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Emma Watson’s “Topless” Photograph: Context not Content

A recent photograph of Harry Potter star Emma Watson has sparked controversy online. The photograph, by Tim Walker, was featured in the March 2017 issue of Vanity Fair and shows Watson in a white crochet capelet but otherwise topless. The bottom of her breasts can be seen.

Critics have claimed that the photograph is “hypocritical” considering Watson’s feminist stance. The Sun has since reprinted the image on Page 3 with the unfortunate headline ‘Beauty of the Breasts’.

In August 2012 Ban Page 3 was launched to rid The Sun newspaper of topless photographs of women. By March 2013 the petition had over 83,000 signatures. The battle continued until mid-January 2015 when the newspaper dropped the feature from the printed version. However, after less than a week it returned on 22nd January. This was supposedly a one off and it has yet to return to the paper.

Page 3 photographs printed in The Sun have been considered, by some, to be demeaning as they depict women purely as objects of sexual desire for the pleasure of men. Contrary to this, women should not feel inhibited by their sexuality and should be able to be sexy, not for men, but because it gives them pleasure to do so.

Julia Hartley-Brewer took to Twitter to criticise Watson, tweeting “Emma Watson: Feminism, feminism… gender wage gap… why oh why am I not taken seriously… feminism… oh, and here are my tits!” She also questioned why posing topless for Vanity Fair or other “posh magazines” is “empowering” yet doing it for Page 3 is “exploitation”’.

Hannah McKellar-Ricketts, the ex-vice president of the feminist society at the University of Portsmouth, raises a completely different viewpoint on the Page 3 debate in claiming that “sexualised breasts are not news and therefore have no place in a newspaper”.

What changes one image from art to sexist voyeurism? The distinguishing factor has to be the audience. Vanity Fair is read, mainly, by women and page 3 of The Sun, almost exclusively, by men. But should a photograph really be any less tasteful depending on where it is printed? Probably not. It seems to be less about content and more about context. A Page 3 photo printed in Vanity Fair would not get the same reaction as is evoked in its habitual location.

Hartley-Brewer’s criticism was met with anger from other Twitter users. Many argued that feminism and nudity can be “mutually exclusive”. James Holt retorted with “ah, I hadn’t realised that feminism had a strict dress code,” to Hartley-Brewer’s original tweet.

However, there was also those who agreed with Hartley-Brewer. Brett Caton said: “Feminist: Page three girls? Topless? Ban them! Emma Watson topless? Brave and Stunning! #doublethink #hypocrisy”.

Watson is a graduate from Brown University; she is a Global Ambassador the United Nations; she helped to launch the UN Women campaign HeForShe which attempts to get more men to advocate gender equality. Does a photograph of her in which part of her breasts is visible really undo all her accomplishments, both as a woman and as a feminist?

Surely it’s wrong to deny women the right to show their bodies in a way which is completely socially acceptable for men? Why are we so offended by our own anatomy? And what on Earth does a photograph of Emma Watson have anything to do with the work she’s done with the UN? What does it have to do with her charity work? What does it have to do with her beliefs as a feminist at all? At the heart of feminism is giving women the right to make their own choices. Watson has made hers.

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