The Princess and the Pitchforks: Emma Watson and Feminist Politics

A tale as old as time – that of an unnecessary Hollywood remake, a brigade of misinformation, and a feminist being made to prove her feminism. Emma Watson plays Belle in the live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and brings with her the insistence that it is now a feminist film. There are no other drastic differences between this version and the 1991 animation, yet Watson is making enemies on both ends of the feminist spectrum by doing very little at all.

Recently, private photos from Watson’s phone were leaked online. The media framed these as nude photos that she had taken of herself, allowing for discussion on invasion of female celebrities privacy to flow down it’s well worn path of blaming the victim, not the perpetrator. The narrative being Watson must shoulder some of the blame, because she took the photos. This leap to judgement is ridiculous, but even more so in this case, because the photos were in fact not ‘nudes’, but semi-nude photos taken of her during a costume fitting.

It’s a testament to how self-destructive the feminist community has become. One misstep and you’re ousted from an ideological group that stands for equality. Watson rose to fame at the hands of the mammoth that was the Harry Potter series. Nowadays, she holds a degree in Literature from Brown University, she is a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and she leads a bimonthly feminist book club. Her brand of feminism is conservative, it wears pearls and invites you to tea. She advocates feminism just enough to be marked as a ‘femi-nazi’, but not enough to satisfy progressive feminists.

Exhibit B of how hastily people can be cast as bad feminists is Watson’s recent Vanity Fair photo shoot, in which her bare chest is partially exposed. Quotes were pulled from a three year old interview in which Watson mentioned that she felt conflicted about the provocative image that Beyoncé portrayed in her 2013 self-titled album. Watson was moulded into a hypocrite. As per usual, the quotes were taken out of context. In said interview, Watson explains that Beyoncé’s image often feels like it adheres to the perspective of a male voyeur, but that Beyoncé’s agency in curating her own image is the important thing. Watson was highlighting the difference between being sexualised by someone else and empowerment of choosing to show your own body. Beyoncé and Watson are both in the latter category, but by the time this was recognised, it was too late. The media gave us a ‘provocative’ photo of Watson and her out-of-context criticism of Beyoncé – pitchforks were ready without a second thought.

‘Watson’s brand of feminism is conservative, it wears pearls and invites you to tea’

If a woman believing that she has agency in her own actions makes a feminist, then Belle is a feminist. But she was one well before Watson declared it. In this retelling, Belle is the freelance inventor, a role held by her father in the former adaption. She has some economic autonomy (even if she invents a washing machine, of all things). The new version fails to remove the strong presence of the patriarchy. As with nearly every Disney Princess, the catalyst for her story is loyalty to her misguided father. Though Belle’s path is laid out for her by the men, she takes control of her life.

Out of all of the Disney Princesses, Belle is not the greatest advocate of feminism. She is better than Aurora, who sleeps for most of her story while men save the day, and Snow White, who spends her exile from the kingdom cleaning up after seven men (and then also falls asleep and waits for a man to save the day). In the past decade, we got Elsa, Tiana and Moana. Before them, we saw Pocahontas let John Smith return to England without her, Mulan proved the truly abstract nature of gender and Esmeralda demonstrated that we should fight not just for women rights or Roma rights, but all human rights.

If we sidestep suggestions of romanticising Stockholm Syndrome, what is the moral of Beauty and the Beast? The approved message is that love transcends physical beauty, but it’s less effective when both Belle and the Beast end up beautiful anyway (even the beast in beast form is not particularly ugly). Watson insists that this film proves that feminists do not need to be unattractive, they can be delicate princesses. This is true, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that before the film even starts standards of beauty have already been set. Shrek is a far better proponent of this message.

Feminism is the belief in equality of the sexes. There are no other requirements. Gender politics is a minefield these days, impossible to manoeuvre without offending someone. We should rejoice in the success of one woman as the success of all women. But the contentious response to Emma Watson and Beauty and the Beast over the past month says more about the state of feminism in society than it does about Watson herself.

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Muireann O’Shea  Film & TV writer

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