“This phoney outrage at Emma Watson’s breasts is laughably transparent”

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Harriet Hall
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Ask a Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, digital features editor, Harriet Hall, argues that while Emma Watson’s recent photo-shoot in Vanity Fair is not ‘empowering,’ it certainly does not make her a hypocrite. 

Yawn yawn yawn, here we go again.

The well-trodden path goes like this: woman does something, trolls tear her down. Woman does nothing, trolls tear her down. Woman has breasts, trolls tear her down. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In the most popular entry in the Misogynist’s Handbook, those who deem themselves egalitarian, nay, feminist, are then labelled hypocritical, for either revealing too much or too little of their skin.

We’ve seen it innumerable times. We saw it last year when Susan Sarandon’s neckline sent chauvinists into meltdown, and we see it rear its ugly head now that self-proclaimed feminist and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, has appeared in a fashion shoot, with a portion of her breasts visible.

Headlines and tweets have feigned outrage at the ‘topless’ shoot, deeming it ‘racy’, ‘controversial’ and, most notably, ‘hypocritical.’

The collection of photographs, shot for Vanity Fair by celebrated fashion photographer, Tim Walker, see the 26-year-old posing in an androgynous, tailored suit complete with quiffed hair and fierce brows, resting her palm on a Greek bust and gazing pensively into the middle distance. They show her in Dior’s clean, white fencing gear, in an Elizabethan-esque ruff and in several other surreal scenarios.

The offending photograph shows the Harry Potter star in a crocheted bolero, worn over a practically invisible sheer dress, slipped over her shoulders concealing her nipples and most of her breasts, her arms crossed in front of her midriff.

The reaction to the image has ranged from the disgusting to the laughable, with publications and internet trolls alike, using it as the perfect example of feminist hypocrisy, read: the perfect opportunity to bring Watson (and by extension, feminism) down.

But hypocrisy this is not. (And neither, for the record, is it empowerment.) It is simply a beautifully shot and styled fashion shoot, presented in the pages of a magazine for the viewing pleasure of a majority female readership.  

The shoot accompanies an interview in which Watson waxes lyrical about literature and feminism, and addresses the challenges she faces in speaking about these subjects. Walker’s photograph is not for the titillation of the male gaze. In fact, the image seeks to achieve quite the opposite.

Watson is an active subject in this photograph, not a passive object. 

It sees Watson’s gaze meet and thus challenge our own, in a collection of photographs that directly subvert traditional gender roles. Watson is an active subject in this photograph, not a passive object. Her breasts being semi-visible does not make this subjugation, nor does it deem her desire for gender equality less worthy or valid. It is not comparable to the topless models of Page 3, placed there, voiceless, to be ogled.

The real reason everyone is losing their marbles over the image, is that they want to paint it as more damming than it actually is. Because that would be a perfect opportunity to bring down a vocal advocate of women’s rights.

The criticisms of Watson’s shoot comes from quick-fingered thrill-seekers, anti-feminists who trawl the internet waiting for a feminist to trip up over the trap they have laid, to step a toe out of the patriarchal parameters of acceptability they have drawn. They come from those looking for any excuse to undermine the ideology. From those who want feminists to be unwashed and unattractive, as that is what makes their plight that little bit more palatable.

The patriarchy will let you talk about feminism, but only if you do it in their prescribed manner. Essentially: ‘its OK, feminists are ugly, so we don’t need to worry about them.’ God forbid the pretty ones get the idea in their heads.

The whole thing is deliciously transparent. And it’s tired.

Why not, to make things easier, lay out a set of acceptable guidelines according to which women can dress themselves?

The idea that women must lack any sexuality in order to be considered equal is so trite, that in 2017 it verges on the absurd. And it’s a perfect example of why feminism is so entirely necessary today: because women’s bodies continue to be policed in every which way.

Why not, to make things easier, lay out a set of acceptable guidelines according to which women can dress themselves? Are you a feminist? No? Then you can show your cleavage. But don’t expect respect. If you are a feminist, only a polo-neck and tweed skirt will do.

Some have argued that this shoot has highlighted the fluffiness of Watson’s ‘lite’ brand of feminism. That, when juxtaposed by the likes of Emily Davison or Malala Yousafzai – women who have risked their lives for the cause - Watson pales in comparison, watering down the agenda.

But Watson is not claiming to be Davison, Yousafzai or any other feminist who precedes or contemporises her. She is simply using her privileged platform to promote a positive agenda. She shows young girls and women that they deserve more, that the fairy tales they grew up with are problematic. She shows men that they are intrinsic to the progression of gender equality.

She doesn’t need to wear a pantsuit to make these points.

Watson’s photograph has not exposed her hypocrisy for posing in Vanity Fair with visible cleavage, it has exposed society’s prevailing ‘damned if they do damned if they don’t attitude’ towards women. It has exposed the weakness of the anti-feminist brigade, and it has reminded us – again – that there is so much more to be done.

Tweet Harriet at @Harri_Grace

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor, Harriet.Hall@stylist.co.uk, and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.