The sexual awakening of Hermione

How "Harry Potter" star Emma Watson is navigating the tricky transition from adorable child actor to mature adult

Topics: Teenagers, Love and Sex, Movies,

The sexual awakening of HermioneEmma Watson

In the days before the release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” based on the very dark sixth book in J.K. Rowling’s series, media and fan sites percolated with anticipation over one particular moment in the next movie: the kiss between Harry’s best friends Ron and Hermione. Not hugely surprising, since anxiety about growing up is central to the series and, as James Parker so aptly puts it, these movies “have served as a sort of time-lapse study of puberty.”

“This is 10 years’ worth of tension and hormones and chemistry and everything in one moment. We had to ace it,” Emma Watson, who plays Hermione, told the press last week. She got more specific with MTV about shooting the scene with Rupert Grint, whom she has known since she was 9, explaining, “We were both just like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe we have to do this. This is so awkward. Really awkward.’ So I could take comfort in the fact that Rupert felt the same way. We were both giggling. We were like 12-year-olds.”

Growing up in public is always a dicey affair — whether you are a wizard inheriting the weight of the world, or a young actress with a multimillion-dollar movie franchise partially resting on your pale ivory shoulders and rosy lips. But the dangers seem much more perilous for young women than men. I did a double take a few months ago when I spotted Watson — pure as the unicorn-driven snow, beloved of 8-year-old boys the world over — staring saucily from the cover of Interview magazine, mouth open like a blow-up doll. Is this Hermione’s get-out-of-child-stardom card, I wondered? Daniel Radcliffe had already plotted his escape route last year with a quick shortcut to instant adult status: full-frontal nudity. Since it was for a serious role in a serious play (Peter Shaffer’s “Equus”), Radcliffe was feted for artistic credibility and bravery (especially after he talked in interviews about the shriveling effects of a live audience on the male member).

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But shifting your image into a more mature gear has very different ramifications for a young woman than for a young guy. I doubt many people actually wanted to glimpse Harry Potter’s wand, whereas at least one creepy Web site counting down the days till Watson’s 18th birthday popped up back in 2004. The media had been chasing after a glimpse of Hermione’s magic underpants since she came of age. In fact, London tabloid the Sun ran a picture of Watson on her 18th birthday, inadvertently flashing a little too much skin getting out of a car. (They kindly placed a little photo of Ron Weasley’s head in her crotch to block out the offending view.) Her more recent “wardrobe malfunction” at the London premiere of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (her elegant vintage gown flipped open while she signed autographs, exposing her flesh-colored panties) sent seedy ripples across the Internet — repeated again when David Letterman showed the photo to his audience while interviewing her.

To her credit, she coolly shrugged off Letterman, saying, “At least I was wearing underwear.” And though Watson told the London Times that she would consider doing nude scenes for an artsy director like Bernardo Bertolucci (“I’m not getting my kit off any time soon, but it is part of my job,” she explained reasonably), she seems in no hurry to expose herself. Flashing skin — or, in Miley Cyrus’ case, wearing hooker boots — may be the quickest route to tabloid fame for a female performer. Watson’s many high-fashion shoots in magazines like Italian Vogue and her Burberry campaign seem to skew more toward powerful, edgy chic than flaunting flesh — though this spread-eagle pose on the forthcoming August cover of British Elle looks slightly uncomfortable.

Despite a recent rumor that she’s considering co-starring with Marilyn Manson in a goth-flavored version of “Cinderella,” Watson assured Letterman that she was headed for an Ivy League American university this fall, rumored to be Brown. “I’m young and indecisive and not quite sure what I want to major in,” she said, like a normal 19-year-old. But it won’t be kissing. “Maybe English, maybe art.”

Joy Press is a former culture editor at Salon.

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