The interventions of films such as Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames and Bruce LaBruce’s The Raspberry Reich weren’t just political, but cinematic. These films were original, audacious, and sexy from concept to celluloid. Their anger was real, and so was their wit. By comparison, Lina Esco’s Free the Nipple, a fictionalized attempt at shedding light on the real-life topless women’s movement of the film’s title, is completely lifeless.
Two women decide to start a revolution by enlisting other women to pull public nudity stunts throughout New York City, where female toplessness is technically legal, despite NYPD’s history of arrests. This involves things like playing heads or tails to see who will run down the street naked while the other one films it with their iPhone and tags light posts with pink graffiti. The revolution is apparently not just easy, but within the realm of instant gratification. In little to no time, the duo has hired lawyers, acquired a vast work space, received ample funding by smiling sweetly to their rich friends, and paraded around Times Square in slow motion with their breasts out (which the film pixilates) while wearing ISIS-style masks.
Free the Nipple is the kind of didactic topical movie that distributes its rhetoric evenly between characters with clear distinction as to who’s playing devil’s advocate to the other one’s points. For instance, when the line, “How do we change these censorship laws in America?” is followed by, “We are a product of this puritanical culture,” or when someone makes a clueless generalization about Facebook starting the Egyptian revolution, just so someone else can immediately cast doubt on the statement. For a film with feminist intentions, it’s also rather strange that a revolution leader would convince one of her male friends to join the struggle by telling him that “lots of women” are involved, or that an activist would say, “And if you hate freedom, move to China.”
At times it seems as if Esco is satirizing the faux-punk-rock ethos of her characters. Or, at least, one hopes that she is, as when a frustrated activist says, “I feel like we’re in a fucking communist country right now.” Yet Fresco never pushes the satire far or humorously enough to make clear that the film itself isn’t some actually naïve faux-feminist botch job by a generation whose feminist heroes are Lena Dunham, Lorde, and Taylor Swift (not de Beauvoir, Valerie Solanas, and bell hooks) and who reduces symbolic interventions to fun dares between besties to the beat of hipster music.