The Attack On Emma Watson Is An Attack On Us All


The more things change, the more they stay the same, writes Hannah Wootton.

The sexist outrage of tabloid press over Emma Watson’s ‘topless’ photo accompanying a Vanity Fair article last week struck yet another blow to the vitally important feminist movement.

The Sun published the photo in question on page three, in place of their usual topless ‘page three girl’. Just in case there was any chance this could be construed as not trying to demean Watson, they shoved the blaring headline “Beauty and the Breasts” above it. Daily Mail columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer then served up a reminder that women shouldn’t be smart and sexy, tweeting a picture of the page and writing “Feminism, feminism… gender wage gap… why oh why am I not taken seriously… feminism… oh, and here are my tits!”

This coverage is misleading, sexist, and counter-productive to the vitally important feminist movement that Watson promotes.

Firstly, to state the obvious, Watson is not actually exposing her breasts as much as the tabloid and twitter coverage would have you believe. She is wearing a rope bolero from Burberry’s most recent collection, which just happens to show a bit of breast. Underneath is sheer net blouse. Wearing it that way in no way makes her naked from the waist up, as the tabloid coverage implies, and in no way compromises her feminism, her integrity or her right to be treated with respect.

Furthermore, Watson has had a professional relationship with Burberry in the past as a model and ambassador. While she occupied this role, their sales skyrocketed. She is also a fierce advocate of ethical and sustainable fashion. These achievements are not mentioned by The Sun or Hartley-Brewer at all. No, much more important to only argue how her fashion choices limit her right to be taken seriously as a woman.

Posing naked would not have compromised Watson’s ability to have valid feminist thoughts either, mind you. As the actress said herself in the wake of this coverage, “I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it” (‘it’ being feminism). The fact that she wasn’t even really showing her breasts though just makes these articles even more ridiculous.

Secondly, comparisons between this photo and those regularly on page three are wrong and devalues the Vanity Fair picture. Hartley-Brewer further tweeted about the “hypocrisy” of how “getting your tits out for a posh magazine is empowering, but doing it for page 3 of The Sun is exploitation?”, with other (mostly male) people on Twitter joining in. When looking at the context though, this hypocrisy is non-existent.

Watson posed for a high fashion and culture magazine that has tirelessly promoted the voices of women for decades. She was photographed by Tim Walker, an artist who specialises in this style of photography. The other photos of her in the shoot have the same ethereal and edgy feel. They also featured a topless man (unsurprisingly no judgment has been passed saying the worth of his opinions is diminished by his choice to show his chest).

Vanity Fair's Instagram page, featuring actress Emma Watson.
Vanity Fair’s Instagram page, featuring actress Emma Watson.

The typical page three photos in The Sun, however, are hyper-sexualised and often compromising to the featured woman. The models are usually in positions and outfits geared toward appealing to men. Their location on page three, one of the most important in a newspaper, is not to accompany a news story as a picture typically in that place would (and as Watson’s pictures in Vanity Fair do), but to encourage men to flip open the paper and to remind women of their place. Indeed, when you search ‘page three’ on The Sun’s webpage, a “related topic” that comes up is “loose women.”

Watson herself also looks empowered by her sexuality. She is depicted as a strong woman in possession of her own body. This does not weaken her feminism, but rather strengthens it. I am not saying that models on page three do not gain similar strength or pleasure from posing this way – they may well do. This is not the incentive behind their publication though. To even compare this to Vanity Fair is incorrect and demeans the strong message behind Walker’s photo.

Finally, coverage such as this is damaging to women on a broader level. It feeds the age-old belief that women can’t be brainy and show their bodies, that they can’t be feminist and also possess feminine sexuality. By tying the worth of Watson’s feminist activism to the fact she is in a revealing photo, The Sun and Hartley-Brewer promote this ridiculous concept.

A key reason Watson is an ambassador for UN Women is her ability to connect with young women. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the organisation’s executive director, said that they “needed a new messenger to break new ground for us”. And Watson has done this – she has inspired many young women to embrace feminism who once considered it a dirty word, my own sister included. It is vitally important for these young women to know that viewing their bodies as sexual does not have to come at the expense of their right to call themselves a feminist.

It is also empowering for them to know that their sexiness is their own, to do with what they will. As young women, my friends and I are bombarded with hyper-sexualised and pornographic images of women. In posing for this photo, Watson is presenting us with a image of sexuality that is not lewd, demeaning or targeted toward men. Instead, she is showing us that a woman’s body can be strong and beautiful in its sexiness.

By saying that doing so compromises Watson’s right to be listened to as a person, by saying that she cannot expect to be treated equally by men and also reveal her femininity, The Sun and Hartley-Brewer risk setting these imperative advances in feminism back.

The fact their comments were even published in 2017 shows that this is a step back that we, as a society, can no longer afford to take.

Hannah Wootton is a Juris Doctor candidate at the University of New South Wales. She holds a degree in Media and Communications from the University of Melbourne, where the focus of her honours research was messaging in tabloid newspapers.