Why What Emma Watson Wears Is Our Problem, Not Hers

This week Emma Watson, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and actress, has been at the centre of a storm regarding a photoshoot for Vanity Fair in which she posed in a white top revealing significant amounts of flesh, including parts of her breasts. The controversy deepened as Beyoncé fans pointed back to an interview Watson had done in 2014 where she had expressed conflicting views over Beyonce's album videos saying, 'It felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her.'

Emma WatsonFacebook/Emma Watson

This teacup-storm was instigated by professional provocateur and radio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer. Known for her strong views on Brexit, Hartley-Brewer's views on feminism are usually negative. She objected to feminists challenging the tampon tax and referred to the 'modern feminazi movement, which views everything from the standpoint of women as victims of an ingrained patriarchal system'.

As usual, news organisations jumped on Hartley-Brewer's tweet, posted with the revealing photograph of Emma Watson: 'Feminism, feminism... gender wage gap... why oh why am I not taken seriously... feminism... oh, and here are my (t*ts)!' And the discussion about Emma Watson's photoshoot has continued over the last few days.

When Benedict Cumberbatch posed for an Elle photoshoot with a 'this is what feminist looks like' t-shirt on, no one pointed to his video a couple of months early where he had stripped naked in the ice bucket challenge. Nobody suggested his nudity disqualified him from being a feminist. It's almost as if women's choices are judged according to a different standard than men's.

Emma Watson's photo was not sexual. It involved a degree of nudity. Nudity and sexual imagery are not necessarily the same thing. Instagram and Facebook have banned photographs of women breastfeeding and of fully clothed women with blood stained clothes. Women's bodies are inevitably sexualised. It doesn't matter what we do to attempt to avoid that.

In her UN speech Watson spoke of how the media began sexualising her from the age of 14 and about her commitment to feminist activism. Feminism has long had a value of solidarity and sisterhood. Standing alongside other women and refusing to engage in competitive] behaviour towards other women. We live in a world constantly pitting women against each other, insisting we compete for men, for power and for validation. A 'divide and conquer system' is very often in operation, preventing women ever building relationships that can enable us to challenge oppressive structures. And this week we've seen that in operation as Julia Hartley-Brewer belittles Emma Watson and it becomes a high-profile media story.

Emma Watson's response to the criticism has been to say, 'Feminism is about giving women choice, 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*** have to do with it.' She is absolutely right to say that feminism should not be used to condemn other women.

In the spirit of sisterhood, I stand up for Watson's right to express herself and wear whatever clothes she chooses. However, there is an incongruence between the idea that feminism is about choice and that it is also about liberation. Women's liberation is required because there are unjust and inhumane structures that keep women and girls oppressed and unfairly advantage men and boys. Our personal choices aren't always going to address those structures. And if it's all about choice, then surely Julia Hartley-Brewer's choice to criticise Emma Watson could also be argued to be feminist too?

In our post-modern society, choice has become the absolute ethic. But how free are our choices in a world in which consumerism manipulates us? How does liberation-as-choice work for Syrian refugees? Having the ability to make personal choices is, to some degree, a measure of personal liberation. However, if we use our choice to vote against an amendment to allow child refugees into the country, or to buy products which require exploitative labour, then is choice really a pathway to liberation?

There are inevitably many within the Christian community who will see Emma Watson's photo as evidence of a world slipping into evil. It could be seen as an opportunity to promote the virtues of modesty. However, Jesus didn't say 'If Emma Watson causes you to lust, tell her to wear more clothes.' He said, 'If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.'

As Christians, we can remain focused on the minutiae of clothing choices, or we can ask bigger questions about the nature of choice, freedom and how our lives can be part of the liberation that Jesus declared was available to all.

Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist. She is the Director of the DAY Programme and works to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women. She is on Twitter: @God_loves_women