Being ‘famously sexy’ works for Paul Rudd. Not so for Emily Ratajkowski

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Paul Rudd (Getty Images)
Paul Rudd (Getty Images)

Paul Rudd is the sexiest man alive. It’s not me saying it (I don’t aggressively disagree or anything; I just need to think a little longer before I reach a conclusion on this serious matter), but the publication of reference in the field: People magazine.

As it has every year since 1985, People has awarded the title of Sexiest Man Alive to a Hollywood heartthrob. Previous years have honored such venerable hotties as Patrick Swayze, Brad Pitt (twice!), and Idris Elba. And Rudd welcomed his addition to the hotness hall of fame with the appropriate balance of bewilderment and banter. (When you’re crowned Sexiest Man Alive, you have to be a little dismissive of the whole thing, otherwise it’s just embarrassing.) “I’m going to lean into it hard,” he told People of his new title. “I’m going to own this. I’m not going to try to be like ‘Oh, I’m so modest.’ I’m getting business cards made. But all of my friends will destroy me and I expect them to. And that’s why they’re my friends.”

As far as I can tell, the acknowledgment of Rudd’s hotness on the world stage has been a comfortable enough experience. One has to imagine that despite being extremely complimentary, being crowned Sexiest Man Alive also has to be a little weird, and he’s navigated this potential weirdness with ease. He has posed for a special photoshoot and given an interview to People. On social media, his famous friends have congratulated him with a fair balance of sincerity and gentle ribbing. So, yes, it’s all very nice. As it should be!

Meanwhile, another celebrity is having a reckoning of a different kind about their personal attractiveness and the public’s reaction to it. Emily Ratajkowski has published a new book of essays titled My Body, in which she reflects on her own appearance and the ways it was commodified throughout her career as a model. She reflects both on what she gained and what she lost during that process. “I have been undeniably rewarded by capitalizing on my sexuality,” she writes. “... But in other, less over ways, I’ve felt objectified and limited by my position in the world as a so-called sex symbol.”

Ratajkowski’s observations go beyond a mere “you guys have no idea how hard it is to be so beautiful”. There is real conflict, real pain in what she describes. Real thoughtfulness, too: “For most of my life, I thought of myself as savvy, a hustler,” she writes. “...All women are objectified and sexualized to some degree, I figured, so I might as well do it on my own terms. I thought that there was power in my ability to choose to do so.” This mindset, she believes now, “missed a much more complicated picture”.

Ratajkowski’s story is that of a woman who figured out how to game the system – if you’re going to be objectified anyway, you might as well make that objectification work for you – while realizing that the system would never let her win. She writes about “[choosing] to do so”, but if you know the machine is coming for you regardless (if you know you’re doing to be “objectified and sexualized to some degree” no matter what), how much of a choice do you really have? Her career is one big double-edged sword: she was, as she writes, not just famous but “famously sexy”. This left her feeling “complicit”, though she would “never fault any woman for trying to operate within the confines of the world we live in”.

It’s clear that for Ratajkowski, the exploitation of her image came at a cost. There is a sense of loss in her writing. She has felt dispossessed of something. Just because you make the system work for you – to a degree – doesn’t mean the system won’t hurt you still.

Both Ratajkowski and Rudd are now “famously sexy”. But there is a sharp contrast in their experiences. Where Rudd has been able to exhibit insouciance and wit, Ratajkowski has shared a much more complicated story. There is a bonhomie to People’s Sexiest Man Alive ranking – one that is hard to apply to the female experience of being “famously sexy”.

People did try to launch a Sexiest Woman Alive counterpart to its Sexiest Man Alive franchise. Tellingly, it was a short-lived affair, existing only for one year. (Kate Upton was the title’s sole recipient in 2014.) Perhaps People realized that it felt a bit gross, this title, when applied to a woman. Because in the great equation in which looks are traded for fame, women have historically not been allowed to win. It’s always been a Faustian kind of deal. Ask Anna Nicole Smith. Ask Marilyn Monroe. Ask Britney Spears. Ask any woman who’s been elevated then inevitably, crushingly maligned.

This is nothing against Paul Rudd or any of the previous honorees. I truly wish nothing but the best for the Sexiest Men Alive. I just want the sexiest women alive to have what they have, too.

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