Why Does Emma Watson’s Feminism Irritate So Many People?

Image: Courtney Myers

Emma Watson can't win. Ever since the 26-year-old actress "came out" as a feminist, she's been picked apart in every facet of her life as critics and feminist allies alike search of any traces of hypocrisy. For Watson, it's an impossible position -- on one side, she faces accusations of being an uptight, know-it-all feminist preacher; on the other, she's seen as too privileged and not feminist enough by fervently intersectional millennials.

The most recent turn in a seemingly endless discussion about Watson's fitness as a feminist stemmed from a rather stunning Tim Walker photo shoot in this month's Vanity Fair. The problem started when a British columnist and radio presenter named Julia Hartley-Brewer found a photo of Watson displaying some tasteful underboob from the shoot, and tweeted the following:

Respected British newspaper The Independent followed up by questioning Watson’s choices and agency: “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 only thing ‘having its cake and eating it too’ here is the patriarchy.”

The backlash continued. CNN asked with a straight face: “Can you be a feminist and pose in a nearly see-through top for Vanity Fair?" And The Hollywood Reporter, failing to understand that practicing feminists are not required nor expected to sign no-nudity clauses, asked, “Should stars worry more about their images in editorial photo spreads, especially when those images could run counter to their personal brand messaging?”

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Some outlets fought for Watson. Jezebel’s Rachel Verona Cote called Hartley-Brewer’s Tweet an “absurd remark;” Vulture noted that “According to some critics, feminism and nudity are mutually exclusive... That’s backwards.”

Watson herself weighed in with sense and humor: “Feminism is about giving women choice, feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality,” she said. “I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.”

Even after that, Watson was attacked on Twitter by Beyoncé fans, who revived a three-year-old interview in which Watson discussed Queen Bey's music videos.

In response, Watson dug up the interview, highlighted the sections in which she talked about Beyoncé, and allowed the text to speak for itself. (Admitting that she "still [hadn't] really formed my own ideas about it," she had been asking questions about Beyoncé's music videos that seemed to be shot through a "male gaze." )

As with so many criticisms directed at Watson -- whenever she does anything feminist or feminine -- it's often a lot of fuss about nothing.

emmaThe entire Vanity Fair incident serves to highlight just how much confusion still swirls around feminism as a movement. In 2017, the idea that individuals must stay chaste and fully-clothed to defend equal rights for women is antiquated, stemming from an old stereotype that painted women’s rights campaigners as sexless man-haters in order to discourage more women from joining the movement. Apparently, Beyoncé in a leotard in front of a gigantic FEMINIST sign at the Grammys in 2014 has done little to dispel this old, ugly myth. That's probably for the same reason why Watson was openly confused about Beyoncé at the time -- namely, that understanding millennial feminism requires additional thought about free sexual expression, patriarchal media influences, choice and women's place in the age of technology.

But another part of Watson's problem as an outspoken feminist is who she literally is. She is widely viewed as the embodiment of privilege. Her accent carries the same polished tone as the British Royal Family; she was born in Paris to two successful lawyers; she has few memories of ever not being a millionaire, thanks to being cast as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter franchise at the age of nine. Watson definitely has something of a relatability problem.

At a time when the term “White Feminist” is one of the worst things to call a female campaigner, Watson's feminism comes under extra scrutiny precisely because she is a young, rich, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman -- the exact demographic that dominated second-wave feminism, sometimes to the detriment of other women. It also happens to be the exact demographic from which millennial feminism so often seeks to distance itself.

Undoubtedly, Watson is now in a bit of a quagmire. Since she became an activist, she stopped being a relatable figure to those who don’t understand feminism nor care to hear about it (i.e., the people who picked apart her photo shoot last week). But for a sizable portion of new-generation feminists, Watson is simply too privileged to truly get it. No matter how much sense she speaks, or how well her arguments hold up, her innate privilege has a tendency to undercut her ability to be viewed as authentic.

The split between the old and new feminist guard was made abundantly clear after Watson's “HeForShe” speech at the UN in 2014. It was a moment widely applauded across the mainstream media, but Watson faced backlash in some feminist-specific media outlets (like XOJane, BGD Blogand Guerrilla Feminism). Her response to the discussion was thoughtful, but did little to dispel the idea that Watson might not truly get it:

Watson's response to charges of not being intersectional enough

Another example of Watson’s good intentions backfiring is the Instagram account she set up to chronicle the many stunning ensembles she's been wearing on her globetrotting Beauty & The Beast promotional tour. @ThePressTour was set up with the intention of highlighting another cause close to Watson’s heart -- eco-friendly fashion –- but to many, it looks an awful lot like just another rich, beautiful celebrity flaunting her access to extremely expensive couture. The motivations and intentions behind The Press Tour are great (and just imagine what the anti-feminists would say if she didn't show up to every appearance this polished), but the execution suggests to many that Watson is clueless when it comes to understanding the realities of life for low-income women and women of color.

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Photo: The Press Tour Instagram

If Watson continues with her feminist campaigning -- and young women would certainly be worse off if she didn’t -- the furor around that one very tasteful photograph in Vanity Fair will only be the beginning. As it stands, it might be more useful for all of us to start viewing Watson through a lens that doesn't involve old-fashioned feminist stereotypes, and doesn't -- based on their bank balances or race -- exclude women (which was the point of intersectional feminism in the first place).

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Watson isn't a perfect feminist, because there is no such thing. We should be judging her for her passion, her actions, the attention she brings to feminism, and the fact that, even under heavy fire, she persists.

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