Since her cover shoot for Vanity Fair, Emma Watson has been met with an onslaught of criticism from other feminists, as well as the predictable online trolls. According to them, the photo is too revealing, and shifts her role from empowering women to one of degrading them. Apparently, her critics feel that extensive work with the UN, campaigns for women’s rights, and visible activism can all be negated by what they deem to be too much skin.
This backlash against the images of Watson is to be expected from exceptional misogynists, such as Piers Morgan. What is more baffling is the criticism of Watson from other women who identify as feminists.
Feminism is not an exclusive club to which entry is determined by clothing. To be exclusive in this way is to alienate women from the cause and to characterise feminism as the antithesis of the choice it purports to enable. It is to make women feel less than good enough for a cause that should be celebrating their worth. It is bizarre that many who will happily chant ‘my body, my choice’ will not apply this mantra to something as basic as clothing.
At the same time as criticising Watson, many western feminists talk of a need to ‘liberate’ Muslim women, since the hijab or burka is condemned as inherently oppressive, often without regard for a woman’s personal reasons for wearing one. Neither Muslim women who wear burkas nor Emma Watson are guilty of betraying feminism by simply making a choice about their body.
What Watson perhaps is guilty of is hypocrisy. She has previously criticised Beyoncé and her visual album BEYONCE, saying that “the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her”. Watson is certainly not the first to make this argument; Beyoncé’s feminism is frequently dismissed as tokenistic due to her sexualised image. Many refuse to even acknowledge that she is a feminist, conveniently ignoring her albums written for black women, her song ‘***Flawless’ which samples a speech calling for gender equality, and her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in front of giant neon letters spelling out the word ‘FEMINIST’. Suggestions of how she could make her beliefs on the issue any clearer would be welcome.
However, even to tear down Watson’s feminism for this reason alone seems unhelpful. Of course she should be challenged, and the racism that underlies people’s perception of Beyoncé’s feminism must be confronted. But if Watson engages with this, learns, and becomes more inclusive, her feminism is still valid. We are far too eager to jump at someone’s mistakes, instead of engaging with them. The constant battle to kick someone out of feminism is exhausting and unproductive. Feminism’s only necessity is intersectionality and, although Watson revealed through her comments that she perhaps has more to learn about that, so does every feminist with any kind of privilege.
It is not anti-feminist to take your clothes off, and it is forgiveable to make mistakes provided you learn from them. What is anti-feminist is to believe there is a correlation between how a woman chooses to express her sexuality and how much she can involve herself in politics. It is also anti-feminist to assume that when a woman takes her clothes off, she must be doing it for a man. If you go to a Beyoncé concert, or examine Emma Watson’s fan base, you will not find leering men. You will find inspired groups of young women, engaging with politics, asserting their worth, and wearing whatever they want.
Image: Joella Marano on Flickr via Wikimedia Commons