At first, I wasn’t going to comment on the ongoing debate over whether Emma Watson’s almost-topless photo was anti-feminist, and why she seemed so confused with people’s questioning of the decision, because, well, who cares. She’s an actress, there are much more pressing issues. But then I remembered that she is a major face of Feminism for the United Nations – the sole purpose of which is to address pressing world issues. So the dialogue created around the issue has got me thinking: how will we ever center a version of Feminism that is truly intersectional if we have pop stars and actresses as our icons?
The issue at hand is that Emma Watson participated in a photo shoot during which she made the choice to go basically topless. Immediately, the internet exploded with this question: does this conflict with Watson’s strong proclamations of Feminism?
For choice Feminists and many (I noticed) left-wing male commenters, participating in this photo shoot was her free choice and in no way conflicts with her Feminist ideology. And if “choice and equality” are your goals in Feminism, then this is correct. But for TRULY intersectional Feminists, feminism goes beyond choice and equality. We recognize that choices are not made in a vacuum – choices are made within power structures that work in different ways to undermine Feminism. So your choice may feel powerful because you freely made it, BUT your choice can still uphold certain aspects of the patriarchy. We also recognize that “equality” can hide important oppressive power structures. Allowing women in combat, for example, may make American women equal within the military, but it still upholds the American military industrial complex, the actions of which has led to the development of ISIS and the rebirth of the Taliban. I don’t believe I need to explain the intersections of oppression here.
In relation to Emma Waston, Feminists are fighting the power structure of oversexualized, over-objectification of women’s bodies – but if we make the choice to actively participate in this system, as Watson did, will we truly break free? Remember, she is supposed to be a Feminist leader. Nobody would really care if she hadn’t been put in this leadership position. And there is a double-standard to why you don’t see men in such shoots, one which Watson unintentionally played into – there is no sexualization of men’s bodies, nor is there idealization of men’s bodies as art. This idealization can be just as harmful as over-sexualization because of its focus on youth and thin, flawless body types, offering a very limited definition of womanhood. Idealization of women’s bodies still renders invisible the female body as a complex, independent being. It still places their bodies as objects at others’ disposal to be consumed- regardless of whether or not there is a related Vanity Fair article.
Choice feminism isn’t just being wielded by Emma Watson, however. It has been used by Nikki Minaj and Miley Cyrus to claim their caricatures of women are “feminist” because they CHOOSE to present themselves in such a matter. But that doesn’t change the fact that Cyrus chose to twerk on a guy who sang a very rapey song, nor does it change the fact that Minaj has reworked her body in such a way as to appease a masculine ideal of female sexuality within the context of a very misogynistic mainstream hip hop. Sex and sexuality in and of itself aren’t sex positive. But trying to argue this often gets you accusations of “slut shaming.” In effect, this accusation erases any of the misogyny within hip hop with which female artists must contend, and which is currently limiting female rap artists solely to Nikki Minaj. Hip hop wasn’t always this misogynist, there used to be a wider dearth of female artists, and it gets hard to fight this misogyny when female artists such as Minaj actively participate in its presentations. Blanket accusations of slut-shaming also erase Robin Thicke’s rapey past because Miley Cyrus chose to twerk on him, so, you know, EMPOWERMENT!
So not only does choice feminism prevent actual dialogue from taking place because you aren’t allowed to critique anyone’s actions, it also prevents any intersectional discussion because it keeps Feminism on the individual level. Yes, Watson’s choice seems harmless enough because, as many said, it is “artsy.” But structures do not have to be outwardly misogynistic to be patriarchal. A good metaphor would be people claiming not to be racist because they aren’t in the KKK or use the n-word. Like racism, patriarchy is woven intimately into the fabric of every level of our society and isn’t always readily visible.
Emma Watson is of course absolutely confused by why people are critiquing her choice in light of her Feminist declarations. And here is the thing: not everything you does has to be a Feminist act. But that doesn’t let you off the hook from examining how your choices impact the greater world around you – ESPECIALLY if you are put into a leadership position. Feminism is supposed to MAKE YOU THINK. Watson, unfortunately, is under the impression all she has to do IS CHOOSE. And we shouldn’t blame her for this – SHE IS A MOVIE STAR!!!
Emma Watson has no business speaking on behalf of the United Nations. This is not a personal judgement upon her. It is simply stating that she has no qualifications for representing an organization as intersectional,complex and serious as the United Nations. And this isn’t her fault. She basically said she was a Feminist and the people at the United Nations decided to put her on a pedestal – despite her complete lack of any REAL activism background nor any in depth study of international policies (she is an English major).
We need to stop making pop stars and actresses spokespeople at the levels of the United Nations. People say you can’t criticize other people’s Feminism. I disagree. You can ABSOLUTELY question their credentials of platforming as the face of Feminism for the United Nations – or simply as our Feminist leaders. It used to be in Feminism that the LEADERS included women such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Susan Faludi, etc. These are women who worked to smash patriarchal structures and have true activist credentials, and it is activism within societal structures that actually creates change. Not Hollywood pulpits and PR campaigns, and not the view that each and every decision a woman makes is Feminist.
Pop Feminism, along with its branch of Choice Feminism, has replaced actual Feminist discourse with glitz and glamour, a superficial veneer of empowerment that creates no real change and consists of no real intersections. Some may believe Pop Feminism is good because it provides PR for Feminism, but when we erect pop stars and actresses as LEADERS AND ICONS, Feminism stops at the pop. Emma’s “heforshe” campaign is nice, but it is also just words, reminiscent of “Hands Across America” – a completely ineffective campaign against homelessness. This isn’t necessarily Watson’s fault, as the UN created it (and perhaps those people should be replaced), but the point is she never seemed to understand how ineffective such campaigns are because, well, she is a movie star. “HeforShe” was largely a symbolic gesture by men to women, and has not caused any outward change. Nor will it, because it’s leader does not understand basic theories of patriarchal constructs in regards to objectifying women’s bodies – which is why her photo makes some Feminists uncomfortable in the context of her being a leader in overthrowing patriarchy. Simply put, the UN put Watson in a position for which she was not prepared. Honestly, I kind of feel sorry for her.
If we want to create real change as Feminists, we need to go beyond pledges of solidarity and bring in the people ACTUALLY creating change as our leaders and icons. What this means, of course, is kicking Liberal Feminism and its sister, Choice Feminism, off it’s podium and replacing it with real action, dialogue and change.