Belfast Telegraph

Naked truth is stars like Emma Watson must be consistent when they rail against discrimination

Celebrities such as the Harry Potter actress can't simply claim it's different because it's them, says Gail Walker

There was a time when it was all so much simpler. Feminists were against what they called the exploitation of women's bodies in newspapers, like Page Three, and in, ahem, special interest magazines for chaps. They were bracketed with those dreadful fusty caricatures - church-going prudes and campaigners like Mary Whitehouse. They loathed Benny Hill, mother-in-law jokes and the idea of stay-at-home mums.

It wasn't a particularly good look - frumpy jumpers, slacks and hairy underarms - but at least it was coherent and consistent.

That was a long time ago, of course. The recent uproar around Emma Watson's choice to appear wearing a jacket with nothing underneath has revived discussion of this classic conundrum - how do you be a successful woman in an industry utterly devoted to image without resorting to exploiting the advantages of your image?

Ms Watson - best-known as the charming Hermione in the Harry Potter films - has come under fire for hypocrisy. In recent times, she has become an important spokesperson for progressive thinking on gender equality issues. She delivered two celebrated speeches at the UN in recent years, the most recent last September at an event at UN headquarters in New York promoting Partnering for Women, Children and Adolescents, to Thrive and Transform the World.

Of course, celebrity endorsement of such causes is always an advantage. It obviously helps the cause to have famous backers, but it is also true that it does no harm in beefing up the image of the celebrity, adding much-needed substance to what can be an evanescent career.

In Watson's case, the sense of a radical vision was all the more charged because it coincided with her emergence from child stardom - that most precarious condition - to fully-fledged Hollywood hot property.

In fact, the recent Vanity Fair photo shoot - "you mean you are naked under all those clothes?" - was part of a promotion to showcase the live action version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, in which she stars with Dan Stevens, another member of the English acting aristocracy, having played Lady Mary Crawley's doomed first husband Matthew in Downton Abbey. The movie is due to hit the screens worldwide on St Patrick's Day.

Can these events be connected? Is it particularly cynical to think so? There is no reason why a professional person shouldn't manipulate the mass media to their own advantage without it seeming to damage their brand, as it were.

It is certainly refreshing that someone as young as Watson has been aware of the dreadful fate awaiting her as she ages in the acting game; sexism in Hollywood means that she will in all likelihood be the subject of attention unlike that accorded to her male co-stars.

Though there is always the risk that behind any movie star's complaints about the Press will be heard the baying of Hugh Grant about being caught with Divine Brown, there is no doubt that actresses are frequently caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. So much of their fame depends on their "looks"; though "looks" in themselves are no guarantee of anything.

This time last year, Watson described how she had suffered from Press intrusion when she turned 18.

"I came out of my 18th birthday party and photographers laid down on the pavement and took photographs up my skirt, which were then published on the front of the English tabloids the next morning," she said during a speech made on International Women's Day.

Obviously, they don't need to go to those lengths now to obtain risque pictures of the star, and nor should Watson's feminist views mean a life sentence of angora sweaters.

Indeed, her vigorous responses to criticism of her Vanity Fair shoot shows a supremely self-confident woman in full charge of her moral resources: "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," rounding her defence off with the cry "I really don't know what my t*** have to do with it."

Well, some have said that they have quite a bit to do with it, in fact. Especially when she is on record dissing feminist uber-icon Beyonce, whose 2013 LP included an extract from a TED talk by the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entitled "We Should All Be Feminists".

While Beyonce's embrace of feminist principles was widely praised, Watson expressed that she felt herself "conflicted" over the mega-star's position.

"As I was watching (Beyonce's videos) I felt very conflicted. I felt her message felt very conflicted in the sense that 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," she said in conversation with actress Tavi Gevinson in Wonderland Magazine.

Of course, that was three years ago, for heaven's sake. Watson is 26 and I'm sure, in 2017, 2013 is a lifetime ago. But the line between freely expressing one's femininity as a feminist and catering to a "male voyeuristic experience of her" is surely a very fine one and it's by no means certain that Watson hasn't crossed it on her own behalf and when it suits her.

When your only argument is "it's different this time, though, because it's me" doesn't hold much water. And it doesn't make it less demeaning to women in general because you personally have a successful career to pursue as an attractive young woman whose acting talent is considerably assisted by your pulchritude and its promises.

The problem with principled stances is precisely that they demand consistency and that applies as much to movie stars as it does to you and me.

But then, movie stars will always be taken as movie stars. They will still book the entire top floor of a hotel whether they are proven hypocrites or not and, no matter how robust our ordinary everyday moral righteousness is, you and I will still not get a window seat at Per Se or privileged access to a parking space anywhere because of it.

Beyonce and Watson will, no doubt, air kiss and make up on some red carpet somewhere and we will be left fretting about who was right after all. But it doesn't matter, really.

We are ordinary and everyday. Stars may be "down to earth", but they are never "ordinary and everyday". That's life.

Even their perception of discrimination and sexism is rarified, stupid, vastly wealthy and privileged to an obscene degree.

That's why we love them.

Belfast Telegraph

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