. I said, “You were breastfeeding your kid a year and a half ago. What does it matter?” The nipple is the first thing you see when you’re born. It nourishes us. At what point does it become obscene?
Well, it’s not viewed that way by most people. It’s seen as something that’s inherently sexualized.
That’s the whole point. America needs to get tired of the nipple. We need a huge blast of boobies everywhere. There’s a business behind sexualizing boobs, behind sexualizing women… I don’t expect men to not find boobs sexy and attractive, because they’re beautiful. Who cares? But women should be able to choose how they want to show them.
In our trailer, we say, they’re taking our sexuality from us and they’re selling it back to us in increments through advertisers. You can sexualize the boobs as much as you want, you can objectify as much as you want, but the minute a woman shows it and shows her areola, you’re committing the biggest crime of the century. Porn stars show their aereolae on Instagram, and it’s OK. But the women surviving breast cancer with mastectomies, that’s obscene.
It’s changing, though. Facebook, for instance, changed their restrictions on nudity, to allow photos of breastfeeding. Do you feel like #freethenipple is making a difference? Is the nipple is in the process of being freed?
I think we’re moving there. It’ll be a while before anything happens. I don’t know. This conversation keeps getting bigger every time this subject comes up, whether it’s with Chelsea Handler or Rihanna or Cara DeLevigne and now the trailer. There’s something there. It seems like America is open to having that dialogue. Whether it’s open to changing things, though, I don’t know. But I’m an optimist.
Most of the women you’ve mentioned with respect to #freethenipple are white, conventionally attractive women, and Lola Kirke [the star of Free the Nipple] obviously falls into that category as well. How would you respond to the critique that this movement only applies to women who men ostensibly would want to see topless?
Well, if you see my film, you’ll see all kinds of women topless. Unfortunately, the main characters, like Lola—as you know, casting films in Hollywood, you have to have a certain type. I saw so many girls of all sizes, all races, and Lola was the only girl who got the character, who’s a free-spirited, revolutionary type of person, who’s actually based on my best friend who I was telling you about earlier. It wasn’t about the way she looks. She just had that energy I was looking for. But in my film, you’ll see all kinds of women topless. In fact, one of the girls at the end—her name is Michelle, she’s a knockout, and she kicked cancer in the ass. When she was shooting the film, she told me she had breast cancer and she’d probably have to get a double mastectomy. When she came back to the reshoot, she only had one boob. It was pretty profound. When you see the film, you’ll see the diversity 100 percent. I think all women are beautiful, all sizes are beautiful, all boobs are beautiful.
How do you feel about the fact that the nipple is blurred in the trailer? A number of YouTube commenters have pointed out that’s somewhat ironic.
Well, this is the thing. Our teaser is uncensored, but it got deleted so many times on YouTube. If we didn’t censor those scenes, we wouldn’t be playing on YouTube or Facebook or anywhere. We had to have a censored trailer because it wouldn’t have been played by anyone. My own Facebook account got deleted because I posted my own uncensored teaser. It was a big problem. A lot of people were like, “What is this censored trailer?” But I was like, “The movie is uncensored. We gotta play by the rules sometimes.” It’s just the way it is.
What’s your ultimate goal for this movie, and for #freethenipple in general?
I think the pivotal moment would be that the film would continue the conversation that’s been going on for the past year and a half, and the ultimate thing would be a law created under the federal government that women and men are equal. Women get paid 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. There wasn’t a law preventing men from beating women till 1968. I always go back to the early 1900s because thousands of men were arrested for going topless because they didn’t want to wear a one-piece suit. It wasn’t till 1936 when men at Coney Island fought the law, and changed the law. Men now enjoy that right, because they believed the law was unfair. It doesn’t mean we’re seeing all the men out there going topless because they have the right, and it’s the same thing with women. We’re asking to have the same rights. The nipple is a Trojan Horse for dealing with real issues of oppression and inequality around the globe. You can sell guns on Instagram, you can show beheadings on Facebook, but you can’t show a nipple. It’s a bigger issue here. It’s about censorship of women’s bodies.
You mentioned Susan B. Anthony earlier. Do you think she’d be a fan of #freethenipple?
Oh, yeah. I think she’d be all for it.
Free the Nipple comes out in limited release and VOD Dec. 12.
Screengrab via IFC Films/YouTube