Emma Watson—Hermione of Harry Potter fame—became a feminist hero when she called on men to fight for women’s rights in a watershed United Nations speech last year.
Now, curiously, one of the most lauded, voluble, and UN-approved celebrity feminists now finds herself in the center of a race controversy, raked over the coals for not being progressive and feminist enough.
Indeed, fellow feminists have turned on the 25-year-old actress over an old Lancôme beauty campaign featuring Watson as the face of its “Blanc Expert” skin-lightening cream.
The 2013 ad resurfaced on a U.K.-based website, Gal-Dem, in an article criticizing European cosmetic companies for promoting racism with various “skin-lightening,” “brightening,” and “skin-whitening” products to predominantly black and Asian markets.
The author called out Watson, “forever paraded in the media as a white feminist icon,” and Lancôme for perpetuating “harmful narratives” which equate “facial perfection to ‘whiteness.’”
Watson’s fans reflexively tweeted their disappointment in the feminist actress behind the UN’s HeForShe campaign: their onetime heroine was now a “fake feminist” and ambassador for white supremacy in the beauty market.
Never mind that the campaign is three years old, or that Watson, 25, has cut ties with Lancôme and, according to her representative, “no longer participates in advertising beauty products, which do not always reflect the diverse beauty of all women.”
Never mind that the “Blanc Expert” cream, along with thousands of similar beauty products on the market, was created by Lancôme 20 years ago and is designed to reduce the appearance of aging-related dark spots and blemish scars. “[Dark spots] can be caused by an accumulation of melanin, a pigment produced in the epidermis that gives skin its color,” the product description reads.
“It helps brighten, even skin tone, and provides a healthy-looking complexion,” the French company said in a statement, adding that this type of product is “an essential part of Asian women’s beauty routines.”
We routinely build up celebrity feminist icons only to tear them down. As role models, they tend to have short shelf lives, mostly because we expect them to be perfect embodiments of their activist causes and are outraged by any misstep or beauty advertisement dredged up from their past.
It’s one thing to see Taylor Swift, progenitor of girl squads, knocked off her feminist pedestal. But that someone as dedicated to gender equality as Watson—who has put acting aside to focus on her UN role—should be cast out by feminists over a beauty ad is absurd.
Yes, we have seen racially discriminating beauty advertisements for “skin-whitening” and dangerous bleaching creams—particularly in other countries.
This year, a Thai cosmetics company released an ad in which a popular model-actress extolled the virtues of porcelain skin. “Before I got to this point, the competition was very high,” says the model, pictured beside another light-skinned woman, her own skin growing darker. “If I stop taking care of myself, everything I have worked for, the whiteness I have invested in, may be lost.”
But Lancôme’s “Blanc Expert” and most brightening and lightening creams are designed to do just that: target sun spots and hyperpigmentation caused by aging.
They are not complicit in the global beauty market’s alleged white supremacist conspiracy.
And while Emma Watson is a “white feminist icon,” her skin color should not discount her efforts, and merits, as a UN ambassador for women of all nationalities—and skin colors.