Why Emma Watson’s Response to the ‘Vanity Fair’ Photo Backlash Is So Spot-On
British actress Emma Watson is genuinely befuddled.
A controversy has sprung up around a photo of her in Vanity Fair, in which she appears topless save for a crocheted cape. But the Beauty and the Beast star has no idea what the big deal is.
“It’s really confusing,” she told the BBC.
The photo led critics to question her commitment to feminism and call Watson, an outspoken advocate of gender equality and founder of the UN’s HeForShe campaign, a hypocrite.
Radio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer, for instance, tweeted: “Emma Watson: Feminism, feminism… gender wage gap… why oh why am I not taken seriously… feminism… oh, and here are my [breasts]!”
Watson, for her part, delivered a blistering defense:
“Feminism is about having a choice. It’s not a stick with which to beat other women. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my [breasts] have to do with it…They’re saying I can’t be a feminist and have boobs.”
The and is key.
A feminist can speak out for women’s rights and embrace her sexuality as she sees fit. Feminism, to echo Watson, is about freeing women from societal standards, and about empowering women to abide by no one’s expectations but their own. The backlash against Watson is evidence that women are too often considered to be one-dimensional figures; that if you advocate for gender equality you can’t also pose provocatively; if a female world leader discusses multilateral trade deals and nuclear disarmament, she can’t also have an interest in high fashion.
Just this weekend I was (belatedly) turned on to The Guilty Feminist podcast that starts each episode with listener submissions that finish the sentence: “I’m a feminist but..”
“I’m a feminist but you won’t know it if you saw me on the dance floor.”
“I’m a feminist but last week I was too tired to go to a women’s rights seminar so I stayed home and binged on Sex and the City and Entourage instead.”
The show comedically highlights the impossible standards that modern feminists are often held to. Watson knows the feeling. “I’m always just quietly stunned,” she said of criticism of her Vanity Fair shoot. And to her point, we need to lose the but and embrace the and; the multi-faceted nature of women’s lives doesn’t contradict their feminism, but rather complements it.
This essay first appeared in Fortune’s World’s Most Powerful Women newsletter.