Emma Watson is confused. Specifically, she’s confused as to why people are confused by her. She recently bared her breasts for Vanity Fair magazine, promptly sparking a firestorm of debate and heated accusations of hypocrisy. And poor Watson just doesn’t get it. As she said, “I’m confused . . . just kind of quietly stunned.”
So why was anyone surprised by her topless shot?
It’s not just because Watson is the de facto face of the modern feminist movement, working worldwide for women’s rights; it’s not even because she’s Ivy League-educated, clearly thoughtful, and obviously wants to be taken seriously.
It’s because, for years, she’s been very vocal about female empowerment, her position as a role model, and her concern with feminists who voluntarily sexualize themselves for public consumption.
Folks have been busy waving around what Watson once said about a sexually explicit music video by Beyoncé: “I felt very conflicted . . . on the one hand [Beyoncé] is putting herself in a category of feminist, but then . . . it felt [like] such a male, voyeuristic experience of her,” Watson said at the time. (This takes Watson’s quote out of context; when read in full, it reveals that Watson actually decided Beyoncé is “empowered” because “it is her choice.”)
What’s more surprising is the silence surrounding something else Watson once said that’s far more clear and relevant: “I find the whole concept of being ‘sexy’ embarrassing and confusing. If I do a photo shoot . . . there’s the choice of clothes. I know everyone wants a picture of me in a mini-skirt. But that’s not me . . . I’d never go out in a mini-skirt. . . I don’t even think it’s that sexy. What’s sexy about saying ‘I’m here with my boobs out and a short skirt, have a look at everything I’ve got.’”
Well, then. She’s obviously changed her mind—she literally just posed with her “boobs out” so the whole world could “have a look.” So in light of all she’s said, is it any wonder people are surprised by what she’s just done? Clearly, her words and actions don’t align.
In an interview responding to the photo shoot, Watson appeared irritated, even indignant by the backlash, saying she’s “confused” and “stunned” by it all. But how can that be? For years, she’s expressed the exact same sentiments that others are now expressing regarding her. She’s discussed the struggle between feminism and sexuality, but suddenly she can’t comprehend that others might view her sexualization of herself as a problem? She’s admitted to feeling conflicted when self-proclaimed feminists engage in explicitly sexual behavior in public and for profit, but now she can’t understand why others feel conflicted about her?
First, baring one’s breasts is not sexy, but once Watson decides it is, everyone has to agree, because, you know . . . “Feminism! Choice! Freedom!”
Regardless of whether her actions are hypocritical, her attitude is pretentious. To act suddenly exasperated by the very thing she’s decried in others isn’t just arrogant, it’s precisely the kind of self-righteous cluelessness that the feminist movement is often accused of indulging.
The photo itself should be of less concern than her insistence that no one be concerned about it—she wants to shut down the very conversations she’s been initiating for years.
Of course, Watson is allowed to do whatever she wants, including changing her philosophy and taking off her top. It’s worth remembering, or realizing, that her quotes on Beyoncé and mini-skirts came when she was twenty-four and eighteen, respectively. People change. She’s human.
But you can change your opinion without losing sight of why you once believed differently. You can change your mind without acting appalled if others don’t. Watson is entitled to perpetually modify her positions on feminism and sexuality. But she shouldn’t act outraged if people notice, nor should she look down on them just because she thinks adopting a new attitude suddenly makes her enlightened.
Many people, including Watson, cannot comprehend why some women still don’t consider themselves feminists. But Watson’s own behavior and language help shed some light: too often, the actions of feminists are too easy to interpret as illogical and hypocritical. And too often, the words of feminists are too easy to interpret as pretentious and condescending.
This week, Emma Watson ended up revealing much more than her breasts. She showed just how confusing feminism really is—for her and everyone else – and she revealed precisely why some women want nothing to do with it.