Women’s History Month launched with a bang with two iconic actresses in the spotlight, one a young and respected Brit and one and aging and revered American. Emma Watson, celebrating her new movie Beauty and the Beast with a Vanity Fair article, found herself attacked as a hypocrite feminist over one of the photos. And a day later, in an interview conducted by actress Brie Larson for Net-a-Porter, Jane Fonda dropped a bombshell revelation about her history of rape and sexual abuse.
I want to talk about a sidebar topic from both these stories because it’s something we all need to be ready to discuss when the subject comes up: empowerment and objectification.
From Mae West to Madonna to Miley Cyrus, arguments have always existed about how women dress and how men respond to that. It's a massive subject that, despite decades of heated debate in women’s studies courses, has yet to be tied up with a neat bow. We won’t do that here either, but let’s look at how these two powerhouses of representation tackle the topic.
Jane Fonda’s interview has many insightful moments and is riddled with deference to the wisdom that comes with age. (It only takes a few minutes to read so grab some coffee and check it out.) This quote is the one that bit me on the nose, though, "I think it is terrifying being a young actress now. You have to get naked so much. There is even more emphasis on how you look."
Coming from one of the matriarchs of the feminist movement, that comment really surprised me. Aren’t women supposed to get as naked as they want? Don't we have agency over how we present ourselves? Aren’t men supposed to rise above their base impulses and appreciate our brains more than our bodies? I suspect that’s all stuff Fonda would support in principle while encouraging women to strive for more. Focus on feeling desirable within yourself rather than needing to feel desired to know who you are.
She told Harper's Bazaar as much when asked about Kim Kardashian's naked selfies: "One of the problems that feminism is trying to address is the objectification of women as sex objects, so I think posting a nude picture of yourself doesn't exactly help that. I think it plays into the objectification of women. Women being strong, women being brave, women being entitled to equal pay and equal respect isn't the same as posting a nude photograph of yourself."
Of course, Fonda posed nude herself, strategically covered by her appendages on a beach in 1966, and on the cover of Newsweek in 1967.
She also posed for Penthouse, and one of her early films was the campy soft-core Barbarella. But all of those were when she was very young, a time about which she's expressed regrets like letting her first husband talk her into threesomes. She may be trying to prevent others from those same feelings.
She even told Larson, who mentioned how she hates casting directors telling her to dress sexier, "If you look at Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Mae West, they were sexy and strong but they didn’t necessarily expose anything. They were adored for it."
Fonda said she left fashion modeling because she hated situations in which too much emphasis is placed on a woman’s appearance, so I’d love to hear her take on the current flap surrounding Emma Watson. Twitter lost its mind (I know you’re shocked) both attacking the actress as a feminist hypocrite and defending her after a braless photo. Whatever you think, can we just agree that shawl is awesome?
This is my personal favorite:
The timing is unfortunate because it detracts from a recent interview in which Watson eloquently discussed why men are often intimidated by feminism.
"A lot of prejudice, and certainly misogyny, is so normalized and so when you raise [feminism] there’s a ‘Well, we dealt with that. Women won the right to vote ages ago, this isn’t a thing,’" Watson said. "If I were to say I’m a feminist, it would be a personal attack on you as a man, as opposed to a patriarchal system or something much larger than just a person.”
But nobody is talking about that. The big debate instead is whether Watson is still a good feminist, or is she catering to misogyny with the photo. I say no, but not because of the photo, because of her.
You can’t do or undo a greater life work with one small action. Watson’s record of fighting for women is impressive for anyone, let alone someone so young. And her choice battles encompass not only Western problems, but things like literacy, family planning and abuse, changes to which empower girls in places where they can’t even begin to argue for things like equal pay.
But IMHO there is a problem with the photo: It’s in a women’s magazine, and those are still flies in feminism’s ointment. Gorgeous, young, half-dressed European women litter the pages of these magazines nearly every month. I’d love to see celebrities insist that if they’re going to appear then there needs to be a change to standards — more diversity, little to no retouching, more reality.
Yet perhaps the fact that women now need to address women's magazines about equality and diversity is both the encouragement to take and lesson to learn — how far we’ve come, how far we have to go.
Determining how we want to present ourselves is worthy of some consideration. To read more about raunch, objectification and empowerment, you might want to check out this thought-provoking piece from Ariel Levy.
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