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Emma Watson can wear whatever she wants.
That would be my short answer to a CNN story on Monday, in which the headline doubled as a cultural interrogation: “Emma Watson’s revealing Vanity Fair photo: Feminism or hypocrisy?”
The photo in question, shot by Tim Walker for the March issue, has Watson posing in a Burberry something. Help me out. Is that a bolero jacket? Shawl? World’s worst flak jacket? A cape constructed from marine rope and packing peanuts?
I have no idea. But the relative immodesty of the garment, which partially conceals Watson’s breasts but is no more revealing than what you’d find on any red carpet, has ignited a fierce debate. Watson was forced to address the issue this weekend while promoting her new film, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake, which is also facing a religious boycott over the inclusion of an openly gay character.
Let’s deal with that other issue another day. For now: #boobgate.
“It just always reveals to me how many misconceptions and what a misunderstanding there is about what feminism is,” Watson told Reuters on Sunday, sounding exasperated. “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. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing.”
She makes a valid point. Male celebrities are not exposed to this obsession over what they are or are not wearing. By comparison, David Letterman is on the new cover of New York Magazine. Everyone is buzzing about his comedic demolition of Donald Trump. Nobody is making value judgments about his comments based on looks or attire, which is great news for Dave because he now resembles a mall Santa who may share bloodlines with the Unabomber and was just rescued from a remote island after spending the last three years cracking open coconuts with his face.
So, yes, we can safely pin much of the blame for this Watson “controversy” on institutional sexism and the binary framework that often reduces such debates to a zero-sum game of name-calling. But there is another factor here that Watson and her fans may not want to hear, especially from a male, and this concerns the holy war celebrity feminists often wage on one another in the name of feminism.
In 2014, the same year she delivered a widely lauded speech at the United Nations about gender equality, Watson granted an interview to Wonderland magazine with fellow young feminist Tavi Gevinson. One of the subjects they discussed was Beyoncé’s album from that year and the sexually charged videos.
This is what Watson said about Beyoncé five years ago: “I felt her message felt very conflicted in the sense that, on the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, you know this very strong woman and she has that beautiful speech in one of her songs, but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her.”
This idea that feminist bona fides can be questioned if not outright confiscated if the female subject is believed to be an unwitting slave to the male gaze is hardly new. Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian — just about any female celebrity who is overtly sexual faces the charge she is “not a real feminist” when risqué videos, mindless twerking or nude selfies storm the equation.
Again, as a skittish male now in close proximity to cultural landmines, I will happily pull a Jeff Sessions and recuse myself from the debate. But if I’m allowed to speak, and for what it’s worth, Watson’s perfectly reasonable self-defence this weekend would be less necessary if she and other feminists were not prone to sweeping, accusatory observations that, years later, come back to haunt them.
If you’re going to use feminism as a stick to beat other women, however gently, then you probably shouldn’t complain when that stick is turned on you. If you’re going to dismiss a music video as voyeuristic within the confines of the patriarchy, you probably shouldn’t be surprised when a charge of hypocrisy is directed your way after a seminude photo causes a tempest in a teacup.
Beyoncé is a feminist. Emma Watson is a feminist. Nothing either one wears or does in the name of art should ever detract from this spiritual grounding.
Feminism is not an accessory.
So the problem is not Watson’s recent photo. It’s what she said years ago. That image in Vanity Fair doesn’t make her a hypocrite. But her words do.
She should just take them back so we can get on with it.