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Lifestyle: To Go Topless Or Not? The Emma Watson Feminism Debate

A new cover shoot of Emma Watson for Vanity Fair sparks debate online about what being a feminist constitutes and whether a feminist is allowed to pose topless. Debut weighs in.

Another day, another digital debate about feminism. This time centring around actress, United Nations ambassador and feminist campaigner, Emma Watson, and her photoshoot for the March issue of Vanity Fair.

In the picture in question Watson wears a Burberry crochet bolero, sheer top-ruff combo and lace skirt; a modern take on an Elizabethan silhouette. The image is by legendary fashion photographer Tim Walker and Watson looks serenely on, her pose defiant and her arms crossed over her body.


The first to attack Watson for her ‘provocative’ pose was radio-host and journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer who called it a “hypocritical” choice for a ‘so-called’ feminist. Hartley-Brewer – who is known for her controversial opinions – followed up with a tweet that suggested that while “getting your tits out for a posh magazine” like Vanity Fair is “empowering”, doing the same for “*Page 3* of The Sun is exploitation”.


Hartley-Brewer was soon joined by others in agreement who mocked Watson’s feminism and who also attacked the ‘double standard’ between Watson and Page 3 girls. Countering this was a wave of celebratory tweets, praising Watson and criticising Hartley-Brewer’s approach.

So, really, what does it mean for self-confessed feminist Emma Watson to go topless in a photoshoot? Well, not a lot really. She is a woman with a choice, owning her body, owning that choice, owning how we – how society – sees her. And that is essentially in its plainest form, feminism: a woman doing what she wants with herself. In attempting to police Watson’s body Hartley-Brewer reduces Watson, a brilliant actress, academic, activist and person, to not simply just a body but a single body part (her breasts). In her tweet she reduces the complexity and personality of Watson to her anatomy and minimizes her choice to appear in this way to how others will see and judge her.


Perhaps because Watson has been so outspoken about her identification with feminism and actively works with the United Nations on feminist initiatives such as #HeForShe and for women’s rights like female education she is simply being used as target practice; an easily identifiable victim for other’s misgivings or disagreements with feminism? Or perhaps because she has lived so long in the spotlight, a celebrity since aged 11 when she began playing Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise, that people almost feel like they have the right to comment on and critique her behaviour? She is someone they have witnessed grow up, maybe have grown up alongside, and so they feel justified in their opinions. This is a woman who has been scrutinised most of her 26 years by press and public alike.

Despite my disagreement with her, there is a lot of truth (albeit harsh truth) in Hartley-Brewer’s argument: if Watson was in fact on Page 3 of The Sun instead of Vanity Fair would people react differently? Attack her instead of celebrating her? What if she was an unknown model instead of an international star? Lower class instead of private school and Oxbridge/Ivy League educated? This leads on to other questions: what if she was black instead of white? A mother? Disabled? Gay? Would many feminists jump to defend her, praise her, admire her, wish to be more like her? The answer is far too difficult to consider in a short online piece like this but it is important to consider these points.



Breasts have had a prominent role in the history of feminism. The first wave of Suffragettes in the UK and USA challenged the rigidity of corsets. In the 1960s American feminists protested against the conventional perception of femininity, how the patriarchy expected and manipulated women into looking and behaving, and the constraint of that expectation; they burned their bras (‘Bra Burning’ is now a familiar phrase often used in mockery) as symbols of that patriarchal constraint, many in relation to the Miss America beauty pageant (the Miss America Protest in 1968). In more recent history the internet has made way for #FreeTheNipple which objects the illegality of female toplessness and the male gaze which governs imagery, has championed breast feeding in public, and has opened up the diversity of breast and body types.

Feminists’ relationship to female toplessness has of course not been all sunshine and butterflies. Movements like ‘No More Page 3’ aim to remove topless pictures from British newspapers and in doing so cast complications for many feminists about who and how is ‘allowed’ to present themselves in such way.

Bra Burning, America, 1960s.
Bra Burning, America, 1960s.

In an attempt to draw a conclusion on this tumultuous topic Watson is, in this case, merely the victim of a debate that has raged on before and will continue to. She is simply an example used in the discussion surrounding the female body, how it is portrayed, female sexuality, the male versus female gaze, and the double standards between upper class, white ‘feminism’ and intersectional feminism. She looks killer in the Vanity Fair shoot and we at Debut hope she continues to make her own empowered choices with such grace, and continues to inspire a new generation of thoroughly modern feminists. What this debate proves is that the female body is as ever the battleground for ideological battle and opinion.

What do you think about Emma Watson going topless? Comment below or tweet us your opinion to @DebutMagUK.

Words by Esther Newman
Tweet @estherbnewman

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The UK's first Career & Lifestyle Magazine for women in the Creative and Media industries.

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