Emma Watson's Vanity Fair Photo and the Problem with Prescriptive Feminism

If you had never heard of Emma Watson before now, here are some things you would learn about her by reading this month’s Vanity Fair profile of the actress: she came to fame playing the bookish no-nonsense adolescent witch Hermione in the movies based on the Harry Potter book series; she made a viral video with Lin Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) to raise awareness for International Women’s Day that garnered over six millions views; she started Our Shared Shelf, a book club with feminist friendly titles; she is an ambassador for UN Women and addressed the UN General Assembly in a rousing speech in which she invited men to align themselves with women in the cause for feminism as part of her HeForShe initiative; to vet designers to dress her for the Beauty and the Beast press tour, she created a Powerpoint presentation asking them how their garments are produced, what their impact is on the environment, and what moral reason they could give for her to wear their clothes on the red carpet. In other words, you might come away with the impression that Watson is a feminist powerhouse.

If you had never heard of Emma Watson before now, and you did not read this month’s Vanity Fair profile of her, you might think she wasn’t a feminist at all for all the furor over one of the photos in the spread accompanying the profile. The photo shows Watson, 26, wearing a Burberry top that reveals her sternum and part of her breasts, which prompted Julia Hartley-Brewer of the BBC to tweet “"Feminism, feminism... gender wage gap... why oh why am I not taken seriously... feminism... oh, and here are my (t*ts)!", a sentiment reiterated on social media.

The surface assumption of Hartley-Brewer’s tweet, and those who echoed her point of view, is that feminism is incompatible in some way with overt sexuality, but there is also the baseline assumption, rooted in misogyny, that a woman’s nudity is inherently sexual, rather than say, artistic, natural, normal, beautiful, even sacred.

The surface assumption, that a woman cannot be both overtly sexual and a feminist, relies on another set of assumptions, equally troubling, about the existence of prescriptive norms that govern feminism that, when violated, result in excommunication and the loss of the feminist mantle. Roxane Gay calls the stereotype that feeds these assumed prescriptive norms “essential feminism,” an application of Judith Butler’s thesis of essentialism as it applies to gender, to feminism. Gay describes essential feminism as suggesting “anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman.” And because this stereotype incorporates the notion that a real feminist eschews men and sex (which any woman should also have the choice to do), a woman who embraces her own sexuality, in whatever manifestation, violates the canon, e.g. the uproar about Watson’s barely risqué photograph.

This dogmatic model of feminism is a legacy of traditionally patriarchal institutions like the church, in which membership is contingent on adherence to fixed principles. And like the traditional church, it is inherently hierarchical, delineating bad feminists from good ones, and embraces the instrument of shame to compel compliance. Regardless of the degree to which this model is actually propagated by feminists themselves rather than misconceptions of it, it is still culturally salient enough to merit headlines from mainstream news organizations like CNN that take it as given: “Emma Watson’s revealing Vanity Fair photo: Feminism or hypocrisy?” And not only does this model of feminism get it wrong, it turns feminism into just another space in which women are held to an impossibly high standard.

Underlying all of these assumptions, misconceptions, and prescriptive norms is, of course, the deeply sexist notion that women need to be told what to do, whether they are feminists or not. That anyone else, other than Watson herself, should decide for her, and for all women by extension, what she should do with her body if she wants to call herself a feminist.

Even if feminism were a hierarchical dogmatic organization, shouldn’t we then consult the high priestesses of the movement for comment on Watson’s feminist credentials and the controversy surrounding the Vanity Fair photo, or perhaps even Watson herself, rather than social media trolls?

Here’s what pioneer feminist bell hooks had to say about Watson in the Vanity Fair profile:

“In so many ways she’s not like we think of movie stars...She’s [part of] a very different, new breed who are interested in being whole and having a holistic life, as opposed to being identified with just wealth and fame.”

Watson herself had this to say:

"Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It's about freedom. It's about liberation. It's about equality. It's not -- I really don't know what my t*ts have to do with it."

And Gloria Steinem, who has a close relationship with Watson told TMZ the following when asked about the noise over the Vanity Fair photo:
"Feminists can wear anything they fucking want...They should be able to walk down the street nude and be safe."

Amen, Gloria.

(Read about the author’s experience attending an event for Our Shared Shelf in which Watson interviewed Steinem about her memoir, My Life On The Road, one of the picks for the book club.)

Public Filter

This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at publicfiltermilk@gmail.com.

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