For almost a week, actress Emma Watson has had her feet held to the fire, derided as an example of feminist hypocrisy. A picture of her, shot by Vogue photographer Tim Walker for Vanity Fair involved some partial nudity, prompting claims that a woman cannot be a feminist and reveal her body in such vulgar ways.
As a writer who has closely following feminism’s ascent into pop culture, I think these criticisms are less about politics, and more about prurience. I write about women, race and racism (my book -Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race - on the topic is out in June) and I can see how the kind of woman Emma is determines what we expect from her.
But watch who is leading the attacks – namely broadcaster and columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer and Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan. On feminism, Hartley-Brewer has written before that “women… make choices about their own lives and sometimes, for many different reasons, those choices will be different from the ones men make.” This suggests that her more recent criticisms abut Emma Watson are less about politics and more about prurience. Piers Morgan, in comparison, is much more hostile to the women’s movement. He has claimed to support women’s rights, yet he took a very loud stand against January’s Women’s March, calling the women protesting about Trump “vacuous”. Quick to opine for a headline as they are, I think it’s safe to say that neither consider themselves part of today’s wave of feminism.
Does complying with expectations of beauty mean you collude with the patriarchy?
Ivy League-educated, demure, socially conscious, white and pretty, Emma Watson fits perfectly into to the category of the woman whose breasts we are not supposed to see. In the binary of virgin and whore, she is firmly in the former camp. It is this that has upset the critics of her photoshoot, because there is an idea that nudity of any kind is for women of a lower class. Earlier this week, Nicki Minaj (who may not have headed up a UN campaign, but has come out with many a feminist statement in the past) was not subject to the same criticism about her conflicted politics when she stepped out at the Haider Ackermann show during Paris Fashion Week wearing a blazer exposing a breast. It could be argued that Minaj’s work is way more sexual, but come on – Watson’s controversy erupted during a press junket for a film in which she plays a Disney princess. Sexy and virginal are both roles that women have been playing, for survival, for centuries.
In this case, both the rapper and the actress use their bodies to do their jobs. They’re both working in professions that require them to be on show, dressed in the best clothes and wearing the most beautiful make-up. The social sanctioning of Emma suggests that there is a higher expectation of what she does with her body. She is white and slim. Nicki is black and curvy. They both have to be beautiful. If they weren’t, their careers wouldn’t be what they are today. Yet there’s something inherent in our reception of Nicki’s black-and-curviness that makes it shocking when we see Emma’s breasts but pedestrian when we see Nicki’s. One lets the feminist cause down, the other—well, was she even considered on our side to begin with?
“In all cases, a woman’s body is assumed to be someone else’s before it is her own”
And herein lies the problem. In pop feminism, our icons and overlords are actresses and singers, models and performers. They all live at the sharper end of beauty politics – it is their job to look good. This brings up a very tired but often repeated question: does complying with expectations of beauty mean you collude with the patriarchy? In the Sixties, this question was more pertinent, as feminist protestors targeted pageants like Miss America amid accusations of objectification. But nowadays, the “colluding with the patriarchy” suggestion is more of a straw man. The way that a woman presents herself to the world has very little to do with her commitment to the cause. I’ve watched a feminist activist with a full face of impeccable make-up be hauled out of the road by police officers and security guards as she’s obstructed a passageway in protest. I’ve smiled as I’ve witnessed protest banners being painted with nail polish and decorated with glitter. As we move into an era where people aren’t scared to push for greater respect for self-expression through what you (do or don’t) wear, today’s feminists understand that femininity is an asset, not a weakness.Emma Bites Back On Nudity Criticism
Emma Bites Back On Nudity Criticism
Still, though, any personal liberation of what one chooses to clothe their own body in is clouded by the misogynistic backdrop of the world we live in. In all cases, a woman’s body is assumed to be someone else’s before it is her own. If she takes off her clothes, it is seen to be a sign of her insecurity and need for validation, rather than feeling comfortable with herself. Once she’s stripped, that’s all she is. This is the insidiousness of misogyny that we all have a duty to attack.