Emma Watson, Nudity, and What This Means for Feminism
Emma Watson has starred in the highly successful Harry Potter franchise. She has, as head of the United Nation’s HeForShe campaign, been a fierce advocate for gender equality. She is playing the character of Belle in the remake of Beauty and the Beast, creating a princess for the modern age who designs her own inventions, refuses to wear a corset, and teaches young illiterate girls how to read.
And yet, this past March, all anyone could talk about were her breasts.
Watson had posed for a Vanity Fair photoshoot, featuring a photo in which parts of her breasts could be seen beneath an open bolero jacket. Some shamed Watson, wondering how she could be a feminist while allowing her breasts to be seen by the public. Others defended her, insisting feminism was about giving women the freedom to show their breasts without fear of judgment.
In light of these debates, Watson publicly responded in a BBC interview, saying “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.”
But considering the ongoing debate about what nudity means for gender equality, whether Watson likes it or not, they have quite a lot to do with it.
On one side of this debate exists women who believe nudity is important for gender equality. Although Kim Kardashian wrote an essay last year distancing herself from the label “feminist”, many have pointed to her nude selfies and photoshoots as empowering for women. Amber Rose, frequently pitted against Kardashian in the media, proudly hosted her second SlutWalk in October 2016. Despite the provocative name, the SlutWalk states its mission as ending sexual violence, victim blaming, derogatory labels, and gender inequality by reclaiming the term “slut” and encouraging women to be proud of displaying their bodies. And then there is a whole generation of women on Instagram who are pushing for the right to show off their nude bodies, posting topless photos and using the hashtag FreetheNipples.
Of course, others wonder if it’s really feminist for women to show off their bodies in order to gain more fame or to promote a business venture. After all, the male gaze exists, whether we want it to or not. Men wish to see nude women, and posting nude photos plays into this desire. Men see women calling themselves and those they dislike “sluts”, and they feel empowered to use the word. Women are trying to reclaim the rights to their body, but have we come far enough to really use our nudity as empowerment – especially when this form of feminism isn’t empowering to all women?
As journalist Rafia Zakaria points out in her piece “Sex and the Muslim Feminist”, feminism that heavily focuses on sexuality and nudity is not truly intersectional because it leads to, “the stereotyping and exclusion of Muslim feminists, whose frontline struggles…have all been relegated to a position of inferiority, based on their refusal to affirm that freedom essentially and centrally means the freedom to have sex.” While some could argue nudity does not equal sexuality – another discussion which returns to the idea of the never-ending male gaze – it’s important to consider how nudity, sexuality, feminism, and intersectionality within different cultures intertwine.
So was the outcry over Watson truly about her breasts? Yes, partially. But the root of this scandal truly lies in the fear – or empowerment – women feel at the idea of exposing their body and their sexuality to the world. To some of us, it may seem silly that Watson, despite her many achievements, was attacked for daring to show her bare skin. But that does not mean we should just brush aside those women who, for any variety of reasons, do not equate feminism with public nudity.
The issue is complicated, but there is still one truth we can rely on: feminism, like Watson said, is about choice. But it is also about conversation, debate, and growth.