Just How Feminist Is Scarlett Byrne’s Politicized Playboy Photoshoot?

At some point, every Harry Potter star declares to the world that he or she is all grown up. Emma Watson went to college and, like any high-achieving Brown graduate would, got a job at the UN. Matthew Lewis became suddenly, and strikingly, handsome. Daniel Radcliffe stripped down onstage when he starred in the drama Equus. And today, Scarlett Byrne, who played the conniving Slytherin sidekick Pansy Parkinson, pulled her own stunt. Byrne has graced the folds of Playboy Magazine in a nude photo shoot.
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It’s not just that a former Harry Potter star could do something as scandalous as take her clothes off before a camera. What’s especially drawing attention is the manifesto, entitled “The Feminist Mystique,” Byrne wrote to accompany the shoot.
The essay’s title is a direct reference to The Feminine Mystique, Betty Freidan’s seminal feminist text credited with changing the way a generation of women perceived themselves and their societal role. With this unsubtle play on words, Byrne is suggesting that her photoshoot a trailblazing offshoot of Freidan’s book.
Well, I don’t buy it. And here’s why.
From the get-go, Byrne cites her two primary motivations for appearing in the magazine. First, she says, she wanted to support her fiancé, the Chief Creative Officer of Playboy (how romantic). Then, dipping her toes into political territory, she views this as an “opportunity to make a statement about equality between the two sexes.”
Byrne proceeds to walk us through her decision-making process. While initially hesitant to take ownership of her sexuality in such a bold manner, Byrne convinces herself of the shoot's importance through a series of logical maneuvers. Why, she wonders, is a cover of Playboy featuring a nude model too lewd for the magazine rack when the glistening male bodies on Men’s Health can be shown freely? Byrne concludes that women face double standards in every realm, including the seeming appropriateness of magazine covers.
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Following this train of thought, Byrne views her participation in the magazine as being “part of a conversation about women unfolding in real time."
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
But here’s where the situation’s natural paradox arises: Byrne is posing in Playboy Magazine. Adjacent to her photoshoot in the print magazine are multiple other nude photoshoots featuring women who have written no manifesto. These women aren’t being feminists so much as they’re being sexualized.
Consequently, it would be naïve to read Byrne’s declaration of feminism without paying mind to context. After reading her feminist manifesto online, I rambled over to view the “stunning outtakes” from Byrne’s photo shoot. One slideshow quickly blended into another, and I was presented with another model, also essentially nude, and draped over some furniture.
In the end, though, that’s Playboy. Playboy's online homepage alternates between pop culture items, cocktail recipes, and then images of women. Lots and lots of women. Cheesy captions abound, describing women who “radiate sexual energy” or whose “hotness brightens up a gray day.” The most popular video on Playboy.com speaks for itself: “Watch Monica Sims Eat a Burger In a Bikini.”
In the Bunnies section of the website, women are listed much in the same format as stories are listed in the Entertainment section. That’s because in Playboy, no matter how intellectual the articles, no matter how earnest the declarations of sexual liberation, women are thumbnails just as much as entertainment stories are. Yes, I venture to say, women are the entertainment.
Scarlett Byrne wanted to free her nipple, but nipples were never locked up in Playboy. Had a topless model appeared in a magazine with primarily female readership — take Elle or Vogue or Vanity Fair — that may have opened up a dialogue regarding women’s expressions of their body. But sandwiched between many equally nude photoshoots in a magazine read by men, I don’t see how her message of body positivity and sexual liberation will be heard by the people who need to hear it: other women.
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