Free the Nipple is not a documentary. It’s a fictional story based on real events about a group of women in New York City who advocate for the equal rights to be topless in public and help break the ridiculous taboo laws involving the sight of a nipple. It’s important to point that out, since I came into the movie expecting a documentary, and when I found a fictional story and well-known actors playing certain supporting characters, it threw me off unexpectedly.
Whenever I talked about this in the past couple of days to people that know about the movie but haven’t watched it, their reaction has been similar: “Oh, it’s not a documentary?” And their tone is usually a disappointed one, just like mine was, because we all fear the same: what may be a poignant criticism of double-standards and censorship, can very easily take itself too seriously and become a bit cheesy.
As a big supporter of egalitarianism, freedom of speech and, well… boobs in general, really, I fully encourage the #FreeTheNipple initiative. It’s still illegal for a woman to be topless in 37 states of the US. Dudes can be shirtless anywhere without it being a big deal; from a ripped Abercrombie and Fitch model/employee to a sweaty fat slob publicly drying his man-boobs on the subway, there are no legal repercussions to them baring their torsos, while a breast-feeding woman could face up to three years in jail in some states.
Lina Esco, an actress and activist who also starred in the movie and co-wrote it, has her directorial debut on Free the Nipple, a cause she’s clearly very involved with. It’s tough to judge this as a movie, because it’s more than just a movie; it’s a movement. I look at the film as just a part of a bigger element, and it should probably be evaluated with that in mind.
Esco plays a journalist named With — I know, it got a little confusing at first — who witnesses a cleverly staged streak of a group of girls who were protesting the confusing laws regarding toplessness. It’s been legal in New York since 1992, but a lot of cops seem to be clueless about this and the arrests keep happening. The ladies’ fearless leader, an activist named Liv (Lola Kirke) made a big impression on With, who’s pretty driven about writing a piece on these girls’ cause and give it exposure.
Sadly, things don’t work out as planned and With is fired. What this represents in the long run, though, is a lot more time to dedicate to the #FreeTheNipple campaign. With goes from documenting the project to becoming one of its leaders, both in ideological and financial terms. They manage to put together a team of like-minded activists and set to turn some heads by any means. They hire filmmakers and make viral videos; they recruit street artists and tag the whole city; they seek help from With’s mentor, a journalist with significant contacts; they get a ruthless lawyer to back them up; and they organize mass demonstrations that manage to spread the word effectively.
And while all of that is to be expected, the main problem I have with With is that even though she’s our main character, we don’t really know anything about her, and it would help the movie so much if we could dig deeper into this oddly named woman.
The story obviously cares about its characters. There’s a group mindset in which they look after each other and try to show their relationships with each other, but this never really gets explored. I find the film so focused on telling us the movement’s bullet points that it forgets who these girls truly are, or the personal struggle that brought them there. There was a lot more telling than showing — and please don’t take that as a pun.
You see, the problem with this being a work of fiction and related to us in classic movie format is that it will get evaluated on its story arc and its characters’ relationships more than its message; and those are the weaker parts of Free the Nipple. It can be easily looked at as an idealistic plan that lacked substance.
The constant exposition in the dialogue would be perfectly valid — not to mention infinitely more powerful — in documentary form, where it would be a simple retelling of facts and opinions, but it’s hard to sell that approach with this story and not getting a bit cheesy on the way.
It’s hard to tell if the movie mocks itself or not. At times it feels like Esco is perhaps making a subtle criticism of themselves and the self-righteousness that a lot of similar campaigns can be guilty of — there’s a point in the movie where one of the activists says, “I feel like we’re in a fucking communist country right now,” in front of an Eastern European woman (played by Janeane Garofalo, by the way) who politely disagrees with the bratty statement. I sort of hope it does poke fun at this, because it would say a lot more about the movement’s self-awareness to own up to revolutionary clichés and taking the good with the bad. Taking itself too seriously is the last thing a campaign like #FreeTheNipple needs. Also, I kind of want them to call themselves out on any righteous behavior, simply because it would make everything so much cooler, and I have a ridiculous crush on Lina Esco that it’s hard to hide — and choose not to, for transparency’s sake.
The scene where With runs topless around Times Square is fucking gorgeous. It’s one of those moments that feels particularly real, because it was real. There’s little acting involved in running around topless in such a public place; even if there are cameras and you’re aware that’s a created situation for a character, it’s tough to escape the fact that being half-naked in Times Square is a still a fucking big deal. Film crew or not, that’s still the middle of everything with thousands of strangers looking. You get the feeling that you’re not just seeing With, but Lina Esco’s own liberating experience, and one of the true crossover moments between fiction and reality.
“When my character runs topless through Times Square, it’s really me confronting my own deepest social fears, in an act of self-confrontation which I believed to be essential, both for my personal evolution, and by way of understanding viscerally, the taboo-tyrannized dynamic I was trying to change.” Esco wrote in a Huffington Post piece, “And what better place to raise a flag for personal liberty than Times Square, the crossroads of the world? Like the coming together of different tribes during the making of Free The Nipple, it was a personal victory I’ll never forget.”
It does not hurt that Esco’s boobs are some of the most perfect I’ve ever seen. I don’t like that that’s a factor, but I’ve got to be honest with you. If you needed to choose a good candidate for the movement’s poster-boobs, there’s hardly a better choice.
But I believe that’s a delicate situation, too, because sexualizing the nipple has been one of the topics people seem to discuss the most. It’s hard to say it’s not being sexualized, because the fact that they are clearly sexualized by most people is what’s gotten the attention of those who may not be driven by the equality approach, and there’s no shame in that. When you’re trying to call attention to something for social change, you use all the resources available, and sex and nudity are proven ways to be noticed.
However, there is no real sexual context on Free the Nipple. All the nudity — and there are plenty of breasts on display — you’ll see is justified within its challenges to censorship and the casual nature that having a topless girl around you should have. Having said that, I don’t think the goal of the film is to remove the sexual aspect off it. The aesthetics of the movement and the female empowerment it looks to motivate are firmly grasped on the fact that having half naked girls in public will get attention. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s hard to review a movie like this, because you can tell it comes from a right place. The intentions were good, and several things about the film are pretty memorable, but it’s hard to argue with the fact the #FreeTheNipple movement would have been much better served with a documentary.
I will say this about Free the Nipple: if not for its artistic merits, the movie is a success in terms of advocacy. The film is just a part of a greater good. Their goal was to call attention to a cause they felt passionate about and start a conversation. And that’s certainly been accomplished.