One of the biggest delusions about Feminism is the negative connotation connected to it. For years women have had to push for equality in both their personal and academic lives, yet even after 50 years since the inception of Woman’s Suffrage, Feminism is still considered angry. Why are we so quick to call something extreme if it pushes our buttons a bit?

Just how women fear siding with Feminism, comes the same anxiety critics are placing on movement and movie, Free The Nipple. Although the word ‘nipple’ is in fact in the title of the film, nipple is all you’re going to get. Even without love scenes, people are calling the film NC17 and basically porn. How is it that in 2015 a movie about equal-rights and tits has become this wide unveiling of how deeply puritanical we are as a society? The coin flips both ways: sadly Free the Nipple has magnified just how rigid we are as a community, thankfully, we had Free the Nipple to do so.

Sitting down with nipple activist and founder/director of the Free the Nipple film and campaign Lina Esco, we were able to collectively break down some of today’s biggest absurdities, whether they are acted out in her film, or played out in front of us.

Photos: Marouan Jamai and IFC

So the chicken or the egg: What came first, the movie or the movement?
I started the movement because I needed to sell the movie. I was showing it to distributors and they didn’t know what to do with it. “We really like your film, but it’s such a unique piece, we don’t know how to market it. We don’t even know if there’s an audience for it.” And I was just like, all right fuck this shit, I’m going to market the film myself. So last December [2013], I started writing a column for the Huffington Post explaining my goals, and then I reached out to Miley [Cyrus] who is a friend of mine, and I said, “Listen, your ideology is very inline with us—empowering and owning your body, any shape or form, and I think it’d be awesome to work together.”

The film’s promotion was all word of mouth, it’s not like you saw posters of the film everywhere. So a lot of people think it’s just a movement, not really a movie. But the movie came before anything else.

So this is a similar story to your character in the movie—your character wrote a piece about freeing the nipple and no one would publish it.
Yup, life imitating art, art imitating life.

It’s pretty amazing. It really hits the nail on the head.
Well Miley started Tweeting about it, and all of a sudden our little movie, out little movement, was being talked about on every outlet, and it kinda started the conversation. The whole point of starting the movement was really to talk about equality, not about going topless. It’s about equality; this is what we had to do to pave the way for the real dialogue to begin. And so after that, we just continued to campaign and reach out to influencers, public influencers that I knew. Like Lena Dunham, Scout Willis, and Liv Tyer—all of these people started coming on board and wearing our shirts!

Then by the end of July 2014, distribution companies started calling me, “this is everywhere.” Ultimately, I went with IFC and collectively we decided to have a limited theatrical release in New York and LA. Then iTunes, then Netflix.

How did you come up with the name “Free the Nipple?”
I came up with the name Free the Nipple because it’s funny and engaging. And it’s not about pushing our truth onto anybody—it’s really about starting a conversation—and when I came up with it four or five years ago, people were laughing, “You’re gonna make a move called Free the Nipple?!”

So how did you get the ball rolling?
In 2010, I was on the set of LOL, and I talked to the director of the movie, Lisa, and told her I have this idea about making a movie with these girls challenging the censorship laws by going topless for equality. And she was like whenever you’re done with the script, I’m going to finance it. And by 2012 when the script was done and written by writer Hunter Richards, she had raised a million bucks.

So then you started shooting in New York?
We shot the film in New York City because it’s been legal to be topless there since 1992. But that didn’t mean anything. We collected the necessary permits, and had a cop on site, but during the opening Wall Street scene, literally when I said “Action!” the cop comes over to me and tells me if the girls are not covered up—at least with pasties and strips from front to back—that he was going to shut down our production. When I told him it was legal to be topless in NY, he explained not when you’re shooting a movie because it could look like porn to a passerby.

Photos: Marouan Jamai and IFC Ch 59 Free the Nipple

Marouan Jamai

Is that why half of the movie has nudity and the other half is blurred out?
It was not an artistic choice, but it ended up working visually, poetically, what it feels like to be visually censored from the most normal thing ever. So it worked. But NPA considered the film to be NC-17 even though there is not one sexual act in the movie. Thank god IFC said they were going to release the film unrated.

What is the biggest misconception about tits?
The biggest misconception is that topless does not equal to nudity. There are so many laws against women’s bodies, but not men’s. We’re talking about the areola here; it’s the same thing. And actually it has more benefits than the male areola cause we actually feed and nourish our child with it. It’s the first thing a baby sees when it’s born, it’s what it connects with, that dependable connection. At what point did it become so obscene?

How much do you think social media played a role in your film?
Everything. It’s the only thing; it was our own P&A. You have direct contact to the source, to the demographic, and we’ve gotten all kinds of reactions and feedback— from negative to positive to neutral to death threats from Christian groups against me.

All because you wanted to show some girls topless.
There is so much business in the sexualization and objectification of women in this country. Like we say in the movie, the media has taken our sexuality away from us and now they’re selling it back in increments through advertisements.

I guess there is a difference between shooting a movie written by a man or woman, because if it’s nudity written through a male perspective, there is a sexual undertone. But if it’s written by a woman, it’s not sexy or provocative. Which seems pretty unfair.
That’s why I made sure the EP and the cinematographer were women. There’s a difference between a man’s eyes and a woman’s eyes when you have a naked woman’s body in front of you. A man is going to be shooting what he finds attractive to him, and a woman’s going to shoot something completely different. You’re not going to change men from seeing a boob as sexual. Which is fine, but at some point they’re going to get sick of it.

I did an interview for Entertainment Tonight, where the guy said to me, well if you’re boobs are out, I can’t stop looking at them as sexual things. I said, what if we’re having dinner and I’m topless for five hours, at some point you’re going to get tired of looking at my tits. And maybe that’s what America needs.

Talk to me about Facebook and their recent decision to allow nipples on their site.
We did a campaign in the summer of 2014, called Everyone’s Gotta Eat. It was a PSA we put out showing everyone eating normally and then a mother breastfeeding—everyone’s gotta eat. Because of that campaign, Facebook reversed their policies and now allow women to breastfeed openly on their site. But still, there is change happening but not at the rate we’d like it to be.

What are some of the benefits that have popped out of the movement that you didn’t foresee happening?
One of the biggest highlights out of Free the Nipple was when George R.R. Martin, the creator of Game of Thrones, was playing my movie in his theatre in Santa Fe. I read his blog and it turns out he was moved by the film, and was showing it in his theater. So I decided to reach out to him, and once we got in touch, we spent four hours together talking. We discussed how no one cares about the violence in his show, but how people don’t stop talking about the sex and nudity.

You’ve mentioned growing up in a sort of bubble, where you never dealt with much sexism in your life, and that men have been kind to you. When did you start noticing that inequality with genders was still a very prevalent thing?
When I started paying attention to the news, to politics, to equal pay, to abortion and birth control rights. It came from reading more and learning more. And that’s exactly what’s going on with the majority of women in America. They’re uninformed. Up until a year ago, I think a lot of these celebrities were going to these interviews and they’d ask are you a feminist? And they’d say no! They weren’t educated. A lot of us are educated now. Feminism just means you believe men and women should have equal pay and equal rights. If you believe that, then you’re a feminist.