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.’
Maturing from Hermione to Belle in @beautyandthebeast is a true coming-of-age story for @EmmaWatson: "I couldn't care less if I won an Oscar or not if the movie didn’t say something that I felt was important for people to hear." Read the full cover story at the link in bio. Photograph by Tim Walker.
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:
This is the part of my 2014 interview with Tavi where we talked about Beyoncé. My words are in bold. pic.twitter.com/Y8vumOeyDT
— Emma Watson (@EmmaWatson) March 7, 2017
Her defense wasn’t without backlash:
— congrats Moonlight!! (@_beatricek) March 7, 2017
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.