Commentary: On Emma Watson’s Idea of Feminism

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On September 21, 2014, Vanity Fair published an article titled “Watch Emma Watson Deliver a Game-Changing Speech on Feminism for the U.N.” and the internet buzzed with excitement. Some sided with Vanity Fair, while some rallied against the magazine’s assertion. Game-changer? That white actress?

Mia McKenzie from Black Girl Dangerous, for instance, explained in “Why I’m Not Really Here for Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech at the U.N.” that her issue is not with Emma Watson per se, but with the message she espoused. McKenzie writes:

[Watson] seems to suggest that the reason men aren’t involved in the fight for gender equality is that women simply haven’t invited them and, in fact, have been unwelcoming. Women haven’t given men a formal invitation, so they haven’t joined in. It’s not because, you know, men benefit HUGELY (socially, economically, politically, etc. infinity) from gender inequality and therefore have much less incentive to support its dismantling. It’s not because of the prevalence of misogyny the entire world over. It’s just that no one’s asked. OMG, why didn’t any of us think to ask?!

I find McKenzie’s interpretation to be both patronizing and rude. Watson doesn’t strike me as a shallow white celebrity. I also don’t view her as an infant who came across the discourse on feminism last night. Watson received straight A’s in high school (in both her GCSEs and A Levels). She recently graduated from Brown University with a degree in English Literature. Even if her academic acumen wasn’t enough to prevent the assumption that Watson isn’t acquainted with the substantial issues involved in feminist studies, one need only look at her actual exposure to the systemic exploitation of women in different parts of the world. She has been to both Bangladesh and Zambia, and we all know that in both those countries the stereotyping of genders in the media is the least of women’s problems.

In fact, the question I wanted feminists to raise concerns the validity of strategic activism (choosing certain topics and framing them in a particular manner to accomplish real socio-political change, then moving on to the next strategic plan), but that didn’t happen. Serious feminists seem to want to patronize Emma Watson. Why? Because she’s an actor. Lovable, no doubt, but by virtue of her career (and her skin color) she is forever condemned to the periphery of ‘real feminism’.

Back to the first argument against Watson raised by Mia McKenzie. Really? Watson’s speech seems to suggest that the reason men are not involved in the fight against gender inequality is that women didn’t ask them to join? Because Watson doesn’t say that. Watson says something else entirely. She says that feminism has reached the point where men completely shun it, which is true and very visible. She also says that not a single country in the world actually has equal rights, which means that something fundamentally skewed is taking place in feminist theory such that it has not enabled generations of brave and intelligent women to achieve equality in any country. I’m sorry, but Watson never said that the only reason inequality persists is that the discourse had made gender equality unwelcoming to the opposite sex. Rather, she said it’s time to change, it’s time to do something. We can’t wait, we can’t continue using the same tactics we’ve used in the past.

At this rate, Watson tells us, we will be waiting 75-100 years for equal pay. At this rate, 15.5 million girls will be married while they are still children! At this rate, rural African girls will have to wait until the year 2086 to be able to receive secondary education.

No, McKenzie, giving men a formal invitation, strategically slanting the discourse so that it seems to benefit them (though it is absolutely apparent to anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of feminism that gender inequality effects women more than men in a corporeal sense, and that men have always benefited from women’s exploitation), is not an absurd idea. I cannot simply assume that Watson is an idiot just because she is an ‘actor’. I cannot simply assume that not only is Watson an idiot, but that the intelligent panel of feminists at the UN who’ve been working with Watson and helping her settle into her new role are all idiots as well. It is true that Watson did not provide a dissertation on the most intricate debates in contemporary feminist theory. Rather, she launched a ‘campaign’ that aspires to mobilize masses of the opposite gender so that we might see real change in our lifetime.

McKenzie goes on to say:

This message is flawed and unfortunate, as well. Telling men that they should care about gender inequality because of how much it hurts them, centralizes men and their well-being in a movement built by women for our survival in a world that degrades and dehumanizes us daily. This is problematic for the same reason telling white people that they should end racism because racism “holds us all back as a society, so eradicating it will help you, too” is problematic.

We live in a complex world. Gender inequality is not an issue that can be solved by one speech. One speech. One single speech delivered against the backdrop of a whole history of exploitation. Why not view this one speech as an aspect, an angle, a line of flight, a new experiment in a struggle that encompasses everyone throughout history. It seems that the criticisms of Watson’s speech had more to do with the Vanity Fair article than Watson’s or the UN’s strategy to effectuate real and immediate change. Why call Watson a ‘game-changer’? Who is she to receive that title when real feminists have been working towards equality for their entire lives?

In fact, McKenzie goes on to compare Watson to Beyoncé, who does not get the same kind of Vanity Fair love from white feminists. McKenzie writes:

So, can we please stop trying to make Emma Watson the new feminist icon of the universe? She’s not there yet. She’s still learning, I think, just like Beyoncé, who, by the way, rarely even gets the benefit of the doubt from white feminists, let alone hailed as feminist queen of all things, when her feminist expressions are less than perfect. (Imagine if Beyoncé got up at the UN and gave a speech that centered on men in the fight for gender equality. The white mainstream feminist skies would rain down hellfire upon us all. Well, some of us, anyway).

I don’t think the comparison between Watson (who graduated from Brown with a concentration in literature) and Beyoncé, who continues to sexualize women and commodify the female body and who espouses predominantly sexist and misogynist ideals in many of her songs, is valid. I do recognize that Beyoncé is changing. I just don’t think it’s fair to equate her with Watson. Again, I am merely restating that Watson did not arrive at feminism via Hollywood Boulevard. I just don’t think the comparison is valid. Moreover, ‘The New Feminist Icon of the Universe’ should be on a mug. If you make it, I’ll buy it. But there is more:

I hope that as Emma Watson continues to grow into her feminism she’ll chuck these unfortunate approaches. But, frankly, it’ll take a lot more than that for me to see her as the “game-changing” feminist she’s being called. Where’s her analysis of racial justice and its necessity in ending gender inequality? What does she know about misogynoir? Does she understand that wealthy white women like her are often oppressors of women of color and/or poor women in the world? Where’s her understanding of transfeminism? Can she explain to the UN, or anyone else, why violence against trans women needs to be centered in our work against misogyny? Does she know and can she articulate that ableism is woven into not only gender inequality, but every form of oppression that exists? And, importantly, does she understand that as a white woman she is granted access and taken seriously by mainstream feminism in ways that a woman of color wouldn’t be and why, then, it’s necessary for her to step aside and make room for women of color to be heard if gender inequality is ever to be eradicated? Because any real “game-changing” feminist needs to.

I am really disturbed by these arguments. I am a Middle Eastern woman. I am not white. I am not American. I am seriously not a dominant anything. But I understand that Watson’s speech that day had a particular goal, and that goal was not to discuss any of the items listed above. Her speech was given to mark the launch of the HeForShe campaign for crying out loud. Why would Watson start the campaign — after stating that the biggest problem feminism faces today is its having fallen out of public favor — by talking about such intense issues from the outset? Yes, they matter. Yes, Watson knows what they are (again, this little Harry Potter actress is educated, and she is aware of different forms of exploitation — remember Bangladesh and Zambia aren’t exactly white, upper-class, holiday resorts).

There is a time and a place for everything and the battle for gender equality is not just long, but waged on many fronts. Let’s talk strategy. Let’s stop expecting a Jesus Christ and a Bible of Feminism. No one person or one speech is ever going to equate to the whole discourse or the entire struggle.

Is Watson’s notion of formal inclusion problematic? Yes, theoretically it is. Is it smart though? Does it speak to her target audience? Does it make new steps, new phases, and new battles possible? These are the real questions that need to be answered, not whether or not Watson is the new icon of feminism. Watson never claimed to be a game-changer herself. She never claimed that she did feminism better than the feminists (in fact, her speech is replete with ‘inadvertent feminism’ that cares more about the idea and the ambition for gender equality than the theories themselves).

This brings to mind another article. Julia Zulver writes in AlJazeera: “Game-changing? In 2014, what about what Watson said was even remotely novel?” Well, Watson herself never claimed that she was inventing anything new. The reason Vanity Fair deemed it ‘game-changing’ was the new angle, which admittedly does give men more clout than is necessary, but is still game-changing. Particularly so due to this new strategy of reframing the discourse and centering it around men — possibly as the start of a new series of steps, possibly as an introduction to new strategies. Watson uses simple and quotidian ‘issues’ (men cannot express their feelings, girls have to drop out of sports teams because they don’t want to be perceived as masculine, etc.) to start a debate through different means, to make feminism more appealing and more digestible, not just to the men of the UN but to the masses around the world.

For Zulver, it is merely the fact that Watson was fortunate enough to play a role in a popular children’s movie franchise that put her behind the UN’s podium (that and the fact that none of Watson’s nude photographs have leaked online). She writes, “Basically, the UN knew that if Hermione – I mean Emma Watson – was speaking, people would tune in.” She moves on to state that the speech is outdated and pointless. In fact, she even says that Watson never properly recognizes her privilege:

While she did not go quite as far as to say that her experiences belong to a highly elite, privileged class of people (the same class to which I myself probably belong), she did admit: “I don’t know if I am qualified to be here. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.”

However, if you tune in at ‘5:15’, you will hear Watson saying “I am one of the lucky ones. My life is a sheer privilege.” Watson goes on to explain that the reason she has lived a privileged life is due to the parents, school, and mentors who accepted her as a human. Does she qualify her statement from a socio-economic standpoint? Does she go on to explain class, country, and type of education? No. She really didn’t have to because, as I said, this speech had particular people in mind, it also had a particular goal in mind, but she still stated flat out that she was privileged. Maybe in a classroom setting she would have qualified it. Maybe she would explain later that the reason she is privileged is due to the centuries of struggle that made ‘inadvertent feminism’ in Britain and the US different from its counterpart in, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran.

It is much more likely that Emma Watson knows both the discourse and the material aspect of gender inequality, but that she chose to reframe the discourse for a reason. What I want feminists to discuss now is not whether Watson is a game-changer or the new feminist icon of the universe, but whether or not the UN should embark on strategies for change, whether or not those strategies should be shared with the public, whether or not other strategies may yield better results, and so on and so forth.

And let’s please stop acting as though Watson’s speech is the only method for activism. Because it’s not. It is not even the most important or the most urgent. But it is Watson’s chosen strategy. So my question is why this way, why now, and what may come from it? And perhaps more importantly, how can other feminists, using other strategies, piggyback on the HeForShe campaign, not only to reclaim what was lost in the speech, or to reinstate intricacies, or to address its problematical notions, but rather to build on it, to establish new edifices above the surge of new interest that would harbor new activists, new methods of activism, and tangible new targets?

Real feminists shouldn’t be frustrated or afraid. They should welcome the publicity. Isn’t that what we’ve always wanted after all? An entry into the hearts and minds of the masses? Well, now you almost have it. Build on it.

But back to Zulver who writes, “The United Nations is supposed to represent all people, particularly those without a voice.” The UN is a body composed of many people from many races and who work on many different issues. Zulver then explains:

What I do criticise, then, is that the United Nations chose to use a white, western, heterosexual, upper-class woman to speak for a group of united nations. Why should the mouthpiece of an international campaign be such a foreign, distant figure to so many girls and women? I have heard the argument that I, too, am speaking from a place of privilege – of academic privilege.

I’m sorry. Was Zulver actually expecting that a single human being existed who was able to represent 7 billion individuals? Not even Michael Jackson could do that and he was white, black, male, female, straight, and not so straight, human, and possibly extraterrestrial; yet he wasn’t Asian, Middle Eastern, disabled, unemployed, or an 8-year-old girl married to an 80-year-old man. He couldn’t represent everyone. No one can. Again, can we stop expecting people to ‘represent’ the world or to speak for ‘the people’? It’s just not possible.

Watson certainly never claimed she spoke for anyone. She has every right to identify herself as a feminist and to talk to people about her views, about her concerns, about what she thinks needs to be done. You can’t take that away from her. You don’t own anything. You don’t own the gender. You don’t own the discourse. You don’t own nothin’.

The desire to reshape the world with justice and fairness as priorities does not belong to the ivory tower of academic studies. Watson’s speech spoke about her own experiences (remember the boys who couldn’t express their feelings or the girls who dropped out of sports teams). She never once spoke for the girls in different parts of the world. She never once said: “I travelled to Bangladesh and Zambia and now feel qualified to speak for them, to tell the world what they want and need.” Yet the word in Zulver’s article is actually italicized: “What I do criticise, then, is that the United Nations chose to use a white, western, heterosexual, upper-class woman to speak for a group of united nations.”

Zulver also writes:

For anyone who has ever attended a class even remotely related to gender, anything said in the speech was archaic. For many, I have been reminded, this may be the first they ever hear about gender rights and feminism. Watson wasn’t speaking to a university lecture theatre, but to a group of powerful people with the power to make a change, who might usually stop listening at the first mention of the word “feminism”.

In 2014, though, this isn’t good enough. When teaching about racism, one can’t begin with a discourse that is 30 or 40 years behind the times. Why, then, do we think it’s okay to resort to an over-simplified, outdated version of gender discourse?

Zulver’s phraseology here (“For anyone who has attended a class” and “When teaching about racism”) confuses me. Why does she continue to write as though the entire point of Watson’s speech was the defense of a doctoral study on feminist theory? Watson wasn’t teaching feminist theory to the UN. This wasn’t a lecture. This was a campaign. A campaign that was aimed at galvanizing men – the most aggressive exploiters of women’s rights – when what most of them have done thus far is walk the other way whenever women’s rights are mentioned.

Really, it all boils down to the repellent aspect of the word: feminism. Watson tells us early on in her speech that the point (which you can hear very clearly at 3:15 when she says, “I decided that I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular world. Women are choosing not to identity as feminist”) is reclaiming the word and the impulse behind the word and making it popular so we can start to achieve palpable change in the quickest possible time frame. Nowhere in her entire speech does she claim to be creating a new feminism, becoming a game-changer, speaking for women in different parts of the world, or even competing with Beyoncé.

So let’s stick to the issue. Do we, as feminists who hail from different walks of life, think the rebranding effort will impact society? Do we think we can educate the new troops who seek further information? Do we think we can build upon the publicity? And what form might our attempts take?

Feminists are missing a great opportunity by criticizing Watson, not for the speech itself or for the strategy utilized, but for the way that Vanity Fair and other white feminists have identified Watson as a game-changer.

So, again, as feminists who hail from different walks of life, can we start talking strategy? Can we start talking unified front while at the same time diligently investigating the myriad differences and specific communal concerns instead of choosing one or the other?

I think Watson’s speech underscored two main and global concerns for contemporary feminism:

  • How can we talk about ‘representation’ without becoming obstacles to each other’s progress?
  • How can we plan strategies that benefit the majority of our gender in the quickest possible time frame?

Well, that and who gets to be the next “new feminist icon of the universe.”


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