Free the Nipple — now out online, on VOD, and in some theaters — is a movie about a group of mostly women activists who want to end censorship of the female nipple. It is not supposed to be a perfect movie, the film's director and star, Lina Esco, said. It isn't particularly plot-driven, which is partly the result of permitting problems that forced a rewrite after much of the movie had already been shot; reviewers have noted its plot issues.
Esco has been disappointed by critics who focused on its cinematic merits and not its political aims. She had written earlier in an email that ending censorship of female nipples, or "freeing" them, is part of ending the second-class-citizen status of women, "just another milestone that needs to be accomplished to evolve."
"This is not about trying to put this movie into the Hollywood box," Esco told BuzzFeed News. "I don't expect you to agree with me; just let's have a dialogue." Esco considers herself a "filmmaker, activist, feminist," though the word feminist "still has this stigma."
Both the movement and the movie have their contradictions. #FreeTheNipple claims to seek the desexualization of the female nipple through normalizing its presence ("maybe that's what America needs, is big blasts of boobies," Esco said). Despite the claim that their toplessness is supposed to be nonsexual, Esco and her co-stars are all normatively attractive: They all have boobs we "want" to see. It's acknowledged, to some degree, within the movie: "Looks like you got a good pair under there," Liv (Lola Kirke) tells Esco's character, With. So why, in a movie that seeks to desexualize women's bodies, were most of the bodies so "sexy"? The short answer is patriarchy! The female actors who auditioned were told that they would have to be topless in the movie, and "the women who were most comfortable being topless were women who felt comfortable with the way they looked" — conventionally beautiful women. "It sucked," said Esco.
At the very end of the film, however, there are shots of protesters with the types of bodies that are usually hidden from film: fat women, lopsided breasts, pendulous breasts, wrinkles. "There, you start seeing variety because they're actual, real activists who don't give a fuck about how they look," Esco said.
But is catering to the male gaze an effective activist strategy? "I had to do this topless in order to be heard. Isn't that sad?" Esco said. "Why is it that there are so many laws against women's bodies and barely any laws against men's bodies?"
Thus she defends a woman's right to bare her nipples — it is legal for women to be topless in New York City, and yet a New York police officer stopped a Free the Nipple shoot on Wall Street, she said, and told her the actors needed to wear pasties because it looked like she was filming pornography.
In discussing that encounter, Esco echoed a notion from the film, that women's sexuality is taken away, packaged, and sold back to them: "You can do whatever you want with my boobs," she said. "The moment I want to do whatever I want with them, you're here to condemn me."
There is a scene in the film when Esco's character runs around Times Square topless with Liv filming her. They had no permits to shoot. Esco insisted she had never been topless in public before. "Shit," she said to herself, with a heavy breath.
But "the moment I started running, and I let it sort of take over me, it was so liberating," she said. "You probably think I'm crazy, but it was empowering.
"Before anyone's gonna judge, why don't you just try it?"