“You can’t have your cake and eat it too!” is the argument being levelled at Emma Watson this week. To the surprise of many, Emma Watson (actor, feminist and UN Goodwill Ambassador, who helped launch the HeForShe campaign) has recently been photographed for a shoot in Vanity Fair, wearing an outfit that reveals much of her breasts.
While some have taken to Twitter to suggest that a woman being able to freely show her body parts is an integral element of feminism, others have accused Watson of double standards. Daily Mail columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer has been particularly vocal on the matter, tweeting: “Feminism, feminism … gender wage gap … why oh why am I not taken seriously … feminism … oh, here are my tits” with a link to the offending image.
I don’t think either side of the debate has got to the crux of the issue.
It’s important not to ignore the fact that women often fail to achieve any success in the media without selling their sexuality to some extent. But to say that Watson’s shoot was in some way a “feminist act” ignores that it is only certain body types that magazines such as Vanity Fair choose to show in a sexual light in the first place. This ends up making women who don’t fit western beauty standards (of being thin, fair, able-bodied and young) feel like there’s no space for them to sexually express themselves.
In doing that shoot, then, Watson is profiting from standards which favour her, and contributing to a culture which keeps other women from attaining her levels of success.
But on the other hand, shouting at Watson that “she can’t have it all” is equally problematic. She shouldn’t be held to unfair standards for the crime of expressing that she thinks women should be equal to men.
After having been sexualised from an absurdly young age by a perverse media, should we really deny Watson the right to present her adult sexuality, on her own terms? And if we tell her she mustn’t show her breasts, what other body parts will we soon insist she covers up, before she qualifies as a feminist? After all, nobody bats an eyelid when a man does a topless shoot – nobody seemed to think, when David Beckham or Brad Pitt posed topless for magazines and advertising campaigns, that they were “asking for oppression”.
So there really are two sides to this argument. And the reason I’m not wailing in pain from sitting on this rather uncomfortable fence is because I’m really very used to it. I sit here on a daily basis. Every time I apply eyeliner, buy a push-up bra, perform what can only be described as “arse-centric” dance moves or shag a total stranger, I’ve ask myself the same question: “Am I doing this because of the patriarchy, or in spite of the patriarchy?”
To this day I don’t really know the answer. The closest I could come to a conclusion was figuring out why I couldn’t find one.
None of us can exist in a vacuum. As much as we might loathe sexist society, it is impossible to form views outside of its influence. One of the rubbish side effects of being a woman is that it’s often very hard to distinguish what you want with what you have been told to want.
The patriarchy will tell us to cover up, and it will tell us to strip down. To do either would both embrace and defy its rules. Watson has found herself caught in this paradox, as so many women have before her. And it’s not just a matter of clothes. The catch-22s that plague women are endless: be confident but be humble, be pretty but don’t “know it”, be opinionated but don’t be outspoken. These are directly contradictory ideas.
So when you say that Emma Watson is being contrary, you certainly have a point. But don’t make her semi-nudity the pinnacle of her emancipation, or use it to relegate her from the feminist ranks. Because the only thing “having its cake and eating it too” here is the patriarchy.