Emma Watson’s Photo Shoot, Female Nudity in Films, Sex-positive Feminism and The Love Witch


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Female nudity is not necessarily anti-feminist. I mean come on, of course it isn’t! No one accused Leonardo DiCaprio of being a traitor to his gender when he got his butt out in The Revenant so why should women be held to a different standard? Follow this through and you realise that saying female nakedness is by definition sexist is by definition sexist. Yet still there are those who assert that boobs and woman’s empowerment can never go hand in hand. Emma Watson has had to argue this in the last few days following a Vanity Fair photo shoot in which she displayed part of her breasts (all very tastefully done, no nipples) but I can’t help but feel that the criticism and accusations of hypocrisy she got for this were more fuelled by a mean spirited desire to criticise those who use their fame as a soapbox. She’s an outspoken feminist and sadly people were all too ready to knock her down because of this. Watson’s pictures were definitely arty not tarty and this Dad thinks she has done nothing to stop her being a superb role model for his teenage daughters.

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Nudity is generally not a problem on screen if there is a good narrative reason for it (which pretty much excludes any kind of porn right away) and ideally it will always be balanced between the sexes. TV’s Westworld stands as a good example of this; all the artificial humans are striped right down any time they are shown in the labs and tech rooms but this is key to their status in this fictional world and it applies to both the men and the women. Even movies that might titillate, like Ang Lee’s Lust Caution or even parts of Deadpool, aren’t too worrying if everyone has their kit off to the same extent. (Although it does remain problematic that a man’s bare chest and a woman’s bare chest are not the same in terms of exposure etiquette.)

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Even if there are no naked men involved revealing images of women’s bodies does not automatically mean the actresses involved are being demeaned. Take Ex Machina, a film that has several moments of full frontal female nudity. In this movie the dressing down and dressing up are happening simultaneously and during the naked scenes robot Ava is actually configuring her own identity as a woman in a way that will allow her to become independent of the patriarchal environment she is trapped in. That’s not sexist. Then there is The Neon Demon that features a scene of two young models in the shower which sounds like the worst kind of objectification but any sense of sexiness is pushed away by the damaging measures the characters in question have just gone to achieve the state of beauty they (they, not the men around them) have strived for. These are not women to ogle in this context, they are tragic figures to be revulsed by and showing a lot of skin in the shower shot is making a deliberate statement about the contrast between this and what lies beneath. It is saying that people, especially women, are about more than the way they look. That’s not sexist either.

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In terms of sex scenes, you also need to consider movies such as Carol and the very explicit Blue is the Warmest Colour which feature women making love to one another. There is clearly pride in this rather than chauvinism. It absolutely depicts women being naked on their own terms with no consideration of men whatsoever. Also, in the case of Blue is the Warmest Colour the levels of intimacy seems uncomfortably invasive rather than sexy and is in keeping with the emotionally raw closeness of the rest of the film. It also works to remove outdated taboos. Again, not sexist. On this though it is interesting that The Duke of Burgundy which also centres around a lesbian relationship features no nudity whatsoever so it isn’t an essential component to telling such stories.

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Other films that parade the female form like Suicide Squad, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast & Furious, Transformers, Grease and most of the Bond movies have none of this rationale and are more sexist even though they don’t actually include any full nudity at all.

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At a different end of the scale you have films like The Love Witch that opens in cinemas and on demand this week. The movie has a very strong feminist theme but also aims to be sexy. This is very much in line with the sex-positive movement that first emerged in the early 80s. Sometimes called sex-radical feminism or sexually liberal feminism this approach centres around that idea that sexual freedom is an important component of gender equality. Sex and the City would probably fall into this camp too as would the Bel Powley and Kristen Wiig movie The Diary of a Teenage Girl (although enlightened and empowered as the main character in this was, since she was 15 and her lover was 35 I couldn’t see it as anything other than a film about child abuse). In the context of sex-positive feminism female nudity is totally acceptable as long as it is controlled by the woman. It doesn’t matter if this makes the female a sex object in the eyes of a man, in fact this is seen to be a part of the female’s strength. Ex Machina actually plays on this to some extent too. Men’s incapacity in the face of the undressed female form lowers them and exults the woman. (Although that’s not equality is it? I guess here the scale goes up and down rather than balances which is a levelling of sorts.)

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The Love Witch appears to be some kind of parody or homage to the technicolor suspense films of the 50s and 60s. It is highly reminiscent of Hitchcock in its opening scenes as an immaculately suited, classically beautiful woman drives her convertible around coastal United States with poorly focused back projection behind her. Really though the Hitchcock comparison is only because he was the greatest proponent of these sorts of movies. Pretty soon it settles more into being a sexploitation flick in the style of Russ Meyer. 

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Protagonist Elaine is a modern day proponent of the Wicca arts who comes to California following the suspicious death of her husband. Keen to find love again she mixes up spells to mystify men into going to bed with her. While the sex is not graphic there are plenty of shots of Elaine in a dressed down state and lots of lingering close ups of her legs, shoulders, hip, lips and other curvy bits. There is certainly plenty for red blooded teenage boys to enjoy. Yet this remains a consciously feminist film.

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The movie seems to be explicitly setting out it’s manifesto in a lengthy section of dialogue halfway through:

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“We feel that a woman’s greatest power lies in her sexuality. We don’t view this power as satanic or anti-feminist, it’s a celebration of woman as a natural creature, an earthly body, a spiritual essence and a womb. The whole history of witchcraft is interwoven with the fear of this sexuality, they burned us at the steak because of the erotic feelings we elicited in them. Later they used marriage to keep us in bondage and turned us into servants, whores and fantasy dolls never asking us what we wanted. They teach us that a normative human being is a hyper rationalist stoic male and that a woman’s intuitions and emotions are an illness that needs to be cured. Men and women are different but we believe that true equality lies in these differences.”

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Beyond this eloquent description of its stand point though, The Love Witch doesn’t have much to say. Certainly Elaine is fighting back against patriarchal figures from her past and is striving for a new independence but there is nothing here to inspire women in similar situations. Elaine is making love not war but the way she does this is like an act of both. Clearly the film doesn’t aim to be taken seriously and often you don’t know if it is being ironic or not. As a consequence it has no serious message and it really needed one to justify all the long hair that is tantalisingly draped over naked breasts and all of the close ups of bare bums. It does appear to be inviting men to have a look only to mock them for doing so but this is not the most powerful feminist stance. Also, ultimately, the man who receives the harshest treatment in the story is probably the one who deserves it the least which paints the main character as more of a rampant feminist than a balanced one. 

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Nonetheless, like Ex Machina’s synthetic skin, Carol’s bedroom scene and Emma Watson’s chest, none of it is there purely to satisfy the male gaze. In the end that is what makes all of the difference.

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So I say the same to those that are quick to shout hypocrite at Emma Watson as I do to the less enlightened members of my own gender. Just because you’ve seen a pair of boobs, that’s no excuse to stop thinking straight and neglecting to properly consider the woman who owns them.

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