Feminism Women

Tits, empowered.

A Burberry capelet fashioned out of nautical rope made headlines this week. It was austere, almost Victorian in structure, but it had the audacity to be worn in a Vanity Fair photo shoot by Emma Watson, an intelligent celebrity feminist and UN spokeswoman who made her fame starring as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film series.

by Meredith Hinshaw-Chaney 

A Burberry capelet fashioned out of nautical rope made headlines this week. It was austere, almost Victorian in structure, but it had the audacity to be worn in a Vanity Fair photo shoot by Emma Watson, an intelligent celebrity feminist and UN spokeswoman who made her fame starring as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film series. Watson wore it and the Internet exploded. It was a squarely American controversy fuelled by a debate as to whether toplessness (or female nudity of any kind) can be construed as feminist expression.

Styled by Jessica Diehl to be worn braless, without any other undercovering, the bolero was artfully positioned to mask any nipple exposure. It was wrapped around a softly defiant Watson, her arms crossed and body face-forward, the bolero’s nautical masculinity mirrored in Watson’s hairstyle, pulled up and back and into structured waves.

Granger-Watson looked at the camera with tough inscrutability and it is clear that behind her dark brows, a thought was forming… She found them (and you) almost bemusing. Her stance dared the viewer to challenge her clothing choice, dared the viewer to look at her complete posture, not just her chest. Diehl’s ensemble was ingeniously crafted to toggle the gaze between Watson’s eyes and breasts, thanks to the employment of a tulle choker, the only accessory to an otherwise unadorned figure. The image itself was a deliberate study in texture, featuring lace, fur, rope, and skin, and the overall effect of the image was to brilliantly juxtapose the notion of femininity with the much more controversial notion of feminism. Hard and soft, male and female, object and subject; Watson blew up the binaries with this image. It—like she—was complicated, sophisticated, and far too layered to be reduced to banal commentary about her tits. Unfortunately, subtlety is lost on the black and white.

“When women decide to remove their shirts, the people who enjoy it most are men… Once you take off your shirt, men do not pay attention to anything you’re saying.” – Julia Hartley-Brewer

The image is one of a series of balletic compositions featuring shirtless male courtesan-dancers and surreal, Alice in Wonderland-type visual inversions. There are no unconscious details throughout the shoot. When Watson is unadorned, she is unadorned intentionally. In all honesty, the stylist Jessica Diehl deserves an award for her artful creation; Tim Walker clearly knows how to frame a killer product shot.

Which is what this falsely controversial photo is, at the end of the day, a product shot for a piece of rope-turned-clothing priced at $2,995, made for the 1 percent to buy and the 99 percent to admire. All fashion shoots in fashion magazines, no matter how creative, artistic, or celebrity-focused, are structured to highlight the products in which and around which the subjects are draped. The choice of Watson going topless underneath the capelet was probably not so much about being controversial as it was about creating the right tonal contrast to highlight the detail in the stitching. This image is all about the garment; one might argue that Watson adorns it exquisitely, not the other way around.

When outspoken critics like Hartley-Brewer go off on “so-called feminists” because of a fashion photo, they illustrate a fundamental misconception about how stuff gets made for magazines and by extension, how culture gets created for consumption.

Watson’s photo shoot occurred at one moment in time, in a studio over the course of several hours, and is the result of dozens of creators like photographer Tim Walker and stylist Diehl spending dozens of hours architecting every detail to perfection. A fashion shoot employs celebrity as model, playing with notions of persona toward a representation of authenticity, but one that plays with norms because that’s what good photo shoots do. The photos are both about and not about Watson; she is playing a part, just like in the movies. To insinuate that Watson made a deliberate choice to go topless in the photo is misguided, for within the world created at the shoot, it was a logical extension of the wishes of its creators.

The interview, on the other hand, most likely took place at a completely different time and place, and served a very different but related purpose, to get an “inside look” at Watson the person. The celebrity interview is meant to delve specifically into an actor’s character, her thoughts and viewpoints, be they about feminism or juice cleanses. Importantly, stitched into the celebrity interview is almost always a product push; in this case, it’s Watson’s new Disney live-action princess movie remake, Beauty and the Beast. (One might argue that the entire photo shoot was a symbolic exposition of what ‘beauty’ and ‘bestiality’ mean, given that occasionally Watson is depicted caged, in frames, mirrors, and actual metal structures, frequently offset by male, muscular forms.)

In the case of the Watson interview, the confluence of feminism and a Disney princess movie meets in exquisite and intentional ways, with Watson’s activism informing many aspects of Belle’s character. “It was fascinating that her activism could be so well mirrored by the film,” says Gloria Steinem in the Vanity Fair interview. I don’t know about you, but if Gloria Steinem gives this Disney princess remake the thumbs up, I consider it a win for young girls everywhere.

Hartley-Brewer’s attempt to eviscerate Watson for having the gall (balls?) to go topless AND espouse her feminist position reveals so much vitriol as to question whether Hartley-Brewer herself hates women. She, at the very least, sits squarely inside the male hegemony that essentially and tragically frames the feminist debate. Despite historical evidence of the significant and impactful role shirtlessness has played in feminist activism, Hartley-Brewer seems to disregard the notion that toplessness, nudity or expressions of sexuality in any mode can be a form of empowerment because the male gaze prevents the act from ever being authentic. Within the dominant hetero-patriarchal construct of society, it is necessary for any form of female sexuality to be construed as an object of the male gaze; therefore, it is impossible for any expression to be “reclaimed” as an act of feminism.

“Looking at beautiful bodies is delightful for both men and women. But it shouldn’t be confused with an act of liberation that is rooted in feminism,” Hartley-Brewer writes. Why not? Why does Hartley-Brewer conflate the gazer with the gazed-upon? It is not the act of looking that is empowering, but the act of daring to be seen.

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