In Defence of Tim Walker’s photo shoot of Emma Watson in Vanity Fair
Emma Watson recently caused a “social media storm” as an advocate for feminism and equal rights who nearly bared her breasts in a photo shoot for Tim Walker for Vanity Fair. There has been a steady volley of comment ever since, querying her actions and likening her to a Page 3 girl: “What is the difference?” they ask. After a short ponder and a cursory glance over the accusations levelled at Watson I came to these conclusions.
Ms Watson does not equate to a Page 3 Model because although she may have voluntarily objectified herself, her reason for doing so was not to sell her body. That is not what is on offer. When any model models there is a wide spectrum of things they may be selling or offering: clothes, lifestyle, titillation, sexual stimulation – indeed the very extent to which women are objectified is manifest in this very argument.
Any midwife will tell you that there is a massive difference between a new mother bearing her breasts and feeding her baby and a girl stripping off in a nightclub. Nothing is for sale in the former, although the availability of milk is offered to the suckling child, and perhaps the innocence of the scene might be marketable. When a woman strips off on a stage or for glamour photography it is a very different story – the act, the pose, the address are all contrived to stimulate sexual desire.
A woman’s breasts in themselves are not sexual, their reveal does not necessarily sexually objectify their “owner” (and so it is as if it is written into our current environment that the tits themselves have some sort of agency in this, given that they are so often photographed by themselves and for their own sake, the identity of the model cropped off, the breasts are a separate saleable entity). Their reveal does not necessarily objectify the “owner”: it is the context, the motive and the composition of any situation or image that determines objectification. Clearly some photographs serve up breasts as desireable objects, part of a body to be enjoyed and used, their dominance in the scene and their presentation, designed to remove identity, intellect and personality from the sitter who is typically sat mouth slightly open, gasping for penetrative sex from any man available.
Emma Watson had the agency to choose how she was photographed and I imagine to some extent some control over the editorial context of her photoshoot – this is what an Agent protects, surely? However, once published does Watson then have the power to determine how the photograph is read? I would argue that her own lifestyle, morals and attitude are component parts of how this image is read, as well as its being the creative work of the photographer Tim Walker, because this photoshoot will be understood in the context of his other work. It is clear Emma Watson is not selling her body in a way that a glamour model may be. Emma Watson is an actress, a Good Will Ambassador to the UN with a degree in English from Brown’s University, and is not about posing in sexy underwear with a view to seduce, or establish a reputation as a Calendar Girl. The image may be found to be “sexy” but that does not necessarily equate it with photography whose sole purpose is that end.
Rather this image is confrontational. Tim Walker is one of my favourite photographers and artists. One might compare him to Cecil Beaton or to Angus McBean for his artistic and imaginative compositions. His book “StoryTeller” is one of my most prized possessions and it is in this context of narrative art work that the photographs must be understood and that is what this photograph must be read as – a piece of narrative. One might compare the painting recently sold at Sotheby’s, an astonishing work by Artemisia Gentileschi, (a rare thing, a female painter), which was once owned by Charles I. The work was sold on his execution and bought by one of his household.
At some point a “prudish owner” cut off part of the painting which featured her naked breasts. There is not a doubt in my mind that the work would have been a magnificent portrait of a woman, who would have challenged the viewer in the same way. Her gaze speaks volumes. It is nakedness, but it is not seductive nudity as understood by male painters. Similarly, Watson’s gaze is not merely seductive, it challenges and defies you to objectify her. It expresses her personality, her history as a demure actress (everybody knows this is “Hermione” from Harry Potter), her current almost inevitable contextualisation now as the new “Helena Bonham Carter” (the hair echoes Bonham-Carter’s role as Lucy in the Merchant Ivory film “A Room With a View”) and her grappling with the identity of grown womanhood and as an actress in this context. The photograph does all sorts of things.
Does it perpetuate Rape Culture? I don’t think so. Although Watson is portrayed as delicate and naked, possibly slightly vulnerable, the photograph also demonstrates a certain trust in the truth. On International Women’s Day let us afford everyone a little more respect: only a tiny minority of men are actually rapists just as only a tiny minority of women are actually sluts!