Over the weekend, controversy over Emma Watson’s Vanity Fair photoshoot took the internet by storm. In the picture, Watson posed topless with a white shawl draped over her shoulders. Several netizens took to Twitter to express outrage over her “indecency”, even attempting to draw a correlation between Watson’s photoshoot and her self-identification as a feminist.
On Twitter, radio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer wrote: “(Emma Watson) complains that women are sexualised and then sexualises herself in her own work. Hypocrisy.” While it is vital to bear in mind the reasons that elucidate the outrage expressed over Watson’s photoshoot, her choice to portray herself in this manner should not undermine her previous efforts to speak out on issues pertaining to gender inequality. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that the argument that “feminism is about giving women choice” is one that contains several apertures, especially given the context of this day and age.
As inhabitants of societies that inherently still contain patriarchal characteristics despite movements that call for progress towards gender parity, we must recognise that every choice we make is inadvertently influenced by the misogynic social structures that we exist in. In this sense, while Watson might not have been coerced into taking the photos of contention for the photoshoot, the pictures nonetheless play into the hands of the patriarchy, which intrinsically, and historically, approves of the sexual objectification of females in the media. It is also important to note that Watson herself previously spoke out about similar polemics that criticised Beyonce’s self-titled album in 2014, as this highlights her own awareness regarding the notion that even self-proclaimed feminists can, at times, make negligent choices that pander to misogyny too. While this entire debacle has served to underscore several key messages about feminism, Watson’s efforts to promote gender equality as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador should not be overlooked or simply disregarded either.
This year’s campaign theme for International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange. To me, this calls for a breath of courage from each and every one of us to speak on issues pertaining to gender parity that we feel strongly about. To me, this call for action isn’t so much about creating epoch-making change on an individual level, but rather, an urging to take heart and speak out about the inequalities that we have witnessed, even if this may place a big lump of fear in our throats that seems unswallowable. For some, this may be typified by plucking up the courage to defend all women from demeaning, sexist statements in a parliamentary setting, as exemplified by Iratxe Garcia Perez of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. But for me, writing this article itself was a challenge. I have grown up with Hermione Granger, literally witnessing Emma Watson transform from a talented but novice actress into the sophisticated and passionate activist that she is today. In this sense, though I hold utmost respect for her as a person and actress, this article was, in brutal honesty, one of the more difficult and complex pieces I’ve had to pen in a while because of my need to reconcile Watson’s venerable qualities as a feminist and her actions that may veer towards a more obverse direction.
But, it is important to me to speak out about this issue in order to raise greater awareness about the need to understand the true meaning of feminism, and what it entails. As humans, we are completely and thoroughly flawed – all of us are full of contradictions. Not everything a feminist does is a feminist act. While Watson’s Vanity Fair photos may have been a cause for contention, her willingness to be speak boldly about gender equality is something that deserves to be lauded and recognised on its own merit.
The world could definitely do with more activism to enact positive change for more balanced and inclusive societies that do not marginalise individuals on the sole basis of gender.