For years now, Emma Watson has been one of Hollywood’s most influential voices for the feminist cause. She played Hermione, who has since become an iconic feminist character. Watson is also the UN ambassador for HeForShe campaign, which aims to mobilize one billion men to accelerate gender equality. But now, thanks to a controversial photo in Vanity Fair, many on the Internet are dismissing her history as a feminist and calling her a hypocrite.
The Vanity Fair cover story, which, ironically enough, is focused on her feminist views, came out as her new film, “Beauty and the Beast,” is about to hit theaters. “I used to be scared of words like ‘feminism,’ ‘patriarchy,’ ‘imperialist.’ But I’m not anymore,” Watson said in the piece. But in an ironic twist, it was not the article, but rather a shot on the inside of Watson in a white crocheted bolero jacket showing her cleavage— that drew controversy. Within minutes of publication, Watson received an outpouring of hatred and personal attacks. Most were by other so-called “feminists”.
“Attention seeking hypocrite. Acting like a slut and flashing her tits is not what a real feminist does,” posted one on Twitter. “Is Actress and Feminist Emma Watson a Hypocrite for Going Topless in Vanity Fair?” asked the Hollywood Reporter’s Pret-a-Reporter. “Did Emma Watson pose ‘topless’ because of the patriarchy or despite of it? I doubt she knows herself,” announced another headline in the Independent.
In the hours that followed, Emma Watson shot back at critics, in which she said “There are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings about feminism. Feminism is about giving a woman a choice, it’s not a stick with which to beat other women.”
That particular quote — “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women” — is what stuck out to me in her response. It points to a more troubling pattern I’ve noticed in recent times on social media and other platforms — the energy, nay, eagerness, with which we are willing to criticize, judge, and drag down someone who has a different opinion than us, even if they’re on our team. This is especially true of the feminist movement, where it’s almost become a trend, a mark of honor, to “drag” or “call out” other women for doing perceived exclusionary or unfeminist behavior, even if the behavior was done by accident or out of sheer ignorance.
This isn’t really a surprise: some feminist camps idolize sexually liberated women while others vehemently hate them. There comes a question of whether or not expressing one’s sexuality is freedom of expression, or simply another way to pander to the “male gaze”. It’s certainly a valid debate to have, but it largely misses the point. If Watson identifies as a feminist, her doing a sexy shoot doesn’t have to undermine that. Feminism about freedom of individual choice. True individual freedom does not make being sexy and being a feminist mutually exclusive traits.
There was, of course, another side to this controversy. Many feminists who lashed out against Watson did so because she supposedly criticized Beyonce’s sexiness and feminism a few years ago. The quote, of course, was taken out of context, and Emma Watson did manage to defend herself on Twitter by simply posting the full quote in context of the interview in which she gave it. But by then, it was effectively too late. There were already a million and one think pieces on the Internet dragging her through the mud for her purported lack of intersectionality and labeling her a “white feminist” . The initial comment by Watson that blew up on Twitter was quoted to look like she was criticizing Beyonce’s duality as a feminist and a sexual creature. But in the full quote, Watson actually says that Beyoncé presenting herself as sexually empowered, intellectual, and feminine while not negating her feminist message was one of her main appeals.
As a WOC, I’ll be the first to say that the intersectionality of feminism is undoubtedly an important conversation to have. This is especially true in the context of black women, whose sexuality is often unfairly judged, fetishized, and policed. However, it’s an insult to the importance and integrity of that conversation if feminists are willing to make up faux controversies to bring these discussions to the forefront. Retweets and social media likes alone do not make a successful social justice campaign. Neither does slandering the name of a high-profile feminist who is simply trying to do better and has herself admitted that she is privileged, has spoken about minorities, and herself says she has a long way to go when it comes to matters of intersectionality. It’s a bad look for anyone who calls themselves a feminist, and it only hurts the cause.
More importantly, even if Emma Watson gave up her acting career and simply dedicated her entire life to the study of feminism, she could never conduct it in a way that would silence all her feminist critics. That’s because feminism is inherently a nebulous, messy, concept. To try to hold her to some impossible standard of moral purity when it comes to these matters is naivety at best and outright harassment at worst. Her brand of feminism is a work-in-progress, just like everyone else’s.
As ever, the focus of the discourse has turned to what a woman should or shouldn’t be doing, rather than the much more important discussion of how our culture presents, policies, and consumes women’s bodies and condemns their actions. As feminists, we need to challenge these things and conditions, and show a little more understanding to the individual women stuck in the system. There is a much more important conversation to be had, and much more important battles to be won.