The Internet (or at least my corner of it) has been up in arms this week about Emma Watson posing semi-topless for Vanity Fair. Of course, this is, for the most part, absolutely ridiculous. Emma, and indeed any woman, is free to do whatever she wants with her body. Doing this shoot doesn’t make her any less of a feminist, and the people saying that obviously don’t fully understand feminism. The problem some people had with it however, was a believed hypocrisy in her actions regarding a statement she made about Beyonce.
Personally, I’ve grown to find Emma Watson a bit irritating. Of course, her work for the UN and the HeForShe campaign is admirable and I’m glad that she’s doing something to help with the cause – she’s still doing more to help than a lot of celebrities. But there’s something very twee and white about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Anyway, onto the Beyonce statement.
In an interview with Tavi Gevinson in 2014, Emma Watson asked her:
“So one last question, it’s a big one and I’m quite nervous to bring it up because I still haven’t really formulated my own ideas about it but [both laugh] Beyoncé’s new album.
I don’t know whether you have spoken to anyone about it, but my friend and I sat and we watched all the videos back-to-back and I was really conflicted. I so admire her confidence to put her music out in that way, in amidst all these very sensationalist sort of MTV performances, I was so psyched about that. On the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, this very strong woman – and she has that beautiful speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in one of her songs – but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her and I just wondered if you had thoughts about that?”
“I would say two things. One is that in her position, and for a lot of young musicians, actors or people in our industry, it’s as though you get a memo: don’t be seen with your boyfriend or your wife or your child because you still want your audience to believe or male fans of Beyoncé to believe that they could possess her; that in some alternate universe they could be with her. So by publicly exposing her marriage, that she is in a committed relationship, that she has a child, is probably really against that kind of memo and she does make it clear that she is performing for him. And the fact she wasn’t doing it for a label, she was doing it for herself and the control that she has directing it and putting it out there, I agree is making her sexuality empowering because it is her choice.
The second is that I would say you do get sense of, “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 and being pretty and with all these things that I thought might negate my message or negate what I am about”. That really is the most interesting thing about the album. It is so inclusive and puts feminism and femininity and female empowerment on such a broad spectrum.”
A lot of people have criticised Emma because they think she was saying Beyonce shouldn’t expose herself and that it wasn’t very feminist of her, and that therefore she was being a hypocrite by doing the Vanity Fair shoot.
I do think a lot of this has been exaggerated. She clearly says at the end of her statement that Beyonce is saying that you can be a feminist as well as being sexual. Although she’s questioning it a bit, on the whole, she speaks positively of the album. I remember reading this interview when it first came out, and feeling a similar way, trying to work out the line between feminism and sexuality for a male gaze, but have since come to terms with the fact that, actually, women can do whatever the heck they want. And obviously Emma has had a similar growth process. I mean, this was years ago, for God’s sake. Am I still the same feminist I was three years ago? Of course not.
HOWEVER. I still think she should apologise to Beyonce about her doubts, and publicly announce her stance on this to clear things up. She also needs to make more of an effort to be more intersectional and inclusive with her feminism (remember when she endorsed a skin whitening product?). She should acknowledge the fact that as a white woman, she is extremely privileged to be able to do a naked photo shoot and for it to be perceived as classy and tasteful and artistic – as described perfectly by Leah Thomas in her article for the Huffington Post:
“White women are privileged in the way they can still be considered elegant, even while almost nude. Black women, even celebrities like Janet Jackson, can risk ruining their career for doing the exact same thing. Now that Emma had a slight taste of what black women experience on the daily, from critics like herself, she’s up in arms.
Women like Emma are granted the right to decide who can and cannot qualify as a good feminist. Then years later be praised for doing the same thing they demeaned because they had an epiphany. Mainstream feminists then expect women of color to forgive and applaud women like Emma for their awakening.”
So, yeah, Emma – you’re perfectly allowed to do whatever you want with your body. Just make sure you recognise your white privilege in doing so, and apologise to anyone you may have hurt in the past. It’s time for you to look beyond your own white perception of feminism now, and then hopefully you can continue to use your platform for a great cause – but make it even better, and more inclusive for all women.