Aidan Smith: Watson’s photos are strong and sexy. Can I still say that?

Emma Watson's crime was to pose in a fencer's cape with nothing underneath to protect her from either an epee or righteous indignation, writes Aidan Smith
Emma Watson's crime was to pose in a fencer's cape with nothing underneath to protect her from either an epee or righteous indignation, writes Aidan Smith
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The storm over a magazine photo-shoot by the Harry Potter actress both amuses and confuses Aidan Smith

When Joan Collins complains of a scarcity of good roles for actresses of a certain age, there is sympathy and no-one asks, bitchily, whether she means the schlocky soft-core porn stuff for which she’s best remembered. Then another actress declares that from now on she’s only going to be drinking goat’s milk and there’s no ridicule, just the ho-hum response: “That’ll be Gwyneth Paltow then.”

Then Emma Watson turns up in Vanity Fair exposing a bit of flesh. Hang on, is this the same Emma Watson who calls herself a feminist? The same Emma Watson who serves as a women’s goodwill ambassador for the United Nations? The same Emma Watson who was so sweet and lovely in the Harry Potter films? Let’s give her a kicking.

This was the jist: Watson cannot claim to be leading the charge for women when she submits to a magazine notorious for having a photography department with the most poorly-appointed dressing-up box/props cupboard in the business. Vanity Fair, after all, is the mag which tells Nicole Kidman: “Sorry, would you mind just wearing your nighty for this shoot?” It suggests to Uma Thurman that her underwear will be fine. It says to Demi Moore: “Ah, you’re pregnant. We’ve nothing that will fit. Could you maybe go naked?” It hands the 15-year-old Miley Cyrus a bedsheet. And all that’s left when Jennifer Lawrence pitches up is a snake which she has to wear like a scarf. Thus, Watson is at best naive and at worst a complete fraud with the whole feminist thing. According to the haters, anyway.

Her crime was to pose in a fencer’s cape with nothing underneath to protect her from a well-aimed epee or indeed the thumpingly righteous indignation of the sisterhood. Cue internet stooshie, which brought this thrust and parry from Watson: “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my t**s have to do with it.”

And isn’t she right? Even if you question how much freedom can be involved in a Vanity Fair shoot when it’s the mag which calls the shots and keeps the clothes well hidden, you can hardly claim that the photo undermines and trashes her feminism. Who decided that everything a feminist does has to be a feminist act?

Who decided that more or less cleavage makes a woman more or less feminist? Is there a sliding scale or perhaps a pie-chart which allows a quarter of a boob if you’re talking about glass ceilings but no more than that when discussing sex trafficking? You see how silly this can get?

It seems that feminism has become Watson’s “thing”. Joan Collins’ thing, I seem to remember, was Maggie Thatcher. She absolutely adored the Iron Lady and probably still does. Gwyneth Paltow’s thing, if we’re reducing everyone down to just one handy fact, something to sneer about, is that she likes to steam her vagina. I’m sure there’s much more to these women; in fact I know there is.

Paltrow may never escape Mugwort while Watson is trying to leave Hogwarts behind. Mugwort is the aromatic Chinese herb used in food flavouring appropriated by the vagina-steamers of Hollywood while Hogwarts is the school from the Potter stories. Making the transition from child star is difficult and some never achieve it.

Watson in young adulthood is still searching for a great role but she should be applauded for sticking her neck out. It would be so much easier to just be a bimbo, turn up on Graham Norton’s sofa and gush about how your latest movie was a joy to make and how everyone in it is now best friends forever.

What is the Watson photo if not another kind of puff for another film, namely Beauty and the Beast? Well, if Vanity Fair is going to promote the flick, then you’d probably be contractually unobliged to turn down the cover. Obviously I’m joking about the massive wardrobe malfunction of there being no wardrobe at the mag. No star photographer will have forced Watson into the top she’s almost wearing. Can you be a feminist and do a strong, sexy shoot like this? Of course you can.

It could be argued that feminism, being involved with it, has the potential to undermine and trash Watson’s career. There’s a lot of cynicism about actors’ insincerity when it comes to hopping aboard a good cause. It’s true that some, in filmed reports of them inspecting some blighted land, don’t vary their delivery too much from the last time they got given a freebie by a holiday programme. But I don’t get the impression Watson is wading around in the murky waters of feminism to improve her own image and appear smart and radical.

And the waters are murky. Who decrees there’s only one kind of feminism, that only this kind is the right kind, and that a beautiful 26-year-old actress doesn’t fit the bill? Dissecting her particular brand of feminism, Watson’s critics have questioned why she fronted a campaign called “He For She”, appealing to men to support women’s rights. They reckoned she was saying that without masculine endorsement the fight lacked credibility. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t.

Read the online rumpus Watson’s photo has caused and you’ll find women attacking women. Then a despairing voice will cry: “I wear lipstick every day. Not for anyone except me! I am 60. I don’t give a s**t about attracting anyone! I am sick to the back teeth of being told what is a feminist and what isn’t! She has a vagina. She is a woman who cares how she dresses. She speaks from the heart!”

Watson is young and still figuring out a world that baffles many much older than her, including some actresses who displayed more flesh and never had their feminist credentials challenged. She’s to be admired.