The star of the upcoming live-action Beauty and the Beast film Emma Watson has caught a bit of flack for a recent photo shoot she did with the magazine Vanity Fair. Watson has been known for the past few years as an outspoken feminist and her recent photos have been met with cries of hypocrisy from some circles. How could she take photos like these when she once criticized Beyonce for doing the same thing? Doesn’t taking sexualized photos like these undermine her feminist message?
The short answer is no.
I’m quite sure that seeing the underside of Emma Watson’s breasts doesn’t discount her activism in favor of equality between men and women. That’s like saying Samuel L. Jackson can’t speak out against police brutality towards black men and women because he’s played a lot of angry characters who shout things like “motherfucker” a lot. To go even further, I think most if not all of these circles decrying Emma Watson as a hypocrite have no interest in feminism let alone the most effective way of conveying it. They’re more interested in simply getting a “gotcha” over on Watson for speaking out so publicly in favor of an ideology that is still so polarizing, even as it has become more profitable to commodify in recent years.
In part of her response to critics, Watson stressed that “Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat over women with”. As far as it not being a stick to hit other women with, I could agree that it would be worth pointing out if someone claims to be supportive of one thing, but profits off of and builds power from the opposite. I’ve criticized Hugh Hefner on at least a few occasions for claiming to be a feminist because he built his empire from reinforcing women’s bodies as consumable products for men. Emma Watson showing a little skin in a photo is no where near the level of something like that, so this is just nitpicking. It would be like saying she can’t be a feminist if she’s a fan of a musician who has had sexist lyrics.
As far as feminism being about giving women choice, I agree. However, I don’t think discussing feminism, or any movement for social justice or liberation, strictly within the realms of choice sets their target goal high enough. Our choices don’t exist divorced from the structures that shaped them. And if the system of patriarchy our society has been structured in persists, women’s choices are always going to be limited in relation to men’s choices. I don’t love the theorizing of ideologies that seek liberation from oppressive structures on choice because I think it’s a limited way of looking at the world and it’s a painfully easy ideology to pervert. From this point of view, choosing to be anti-feminist could be framed as a feminist act.
If you think the picture Emma Watson took for Vanity Fair is sexualized, I do too. It’s more artistic than the cover of a Playboy, a Maxim, or even a Cosmo magazine, but it’s still sexualized. If that is something you’re critical of, critiques can’t just focus on Emma Watson herself. This photo was in collaboration with a photographer and artistic director (if he/she isn’t the photographer as well) for a magazine that owes a big part of its profit from sexualized photos like the one Emma Watson took.
Doing a quick Google Search of Vanity Fair covers, it’s clear that Emma Watson is hardly the first person to take her shirt off for a picture. A lot of other women have taken topless photos for the magazine too. Even most the pictures of clothed women are dressed in either unbuttoned blouses or low-cut dresses that bare their cleavage. Everybody’s skin is unblemished and alabaster as the ground right after a fresh snow. The large majority of these women are looking at the camera with, as feminist sociologist Gail Dines calls it, the “fuck me” look. These are all different women with various points of view and various opinions on feminism. Why is there such a uniformity in all of these photos? Why do they look so much like Emma Watson’s photo?
All of these Vanity Fair photos meet a very conventional and very rigid standard of beauty. A standard of beauty that is framed as something for the male viewer to have (the nudity, cleavage, “fuck me” looks, etc.) and something for the female viewer to aspire to, so that males would want to have them too. Even the pictures of a very pregnant Demi Moore are taken within this standard. This was what Emma Watson was criticizing about Beyonce’s photos a few years ago, not criticizing Beyonce for taking the photos in the first place. This lets you know that none of these photos, from Vanity Fair or otherwise, exist in a vacuum. This standard in photo shoots in magazines like these is a microcosm of society, especially working in Hollywood.
For women like Emma Watson who are paid to look like an image that doesn’t actually exist for a living, there is constant pressure for them to look a way and project an image that is attractive to men. Plenty of actresses have opened up about the pressures put onto them to maintain that standard. Actresses like Emma Thompson and Patricia Arquette have spoken out about the pressures put on them when they were younger and the disregard for them when they become middle-aged. Other actresses like Christina Ricci and Kate Winslet have struggled with body issues in their attempts to live up to this standard. Rose McGowan has said of the earlier part of her career that “I felt I was being mis-sold as a commodity and not a person”. All of them were discouraged to speak out about these issues as they were going through them because the big Hollywood studios and directors would write them off as “being difficult” and refuse to cast them for any movie roles. Obviously nobody put a gun to Emma Watson’s head and demanded she flashed her boobs to the cameraman, but it wouldn’t be out of line to think that her agent and PR department would persuade her to take photos like the one for Vanity Fair as a good way to promote her upcoming movie, regardless of whether she had misgivings about it or was 100% on board with it.
In another live-action remake of a Disney film, there was some controversy over how slim Cinderella’s waist was in her eponymous movie. The starring actress Lily James admitted that she went on a liquid diet in order to fit into her costume. That’s a pretty startling admission among all the the responses the director Kenneth Branagh made defending the waist size of the costume. If Lily James had been more adamant about making her costume’s proportions more realistic, what likely would have happened is that either Branagh would have recast the role of Cinderella, or let other studio executives know that James is “difficult” to work with and threaten her ability to get cast in movie roles in the future. In an environment like this, an outspoken actress like Emma Watson is put in a position where she can’t win. If she’s more outspoken about everything, it will likely derail her career because studios won’t want to work with her. If she doesn’t she’s a “bad feminist”.
This Vanity Fair fiasco is a bigger issue than Emma Watson herself. And I’m disappointed that the discourse around this has missed the forest for the trees just so they can find a cheap way to discredit one person who had the audacity to call herself a feminist.