Apparently, if you are Emma Watson, you cannot be feminist and show an ounce of femininity at the same time.
Emma Watson is at the center of yet another social media storm — that is not breaking news, at all. Sections of the Internet erupted last week simply because the actress and activist made the decision to pose semi-nude for a Vanity Fair photo shoot. One photograph sparked a series of critical online comments, with the actress being accused of hypocrisy, while others claimed she is pretentious and in love with herself. One British journalist went as far as to suggest that Ms. Watson’s actions are incongruous with her feminism — alluding to the fact that one cannot complain about not being taken seriously if willing to pose slightly unclothed. Is the journalist seriously suggesting that a woman cannot be taken seriously if she chooses to show part of her upper ventral region? Not only is the logic flawed, but also it is based on a narrow social construct of female expression in society.
This recent brouhaha is not an insignificant issue, but overall it masks the reality of real oppression. I have personally identified as a feminist since I was 19, and over the years have disagreed with some of the rhetorical strategies adopted by some modern feminists. I recently wrote a critique on modern feminism and its negative public image for Practical Politicking that can be viewed online.
The world needs more perspective — seriously. Actually, some people need more perspective if they honestly think that what Emma Watson has done conflicts with modern feminist thought, or other ideologies with regard to gender and the portrayal of body image. What some of the publicly available comments reveal is that feminism continues to be misunderstood within social and political circles. Feminism is about expanding people’s choices — civil liberties and freedom are just two powerful concepts at the heart of the movement. I believe that a woman (or man) should have the freedom to put their career on a hiatus to raise their children if they desire, but I also support changes in our society that make it easier for women to choose to remain in the workforce without unnecessary road blocks. The expansion of maternity and paternity leave rights, affordable access to high quality child care, and ensuring workers earn at least a living wage are just a few examples of policies that can help mothers remain in the workforce. Choice is the key word. There is a big difference between a woman choosing to pose like Ms. Watson did, and females who are genuinely being exploited by some male-dominated, heteronormative forces that seek to simultaneously objectify and devalue women. Emma Watson has not sold herself out — she is merely showing that female sexuality and feminism are not mutually exclusive.
The Vanity Fair photo shoot is, inherently, a symbol of some of the freedoms that we have in Western society — rights that are strictly forbidden in other corners of the world. Ms. Watson may be troubled by a few sensationalist tantrums on Twitter, but in some countries nudity — or what is perceived to be nudity — could result in brutal punishments, including death by stoning. In 2012, a group of Iranian women living in London made a short video of themselves posing topless to raise awareness of societal oppression against women in countries such as Iran. Horrific accounts of women suffering from genital mutilation or being sentenced to death for small infractions, such as owning a cell phone, are often reported by Western media outlets. Emma Watson is just one of the many voices who are in favor of feminism having a more universal and global outreach. She is one of the well-known faces of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, and has used her role as a UN Ambassador to raise awareness of the Nigerian school children abducted by Boko Haram. Yet, because the actress dared to bare some skin, some commentators seem to think that this invalidates her right to be taken seriously on a sociopolitical level. The ultimate of not being taken seriously is when one becomes dispensable to a society — millions of women face that injustice today.
The actress has received much criticism over the years, especially when she was appointed as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. One reason why she has been slated is because some view her as a privileged “white feminist” who cannot possibly speak for gender equality overall. Ms. Watson has never tried to deflect her privilege, and it is well known she was educated at an exclusive boarding school in England and attended an Ivy League college (while, not insignificantly, making millions from the Harry Potter franchise). While I do not know her personally, she certainly does exhibit the ability to show compassion and to be empathetic toward others who have experienced greater hardships than she has. It is not re-inventing the wheel to state that celebrities do not live in a social vacuum. Like most of us, public figures make their decisions based on life experiences, knowledge acquired, societal observations, and interactions with other humans. Too often there is this pervasive attitude that celebrities (and all politicians) are disconnected from the real world — a huge exaggeration and mistruth. Ms. Watson, like others, is a functioning member of our global community, and she is privy to the same information we all receive. How she processes and engages with the information is what makes her unique and complex — the same goes for all of us.
There is still a role for feminism, and squabbles over photographs are just a distraction from the real issues that need to be addressed. For example, it is concerning that women are still more likely to fill low paid jobs, while men are over represented in industries such as science and technology. The reasons for this are complex, yet certain underlying factors cannot be ignored. We live in a society where perceived gender norms exist, and quite often some women avoid certain jobs that are considered male-dominanted for fear of being discriminated against or simply not taken seriously enough. Moreover, Megyn Kelly’s exposé on her alleged experiences at Fox News mirrors stories from other women — across the world — who have faced harassment in the workplace. While Western women may have significantly more freedoms than others, sexism is omnipresent and such biases are consequential. Just recently a politician in the European Parliament stated:
“And of course, women must earn less than men. Because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.”
I am not of the school of thought that all men are the problem — statements such as that are simply sexist. I am an advocate for inter-sectionalism — period. Not only does the modern movement need more room for men, but it is crucial that the voices of people who are non-white and from a variety of different backgrounds have their narratives heard too. If feminism continues to be perceived as a cat-fight and dominated by wealthy white women, then the current movement will not be sustainable. Emma Watson herself welcomes more people to come forward and contribute.
In a nutshell, less bickering over nudity — more focus on genuine and real societal problems.