The Feminism of Emma Watson: Why All The Hype?

On September 20, Emma Watson once again found herself in the spotlight, but this time, it wasn’t for a new movie role or daring fashion statement. Instead, it was her passionate speech about feminism and gender equality in front of the U.N. Assembly that started to make waves around the world.

Her rallying cry, initiating the launch of gender equality campaign He For She, addressed men’s involvement in feminism among other topics such as equal pay and healthcare rights. Hoping to eliminate the nasty stigma that feminism has become a “man-hating sport”, Watson asked men to take their stand with women to improve gender equality for both sexes. Instantly, the media was enamored. Emma Watson and her Dior coat dress had just redefined the idea of feminism on a “game-changing” level.

Except that she hadn’t, of course. As many prominent feminist voices were quick to notice, Emma Watson’s approach to feminism was not a new one. The words she used, though eloquent and emotional, were not unheard of. For years, activists of all walks of life have been talking about gender equality as a male-inclusive space. It’s certainly not the first time someone’s made a point about a woman’s right to her body, her healthcare, her education, or her position in the workforce. But coming from the mouth of a twenty-four year old starlet, who rose to fame for her portrayal of a strong, intelligent heroine in the beloved Harry Potter series, these ideas suddenly ring truer, louder and more powerful.

Watson did acknowledge her privilege, but steered clear of any explicit mention of how being white, wealthy and cis-gendered may have shaped her outlook on the issues she was presenting. Granted, this can be forgiven in context: her speech was only eleven minutes, and broaching topics of the fatphobia, transphobia and racism faced by millions of women would have necessitated a much longer, much more complex and harrowing feminist discourse. Watson is not to blame for her own privilege, and her lack of personal experience with such struggles should not be held against her or her stance. But the question remains: why such adoration and praise? Why does Western feminism seem to work best for women like Emma Watson - women who embody a prettier and more appealing vision of the typical “feminist”- when women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have devoted twice the time and effort to improving the lives of disenfranchised trans-women around the globe, and still struggle to be recognized for it on a wider scale?

It seems that the primary focus of Watson’s speech, and the He For She campaign itself, is the involvement of men in the sphere of feminism. As Watson herself states, there are “unintentional feminists” among men who simply support the equality of women and their rights without realizing that this- not man-hating or bra-burning - is the central goal of the feminist movement. He For She aims to destroy the harmful myths that have given feminism its bad reputation and caused other young women to denounce the label of “feminist” altogether (I’m looking at you, Shailene Woodley). But after one glance at the campaign’s website, it’s easy to see that despite its ambitions, it doesn’t ask much of the males it hopes to recruit: just take the online pledge, and you’re on your merry way to becoming a male feminist. You can also take a picture with the hashtag #HeForShe, like so many Hollywood hunks have done, to further prove your commitment.

That’s a good start for spreading awareness. But the keyword here is “start”; taking this pledge is so much more than just clicking on a button. It’s a process that requires self-evaluation, self-correction and an increasingly critical view of the world and its gender issues. If Watson’s speech really leaves the impression it seems to have left on both male and female audiences, then more people will begin to think of feminism as a human rights movement, rather than a gender-specific one. And maybe more people will think about what kind of women need feminism the most, since they’re usually the ones whose voices aren’t heard quite as loud as Watson’s has been. 

It’s still refreshing to see a young celebrity using her visibility for a good cause, even more so when she’s willing to label herself as part of a movement that more and more women have started to shy away from. It’s encouraging that she can speak honestly about her own place in feminism, and take off the rose-colored glasses to acknowledge that her life has been extraordinarily fortunate compared to that of others around the world. Anyone who uses their voice to speak for feminism is due a certain amount of respect, but it’s also important to remember that good intentions and charming British accent do not an authority on feminism make, just as pushing a website’s “I Agree” button isn’t suddenly going to turn a guy into the White Knight of Women’s Rights.

It’s good to be proud of Emma Watson: she’s faced her own share of trials and tribulations, navigating the pitfalls of female fame whether they be nude photo threats or a deconstruction of her fashion choices at every occasion, including her appearance at the U.N. Assembly. But it’s equally essential to take her point of view with a grain of salt, and observe the response she’s received with a skeptical mindset. Compared to other woman of our day, she hasn’t really earned the title of a game-changing feminist icon, so Vanity Fair and other publications should probably stop lauding her as such. What her gilded invitation to men seems to omit is that there’s been an open invitation for male involvement in feminism since, well, the beginning of the movement. Her speech has inspired many young minds who would otherwise be unreachable through regular feminist mediums, and for that, we can be thankful. But the truth of the matter is that nothing that was said on that UN stage is going to change the world as we know it - not if society’s preferred version of modern feminism continues to be a pretty celebrity and a hashtag.



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