So Emma Watson is an actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. She defined feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” She’s currently in the middle of a massive promotional campaign for Beauty and the Beast. Hence her March cover of Vanity Fair.
The story has 11 photographs, not including the cover. This is one of them:
Suddenly, every headline is about whether Emma Watson, noted feminist, can take a picture like this one and still be a feminist. Is it hypocritical? Is it playing both sides?
Here’s what I want to write:
“Are we actually serious right now? Are we operating under the delusion that being a feminist means pretending not to have body parts?”
But I think it’s too easy for me to say that, here where the reception tends to be warm for my rants of all stripes, and when I have time to think of what I want to say.
So instead, these are the things I would say if I were caught in an argument with my aunt, or colleague, or someone at a party, if they called Emma Watson a hypocrite:
As I said, she defines feminism as ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.’ In what way does this picture violate that belief? Shouldn’t she have the right to pose for any picture she wants to? Isn’t that feminism?
“Yeah but breasts!”
Sure, so there’s a part of her body visible that isn’t always. I won’t even be coy, I’ll go ahead and say it’s a sexualized part of her body, or at least of the female body. Maybe it’s even an overtly sexy picture, although it doesn’t seem that way to me. Still:
- The cape in question basically covers the same proportion of breast as a bikini, just a different angle. She’s not ‘topless’, she quite literally has a top on.
- Men take sexy pictures all the goddamn time and there’s no debate about whether that makes them less able to speak on matters they find important. Men like George Clooney or Ashton Kutcher, both of whom have routine sex scenes in scores of movies, and who have taken all kinds of sexy magazine shots, elicit exactly zero criticism when they put on a jacket and tie and speak to assemblies of senate or government about huge political issues they are passionate about.
- What exactly is the origin of the misunderstanding that says being a feminist means you can’t have, or enjoy, or celebrate, a sexual part of your body? I hate to say ‘did you even read the article?’, but did you, fictional coworker? Because Gloria Steinem (!) is a huge part of it, and the author asks her whether she thinks Watson’s activism (involving even the clothes she wears on the red carpet), will mean she’s seen as an ‘ethical Goody Two-Shoes’. At which point Gloria Steinem beautifully Gloria Steinems:
“If you did a story on a young male actor who was very private and involved in activism, would you think he was too severe or serious? Why do women always have to be listeners?…It’s possible to be both serious and fun, you know. That response is why men will ask a woman, ‘Why don’t you just smile, honey?’ ”
It’s possible to be both serious and fun. It’s possible to be both sexual and feminist. It’s possible to be both focused on equality for all women, and cognizant of one person’s specific set of circumstances. Right?
Okay, moving on.
Except I can’t move on, because this story is still about breasts.
Emma Watson reacted to this criticism in a junket interview. She’s sputtering and clearly trying to hold back anger, so much so that she says, “Feminism is not a stick with which to bludgeon other women with”. (Stars mess up their grammar, just like us!) Then she says, “I really don’t know what my tits have to do with feminism.”
Except it comes out “t-ts”. She’s bleeped in the video, and in the clickbait headline. WHY ARE WE BLEEPING THE WORD “TITS”, The Telegraph? Particularly when the word ‘boobs’ is not bleeped later on?
I have a pretty decent understanding of broadcast censorship. “Tits” is naughty at best, and certainly doesn’t need bleeping. But by bleeping out both the word she says and the word in the headline, you’re implying that the body part and the fact that she talks about them are scandalous. Or maybe they’re only scandalous coming from the mouth of Emma Watson, who’s supposed to be a perfect princess?
While we’re on the topic of ‘perfect’, there’s also this article. It’s a callback to an interview Watson conducted with Tavi Gevinson in Wonderland Magazine a few years ago, where she criticized Beyoncé’s self-titled visual album (i.e. not Lemonade), debating whether the ‘message is conflicted’ if Beyoncé calls herself a feminist but the videos are (per Watson) male and voyeuristic.
(It’s worth noting that the above article links to Wonderland Magazine but not to the actual article in question, and that searches turn up references to the article, but not the article itself.)
There’s no ‘defense of Emma’ here. She’s clearly wrong—not in her opinion on Beyoncé, which she’s entitled to – but in that you don’t get to define someone else’s feminism. Sure, there’s an irony in her purportedly doing to Beyoncé what is now happening to her. But I would wager a lot a lot of money that she’s embarrassed by that quote from three years ago, and I hope and assume her ideas about feminism have expanded in the years since. I hope Beyoncé’s have too. I hope all of ours have.
Because if we wait around for a perfect representative of feminism or anything else we believe, we’ll wait a long-ass time. If we make noises about stuff that is stupid, but allow ourselves to be shouted down every time someone points out some imperfection, we’re not going to get anywhere. If you like this article but someone points out a bad one I wrote five years ago, you’re still allowed to like this article. People contain multitudes.
There’s a reason Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is so hugely popular, besides being funny and insightful and excellent—it’s because the title appeals to people. We see ourselves in it. Nobody knows exactly how to be perfect at this stuff, but it’s better to try, and fail at some stuff and succeed at others, than to snipe from the corners where you’re never under fire because nobody knows you’re there, determinedly not sticking your neck out.
And for the love of GOD, can we stop bleeping ‘tits’?