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News & Insight

Emma Watson’s ‘Breast-Backlash’ Controversy & Feminism In Photography

By Holly Roa on March 8th 2017

Many a breast has been bared in the name of fashion photography, but a pair belonging to an outspoken feminist actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador has recently stirred up controversy. Posing for Vanity Fair in Burberry, underboob displayed through sheer fabric without shame for photographer Tim Walker’s lens, Emma Watson has raised the ire of internet detractors for alleged hypocrisy on two counts: for supposedly propagating the very things she’s spoken against as a feminist by being photographed for wide publication semi-nude, and second: for having publicly critiqued Beyoncé’s feminist merits in 2014 when she similarly revealed herself in a music video, in Watson’s eyes aimed toward the ‘male gaze.’

It’s no secret that, historically, women’s bodies have been used by people other than those inhabiting them in all sorts of ways, from an appreciation of a curvaceous (or not) form as art, to over-sexualization for the sake of capitalism. Sex sells. This is all relevant to us as photographers, because our work plays a huge role in the modern representation of the female form, for better or for worse. Perusal of any place photographers go to share their work online will reveal photograph after photograph of women.

Sometimes it’s painfully obvious that a man was behind the camera, when a subject shows nothing of themselves beyond the physical, is reduced to an object and ultimately the photograph says nothing. Not to discredit all men taking ‘sexy’ photos of women – the more talented ones can pull more from the same subject in the same situation than the mass of amateurs that blend into one.

So many of us seek beauty in our subjects and then manipulate what is natural into what is ‘perfect’, but where do our beauty standards originate? And to what degree do our photographic contributions to collective consciousness shape the beauty standards of others?


Back to Ms. Watson – the first charge leveled against her is fairly ludicrous. She showed her boobs, and not in their entirety, in a magazine. So what? She presumably made that decision herself, under her own free will, and as an adult. The image’s inevitable retouching and its affront to the viewer’s sense of reality (those of us who aren’t retouchers anyway) is of greater concern than what a woman has autonomously chosen to do with her body.

The photographer happens to be a man, but to my eye, there is nothing exploitative or sexist about the image which was but one in a series of eleven images of Watson published in the issue. I know female photographers who are far racier, happily exposing women’s sexuality in their art. This is intentional –a body displayed without sexual intention, either that of one displaying or viewing, is just a body– a concept not often grasped in a puritanical society. It’s ironic when people identifying as feminists seek to oppress women, and that is what is happening here.

The second charge, however, does hold a little water. In 2014, the then 22-year-old Watson interviewed Rookie Mag’s founder, Tavi Gevinson, who was a mere 17 years of age at the time, in Wonderland Magazine. Queen Bey’s feminism was questioned by the precocious Watson when asking Tavi her opinion:

“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, but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her and I just wondered if you had thoughts about that or if you had any of your own thoughts about any of it really.”

The Bey Hive never forgets, and as the Vanity Fair shoot became a public controversy this old interview was brought to light. Watson’s retort was to post the entire interview, with portions she felt most favorable to herself highlighted, on Twitter:

Her defense wasn’t without backlash:

All things political aside, the photo series is beautiful and can be seen in its entirety in the Vanity Fair article.

Nudity in art almost certainly dates back to art’s very inception and that’s not going anywhere anytime soon. While there are unfortunately plenty of attacks on women to be righteously incensed by in the world today, a non-exploitative photo collaboration made by choice isn’t one of them.




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Seattle based photographer with a side of videography, specializing in work involving animals, but basically a Jill of all trades.
Instagram: @HJRphotos

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Brendan Daly

    Ayn Rand once said ” You can’t have your cake and eat it too”

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  2. Olivier Borgognon

    The interesting element is that she is not nude, nor is she topless. The clothing she is wearing is a very transparent top made of silk from burberrys with shoulder pads. It can be seen by zooming into the picture under her arm, and we can see the reflective surface on the upper body too and the shoulder straps on the sides. 

    As per the whole element of this article. Nice work, and I feel that women should simply have the right to decide if nudity and exposing themselves is for them or not. It is not a question of globality or standard… nudity works for some, doesn’t for others, and it should never be shamed whatever we might feel personally… our body is the only element of clothing we shall have for our whole life. 

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  3. Ben Perrin

    The sooner feminism dies the better. One minute you are the face and hero of the movement, the next you are a witch to be burned at the stake. Worst movement ever, including the bowel movement I had this morning :)

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    • Max Zbarskiy

      Agreed.  It lacks sense and logic.  A ‘Day Without a Woman’: let’s celebrate women’s achievements by being lazy, useless and skipping work.  Or: let’s wear vagina hats to promote dignity and equality.  Or: let’s call Beyonce an “artist” – when all she does is shake her rear end.  The movement has become a joke.  It has become an attempt by useless people to pretend to care and to feel relevant without doing anything significant.  They are in the same boat as those who “raise awareness” – whatever the hell that means.

      Ms. Watson can expose herself all she wants – it is within her rights, and it is within others’ rights to call her cheap and distasteful.  

      … Kudos to photographer for capturing the perfect light on her boob.

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