The May 2013 cover of GQ UK is basically a promotional still from Sofia Coppola's upcoming exploration of girlish materialism, The Bling Ring. The photo shoot features Emma Watson posing as her character in the film, Nicki, a real "thieving Valley vixen" who stole from famous pretty people in the early 2000s. Wearing a Pretty Woman-type cutout dress, with a tattoo emblazoned on a bare-midriff, the cover shows more skin, more sexiness, more attitude than we've ever seen from Watson.
But before you put your hand on your heart, horrified by Hermione dressed like a harlot, the cover's headline reassures and calms: This is "Emma Watson: In character, Out of control."
What an absurd sentence. Being in character is being in control. But the claim is a calculated move.
This is Watson's first bad-girl part and first sexualized part. But she's not going to trash her well-cultivated good girl image. So she's posing for a magazine cover in tight, barely-there clothing, but it's "in character." Is it necessary to explicitly state that it's a costume, that she is acting, that it's all a ruse? Maybe.
We do not look at magazine covers — from high-fashion high-necked silk blouses to low-cut lace-encrusted bustiers and think, "Oh for sure, X starlet waltzed wearing that." We know that there are editors and stylists and agents and managers and publicists and hair and makeup involved.
Still, there's something slightly shocking/thrilling/intriguing about seeing family-friendly "child" stars grown up and sexually charged. Case in point: Spring Breakers. Watston's role in The Bling Ring parallels the Disney-manufactured latter-day Mouseketeers dressing solely in bikinis in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. One imagines that a female-centric director like Sofia Coppola will be gentler. But back to the covers: To be honest, it's not strange for a 22-year-old to do a "sexay" magazine cover shoot. It's kind of odd that Watson hasn't done one yet. This is what we expect from our young female stars, from Miley to Lindsay to Bynes and Hudgens. A young woman must be sweet and wholesome and celibate until she turns 18 or 19; then it's time to show cleavage, middriff and sideboob on Maxim, Cosmo, Esquire or whatever.
Usually, there is no explicit signage, assuring the public this is not me, this is a character. It's just a picture. It's just an outfit. It's an image. Showing some skin doesn't actually mean you're a wanton slut.
That said, posing as a "character" — one that may (probably) will cause some hand-wringing and pearl clutching — is smart. Watson is wearing a costume, and costumes are a fun, playful way to escape from your normal reality. And — perhaps more important — they allow you to escape from judgment. To quote Mean Girls: Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut, and no other girls can say anything about it.
Of course, in Watson's case, dressing as a character from a movie is a blatant promotional stunt. But there is still something interesting about donning the trappings of what society deems sulty/tarty/slutty and defending it under the guise of "character." It's got a Daniel Day-Lewis texting as Lincoln weirdness to it. Yeah, we get that, but also, we kind of don't believe you. You're doing this because you're absurd.
From a gossip standpoint, Emma Watson's persona is mild-mannered, nearly to a fault. A friend once called her Twitter account "the sweetest exploration of blandness imaginable."
But her GQ cover walks a tightrope: The desire to dress in sexy, revealing clothes, but also confirm that the Burberry-clad good girl is implicitly more true to character. The magazine claims this is Watson "as you've never seen her before," and this is true, and ostensibly of interest to people. But really, she is dressing provocatively but not wanting to be called provocative. So she asserts that she is doing this in pursuit of her character.
It's meta, this cover. By reminding us that an actress is posing, acting, and stressing that a clearly staged action is staged, it's emphasizing our tendency to think that acting and dressing up is somehow an insight to whoever this person might actually be.