A self-confessed feminist is shown on the cover of a glossy magazine, lightly dressed, with a coarse-mesh Burberry bolero over her shoulders, and obviously naked underneath. Her breasts are half visible. Former teen idol Emma Watson has herself staged as a Victorian rebel for the March issue of Vanity Fair (https://www.instagram.com/p/BREIp12gHjk/). And the Internet community is running up a storm.
The debate and the shitstorm that erupted after the publication of this image show the double standards that we as female artists currently have to contend with. Especially when we work with erotic themes and – like Emma Watson – represent feminist concerns. That’s why it’s worth taking a closer look at the reactions after the Vanity Fair photoshoot.
Normally, such a photo of a Hollywood young star would only be worth noting, but not debating. Especially the discoveries of the Disney forge, from Lindsay Lohan to Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez or Ariana Grande, all had their libertine phase, in which they tried to break away from their old, uptight image.
Such a development is not new. Even Romy Schneider used permissive appearances in films at the end of the 60s to break away from her stuffy Empress Sissy image. In films like Deray’s “The Swimming Pool,” Deville’s “Love at the Top” or Zulawski’s “That Most Important Thing: Love,” she appeared stark naked, scaring off all those who wanted to see her as a chaste model romantic.
Emma Watson has a very similar legacy with her role as Hermione Granger in eight Harry Potter films. However, in her subsequent roles – with the possible exception of Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” – she remained largely true to her image as a good girl.
Instead, she outed herself as an avowed feminist, speaking about her views in various interviews. She becomes the UN Special Envoy for Women’s and Girls’ Rights and, in this capacity, helps develop the #HeForShe campaign, which fights for gender equality, strengthening women’s rights and ending violence against women and girls.
She is launching the feminist book club “Our Shared Shelf” on the reader platform GoodReads. Each month, a new title on the topic of gender equality will be featured. It started with the autobiography of the American activist Gloria Steinem, “My Life on the Road”. Currently under discussion is Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an oppressive dystopia about an America in which religious fundamentalists have taken over and women are reduced to childbearing machines.
On the book club’s home page, Emma Watson explains her intention behind “Our Shared Shelf”:
“As part of my work with the Uno, I read as many books and essays about equality as I could get. There’s so much fantastic stuff out there. Funny, inspiring, sad, thought-provoking, empowering. I discovered so much that sometimes I thought my head was about to explode … I decided to start a feminist book club to share what I’m learning and hear your thoughts, too.”
So now Emma Watson is showing herself scantily clad in public for the first time. For the March issue of Vanity Fair, she has herself photographed wearing a white stole that leaves her bosom largely exposed. Tim Walker is the photographer. And the photo plays with Emma’s erotic charisma: her mouth open, her eyelids slightly lowered, her gaze fixed directly on the camera.
The English Sun, a tabloid in the style of the German Bild-Zeitung, runs the photo on a full page, a few days before Vanity Fair appears, under the title “Beauty & the breasts” and thus reaches a target group that would probably never pick up a more sophisticated glossy magazine – and that has little interest in the interview with Emma Watson. The Sun’s brief accompanying text logically begins with the words “DING-dong, Belle.”
A shitstorm promptly erupts on social media. Journalist and radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer is one of the first to tweet a photo of the Sun page, adding a sardonic comment, “Emma Watson: ‘Feminism, feminism … Unequal pay … Why, oh why am I just not taken seriously … Feminism … Oh, and here are my tits!'” (https://twitter.com/JuliaHB1/status/836873834414366720)
Emma Watson counters in an interview she gives to Reuter’s news agency on the occasion of a promo date for “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I’m irritated by how many misconceptions there are about what feminism is. Feminism is giving women a choice. Feminism is not a stick you’re supposed to bludgeon other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my breasts have to do with it. It’s very confusing.”
In this interview, her co-star from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Dan Stevens, asks her irritably what the whole controversy is actually about. Emma Watson is searching for words and together they point out the absurd idea behind the attacks: “People say I can’t be a feminist and have … boobs at the same time.” (https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/t7OvCcxVlFo)
Sure, two years earlier she had given an interview to Wonderland magazine in which she spoke thoughtfully about Beyoncé’s visual album “Beyoncé” and also related it to her feminism: “When I saw the videos, I felt a great contradiction. On the one hand, she puts herself in the category of feminist, on the other hand, the camera showed her in a very masculine, very voyeuristic way,” she is quoted as saying.
But this quote gives Emma Watson’s position in a very truncated way. The media, after all, loves hype, and hand-wringing mudslinging simply reads better than a thoughtful, balanced statement, such as the one actually given in the interview. After the Vanity Fair photos were published, the snippet of quotes from the two-year-old interview was used to accuse Emma Watson of hypocrisy and double standards. A shitstorm broke out from Twitter to Instagram.
In response, Emma Watson spread the original text of the entire interview via Twitter. In it, her admiration for Beyoncé is clear, including for her feminist work. She talks about the courage Beyoncé has to stand up to the usual MTV sensationalism with these videos. For her, these videos are signs of sexual empowerment. She says Beyoncé’s videos make Watson feel like, “I can be a feminist, I can be an intellectual, I can be all these other things, but I can also be OK with my femininity, with being pretty, with all these things that I thought negated my message or what I stand for.” And Watson ends by saying, “That’s really the most interesting thing about this album. It’s so inclusive and brings feminism and femininity and female empowerment in such a broad spectrum.” (https://twitter.com/EmmaWatson/status/839005241978675200)
The debate about Emma Watson’s Vanity Fair photoshoot shows the tensions that still exist between eroticism and feminism. The concept of self-determination over one’s own body frightens many. Conservative forces in particular are agitating against any attempt at female autonomy, which also includes the right to show one’s own body.
What this concept of bodily self-determination means is summed up by the founder and editor of the feminist magazine “Ms.,” Gloria Steinem, when asked about the current controversy surrounding Emma Watson: “Feminists can wear whatever the hell they want. They should be able to walk the streets naked and still be safe.” (https://www.tmz.com/2017/03/03/gloria-steinem-emma-watson-feminism/)
The Badische Zeitung tries to harness Alice Schwarzer to the controversy: “Feminists don’t want women to be labeled as dolls, reduced to their bodies and systematically underestimated. But should it go so far that they are not allowed to be sexy at all? German feminist Alice Schwarzer has a clear answer to this question: in her opinion, female eroticism is traditionally associated with the power of men – and the powerlessness of women.”
Alice Schwarzer, however, responds promptly: “In the past, there was still the term ‘erotic’. Now everything is just called ‘pornographic,’ and it usually is. But what is actually the difference between erotic and pornographic? Emma’s photo has nothing to do with a (self-)degrading exposure, but everything with a self-confident staging! It tells us: I am smart, I am emancipated – and I am sensual. It’s the opposite of pornography.”
How does Schwarzer come up with the topic of “pornography” in the first place? The quote from the Badische Zeitung – taken out of context – refers to the current anti-porn movement. Its pioneers, such as Sheila Jeffries, Karen Boyle or Pamela Paul, however, are completely uninterested in Emma Watson’s Vanity Fair shooting. Even Gail Dines, who was still amused on Facebook about Emma Watson’s attempts to foist something like a feminist message on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, didn’t say a word about the current photos.
So the attacks did not come from the corner of anti-pornographic feminists, even if some media portrayed it that way. Obviously, the photos were only used as a reason to discredit a feminist activist with her request. The fact that quotes taken out of context were also used for this purpose corresponds to the mechanisms of the media, not only social media.
We as artists can counteract this by ensuring that the public is as broad as possible. We can help spread facts and show solidarity with those who are currently in the media barrage of conservative hostility. Naked breasts are certainly not a symbol per se. There is the voyeuristic gaze, but there is also the right to bodily self-determination. Emma Watson has exercised it.