Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Chuck Palahniuk and Emma Watson’s Breasts

Hoo boy, that got your attention, didn’t it?

While Googling for images that would go with my spring break post from a couple of weeks back, I kept running across a recurring image: tucked in amongst the images of bodies packed on the beach, sea to shore, and bodies packed in bars, wall to wall, and overflowing garbage cans and puking, passed out individuals, was a meme, a wall of words that, until I read it, seemed out of place in a Google search for “spring break fort lauderdale” (or whatever it was; I can’t seem to duplicate it now):

The quote in question comes from Palahniuk’s 2008 novel, Snuff. It struck me immediately in relation to the then ongoing brouhaha over Emma Watson’s breasts, which appeared (part of them, anyway) in a photograph that accompanied her interview in Vanity Fair a few weeks earlier (for Watson’s interview and to see the photo in question, go here).

The appearance of Miss Watson’s in the photographs caused a bit of a ruckus. Watson, of course, has become a leading voice in the current feminist movement. In 2014, she gave a wonderful address at the United Nations on gender equality, became the celebrity spokesperson for HeForShe, and is also the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. She has been quite outspoken–intelligently outspoken–on equality issues for some time. No one could doubt her credentials as a feminist. That is, until that one photograph appeared.

One of the more widely-quoted digs came from Julia Hartley-Brewer, a British radio personality. “Emma Watson: feminism, feminism…gender wage gap…why oh why am I not taken seriously…feminism…oh, and here are my tits!”

Watson was a bit perplexed at the backlash, and handled it beautifully. (I am amazed, by the way, that Watson has not only been able to transcend her career-launching role as Hermione Granger; in many ways, she’s become Hermione Granger). Said Watson: “Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.” Well said.

And yet, Miss Watson should not have been so surprised at the reaction. Some of it undoubtedly comes from those who just don’t like her–haters gonna hate, and all that. But a lot of it is no doubt from those who fear feminism and the prospects of true equality for women. Those folks are lying in the weeds, no doubt waiting for any excuse to start bashing (and, I wonder if those are also the folks who are behind some of the celebrity phone hacking, hoping to get compromising pictures). They are happiest when women are kept down and just smile pretty for the camera.

Watson would no doubt say that her decision to do that particular photograph was just that: a decision. A choice. That it’s her body and she can display it–or not–however she wants. That her decision, her choice, makes this perfectly in keeping with feminism. I get that, and I agree. And yet, I can’t help wonder whether this helps or hurts women who are not in Watson’s position. Emma Watson, because of her role as Hermione Granger, and because she has turned out to be a pretty good actress, and because she is an extremely intelligent woman, has power, and has choice. I suspect, after her recent haul for Beauty and the Beast (reported at only $2 million up front, with a potential huge back end deal), Watson could probably decide to walk away from Hollywood forever. With her brains, she could almost certainly be successful in whatever she sets her mind to. With her bankroll, she could take the time to let whatever she chooses to do develop into success. That’s a lot of power. It gives her the opportunity to make choices, to be outspoken, and to not have to really worry about whether it pisses people off or not.

And that’s where things get sticky for me. Watson has the ability to choose. Is this a representation of power, as she might suggest, or is she just another damsel who doesn’t know she’s in distress, as Palahniuk suggests? And what of the women who don’t have that power? What of the women who are struggling to make it as actresses and models, who are told to take their clothes off for the camera–or, if they’re keeping some of them on, to pose like they want to fuck the camera? Are these women empowered, or are they exploited? And does Watson’s photo shoot help or hurt?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

7 Responses

  1. Is it possible she's making a statement? Why is it okay for men to show their chests but not women? If it's not okay for women, then it shouldn't be okay for men. And you know what? I'd be okay with that!

  2. Good questions! There are no easy answers.
    I haven't seen the photo shoot (nor did I hear the fuss about it), but I can see how many would see it as a step backward – or at least sideways.
    I'm always impressed by Watson and she's done a lot of good in this world. Hope she continues!

  3. It is a tricky question. Like you say, she has a choice, but that might not be the case for others. But ultimately everyone has the right to decide what to do with their own body.

  4. -Stacy: questions, questions! I don't know that she was making a statement, based on her reaction to the "controversy," which seemed genuinely confused. Had she been making a statement, I suspect her reaction would have been a little more…forceful, if no less eolquent. As for why men can show their chests but not women? Easy: men are easily distracted, and have made up almost all the rules! (that's a joke, but at the same time, it really isn't).
    -Jemi: Maybe the US is just that much more obsessed with celebrities than Canada. I try not to pay attention to a lot of it, but some of it filters through. I suspect Miss Watson will continue in the same vein, and I applaud her, too.
    -Nick: Yes! Absolutely, yes.

  5. I agree with you that she should not have been surprised, because she's normally such a smart young woman. Since breasts are such a sexual item in society, and women are too often seen a merely as sexual objects, setting herself up to be viewed as the latter would be seen as a step back by many. Live and learn, I guess.

  6. I really like your post. Very non-judgmental and fair. This is a HUGE, multi-faceted topic however, considering the treatment of women world-wide and the role religion and culture play in patriarchal societies. Other than "likes" on FB, I try to stay out of it, though I couldn't resist disagreeing with a woman who's very against Trump, yet said she's glad Hillary didn't win because women are just naturally too weak and over-emotional to be leaders. She wasn't impressed with my list of excellent female leaders of the past. Ah well… Oh! Saw such a funny meme. Angela Merkel and Trump sitting side by side. Caption: "Angela Merkel has a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry. Trump misspelled 'tap.' Not exactly a meeting of the minds." – Rick G. Rosner

  7. -Donna–perhaps this is a case where, since Watson didn't see the photos in that way, she assumed no one would see them that way.
    -Lexa–Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad it didn't come off as judgmental, because it wasn't meant to be–I was merely providing what I hoped would be a little food for thought on what is definitely a topic too big for one little blog (or my little brain, for that matter). Regarding your Facebook argument: I would likely have merely posted either the fabled Captain Picard facepalm meme or my own Stevie meme (see and feel free to use it). I can understand not liking Hillary Clinton; she's admirable in so many ways, but I don't know that I like her. But to state she can't lead because she's a woman? Crikey. It amazes and disturbs me that there are so many people who still believe that. And, unfortunately, when a woman says it, it just reinforces the belief in idiot men who would say, "See? A woman knows that women can't lead–we're right!" Crikey.

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