Emma, nudity, and the meaning of feminism

Covered up: Emma Watson says her latest photoshoot “felt incredibly artistic”. © Vanity Fair

She is an actress, a feminist activist for the UN, and now a semi-nude model in Vanity Fair magazine. Her photoshoot has sparked a fierce feminist row: does baring your breasts betray women?

“I’m always just quietly stunned,” said actress Emma Watson in a recent interview, responding to criticism she had received on social media. “Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women.”

Her co-star Dan Stevens was confused. What had she been accused of exactly? She explained: “They were saying that I couldn’t be a feminist and… and have boobs.”

The video was retweeted thousands of times. Of course, that wasn’t exactly what her critics had been saying; they had been objecting to Watson’s recent photoshoot with Vanity Fair, which included a picture where her breasts were only partially covered.

Watson is an outspoken feminist: she is an ambassador for UN Women, and the face of the #HeForShe campaign. For some, her fierce campaigning on behalf of women did not chime with her decision to go topless in a glossy magazine. “She complains that women are sexualised and then sexualises herself… Hypocrisy,” said radio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer.

Watson’s defence of the photos was supported by many feminists. But then came the backlash against the backlash: if she thinks that women should not criticise other women for their choices, why did she say she was “conflicted” about Beyoncé’s sexualised music videos back in 2014?

Watson had not just exposed her breasts, she had “exposed herself to some as a feminist fraud,” wrote Piers Morgan on Monday.

The row has reignited a debate which has long divided feminists. When the movement first grew in the 1960s and 70s, glossy nudes in magazines were seen as degrading to women. “The most radical thing that women can do… is keep their clothes on and open their mouths,” the feminist academic Dr Finn Mackay told BBC News on Tuesday.

But today, many young feminists celebrate women who use the media to embrace their sexuality on their own terms. Watson is “an empowered woman… It’s a positive use of her body,” said Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society.

Naked truth

We must stop telling women what to do with their bodies, say Watson’s supporters. She is right — in 2017, women should be allowed to pose nude one day and still be taken seriously the next. Would we have this debate about a male actor going topless? Remember, says Smethers, Watson has done more for feminism than most of us put together.

Feminism isn’t just about choice, argue others. It is about making society better for all women. Posing semi-naked might be empowering for Watson. But in the end the photo still feeds into a culture which objectifies women, and expects them to be young, thin and sexy if they want to succeed. Until that culture changes, nudity will never be a simple issue.

You Decide

  1. Is Emma Watson a “feminist fraud” for posing nearly topless?
  2. Would you define feminism as being about personal choice, or improving society for everyone?


  1. Define feminism in a single sentence. Then discuss with a partner: does Watson’s photo shoot fit that definition?
  2. Watson made headlines when she delivered a speech about feminism at the UN in 2014. Expanding on your answer to Activity 1, each write your own short speech about gender equality in 2017 and take turns delivering it to the class.

Some People Say...

“A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.”

John Berger

What do you think?

Q & A

Celebrities do nude photoshoots all the time — why is this different?
Mostly because Watson has consistently used her fame to promote feminism over the last few years. She has largely been praised for her efforts, but it also means that her decisions have been scrutinised very closely. However, this is not just about one woman; it has opened up a debate about nudity throughout celebrity culture.
But why should I care about that either?
Because nude or nearly-nude images of women are everywhere: from tabloids like The Sun to “tasteful” magazines like Vanity Fair. Many feminists fear that these images affect the way we all think about women — it encourages us to judge them on their looks instead of their minds. This may lead to body image problems among women, and sexism among both genders.

Word Watch

The two actors play the leading roles in Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast, which will be released in cinemas next week.
The campaign encourages men to get involved in the fight for gender equality. “Women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” she explained. “Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.”
Watson was speaking about the pop star’s self-titled album, which included several songs about feminism and empowering women. “I felt very conflicted,” said Watson. “On the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her.”
1960s and 70s
This period is often referred to as the “second wave” of feminism (the first being the fight for women’s votes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)
Fawcett Society
A British charity for women’s rights and equality which was established in 1866. It is named after Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a prominent suffragist.

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