#PRfail or #PRplan? – Emma Watson’s Vanity Fair controversy

In case you’ve missed it, Emma Watson (Belle of the newly released live-action Beauty and the Beast) was also the subject of Vanity Fair’s March issue cover story. One of the nine photos featured in the article showed Watson in an open, white crocheted bolero jacket with nothing underneath – i.e. it showed some parts of her breasts. So in a high fashion, and frankly highly artistic, photoshoot with an acclaimed fashion photographer (Tim Walker) for an internationally renowned publication an intelligent young woman chose to display some of her cleavage.

As an advocate for feminism, including her position as a U.N. Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, this picture created rather a furore on social media over the weekend and from there into the international mainstream press. Responses were naturally mixed, but reporting focus fell on the outrage felt by some of the audience (including Piers Morgan) that a woman who advocates feminism should choose to be in such a sexualised photo.

In response to the row Emma Watson said amongst other things that she was “quietly stunned” by the reaction. I beg to differ. Or at least, I refuse to believe that a mature, professional, A-list actress did not have an inkling of how this would play out. I believe the outcome was anticipated, planned for, and possibly even hoped for. Here’s why.

  1. Cover photos are taken months before the issue goes to print – likely somewhere in the latter half of 2016
  2. In a photoshoot of this nature, a savvy actress (which we know Watson is) would have retained the right to veto photos like this if she felt that the result had inadvertently strayed from the intended artistic product.
  3. Watson’s PR representative (and Disney – this is also their publicity and possibly organised by them) would have been aware that the story was on the horizon, and that it contained a photograph that might be controversial.
  4. They would then have had the opportunity to stop it going out if they felt it would be harmful to the film, or Emma Watson’s reputation

In fact, if you have been paying attention to Disney’s apparent PR strategy for Beauty and the Beast (2017) they have been working hard to cover alternative angles to the film. For example the first openly gay Disney character, Le Fou, as well as a feature on the deceased Howard Ashman (the original lyricist) and his fight with AIDS whilst writing Beauty.

So if I had been in their shoes I would have viewed this image in the following way: 1) no one bats an eyelid, and it’s a great cover feature; 2) people get up in arms about a feminist icon exposing her breasts and one feature translates into coverage in every mainstream paper worldwide. It’s a win-win situation, provided it is planned for; which I believe it was.

Watson’s statement is clear and unapologetic. She explains what she stands for and what she believes. Better still, she does all this in an unscripted, video interview with her co-star Dan Stevens. When he asked her what all the fuss was about, she simply said “They were saying that I couldn’t be a feminist and … and have boobs.”

Regardless of your view of this incident, or feminism as a whole, I hope you’ll see my point about the planning.

If you are interested in Emma Watson’s views on books and feminism, I do recommend reading the Vanity Fair cover article, which has several interesting moments, such as that she requires international fashion designers to ‘do some homework’ before she will wear their clothes.

Finally, a few of Watson’s words on the reaction the VF cover:

“It just always reveals to me how many misconceptions and what a misunderstanding there is about what feminism is,” she said.

“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. It’s very confusing.”



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