Feminist Activist First, Actress Second: Emma Watson

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Since she magically entered our lives (and straight into our hearts) when the first Harry Potter movie was released, we’ve watched Emma Watson grow up on the screen, turning from know-it-all Hermione—a sweet, bright kid no one could help falling in love with, to an independent woman with a strong set of values who stands behind what she believes in.

Over the years she has been involved in the promotion of girls’ education, fair trade, and organic clothing. In September 2012 she became an ambassador for Camfed International—a movement to support girls’ education in rural Africa, and was appointed UN Women Goodwill Ambassador in July 2014. Two months later, she launched UN Women’s HeForShe campaign—to get men to advocate for women’s rights—with a speech she delivered at UN Headquarters in New York City.

The 26 year old actress plays Belle in Disney’s live-action retelling of its animated classic “Beauty and the Beast” (released March 17), but not before she reinvents the character. Watson talks in the March issue of Vanity Fair about her part in designing the new Belle, whom she wanted to be stronger this time around. “I was like, ‘The first shot of the movie cannot be Belle walking out of this quiet little town carrying a basket with a white napkin in it.’” Watson insisted that she be able to move freely in her dress and wear bloomers and riding boots when riding a horse—rather than a long dress and ballet slippers. “The original sketches had her in her ballet shoes,” Watson says, “which are lovely—don’t get me wrong—but she’s not going to be able to do anything terribly useful in ballet shoes in the middle of a French provincial village.” Also unlike the original movie (where Belle is an assistant to her inventor father), in the live-action movie she's developing a “modern washing machine that allows her to sit and read.” Watson admits that she “couldn’t care less if I won an Oscar or not if the movie didn’t say something that I felt was important for people to hear.”

It hasn’t always been clear to Watson that she should be a part of Hollywood; she even considered giving up acting altogether in 2009 when she enrolled at Brown University—where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature five years later. “I’d walk down the red carpet and go into the bathroom,” she recalls to Vanity Fair of the last few premieres, “I had on so much makeup and these big, fluffy, full-on dresses. I’d put my hands on the sink and look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Who is this?’ I didn’t connect with the person who was looking back at me, and that was a very unsettling feeling.” She’s been in the industry since she was about 10 years old, and she’s “often thought, ‘I’m so wrong for this job because I’m too serious; I’m a pain in the ass; I’m difficult; I don’t fit.’” But as she got older, she realized that “taking on those battles, the smaller ones and the bigger ones, is who I am.”

When agents and movie producers told her she was making a mistake by turning down appealing offers—the leading role in La La Land, for instance—she thought, “What’s the point of achieving great success if you feel like you’re losing your freakin’ mind? I’ve had to say, ‘Guys, I need to go back to school,’ or ‘I just need to go home and hang out with my cats.’ People have looked at me and been like, ‘Is she insane?’ But, actually, it’s the opposite of insane.” Emma Watson does things her own way—which not everyone can understand—and finds joy in things like becoming a certified meditation teacher (after getting into yoga) and scattering books (like Maya Angelou's seventh autobiography Mom & Me & Mom) throughout train stations in the London underground and in the New York subway, and in other random places, for anyone to pick up and read.

Reading is one of Watson’s greatest passions. “I grew up on film sets,” she explains, “and books were my connection to the outside world. They were my connection to my friends back at school because if I was reading what they were reading we’d have something in common. Later in life, they became an escape, a means of empowerment, a friend I could rely on.” Last January she started an online book club to share feminist ideas—Our Shared Shelf, which she crowdsourced using her Twitter account with over 24 million followers.

Watson is “always quietly stunned” at what some people have to say about her. Her recent picture in Vanity Fair magazine, in which her breasts are partially exposed, was criticized as being against her feminist ideals. “It just always reveals to me,” she passionately replies to these critics, “how many misconceptions and what a misunderstanding there is of what feminism is. Feminism is about giving women choice; feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women. 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.” It’s just another reminder that, as the old saying goes, the only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.

 

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