Emma Watson in a Power Suit

Last week, Emma Watson launched a campaign called HeForShe at the UN headquarters in New York.

The next day – while she was enjoying her new status as Facebook’s favourite feminist – I watched her speech hoping to see a young woman raising the profile of feminism. Unfortunately, this hope was ultimately doomed.

She starts well; pointing out that “fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating”. She then shows her understanding of sexism, boldly calling attention to how she was sexualised by the media at the age of 14.

But sadly, the fist of solidarity that I had started to raise for my fashionably new-feminist friend came crashing down, undone, with the realisation that she doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about.

To be blunt, her rallying call to arms is backed up with zero political strategy.

“How can we affect change in the world”, she said, “when only half of it is invited or feels welcome to join the conversation? Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.”

Not only does she not say what men should do with her invitation (although I can think of a few things), she even suggests that men have not been a bigger part of the feminist struggle because they have not been <em>invited</em> properly. Ummm, Emma? Is the reason they didn’t respond maybe, for instance, because they benefit MASSIVELY (socially, economically, politically etc.) from gender inequality? Women have been inviting men to join the feminist struggle for as long as there has been one. Consider, for example, (the otherwise liberal and boring) feminist author John Stuart Mill who presented a women’s petition to the British parliament in 1866. The majority of men have simply always ignored the invitation, and I am pretty sure they won’t suddenly start RSVP-ing because Emma Watson got on a stage in a power suit.

She then talks about how hard sexism is for men: “I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.” And suggests that they should fight on behalf of their “daughters, sisters and mothers”.

As well as falling into the trap of defining women by their relationship to men, Emma naively suggests that men will fight for feminism because they sometimes feel insecure. That’s like suggesting that a white person will get involved with anti-racism because they once felt intimidated by a black school-friend. It doesn’t work like that. It is true that men (particularly men that don’t fit the white, middle-class, straight “ideal” of masculinity) suffer as a result of sexist structures in society. But the benefits of this system – for most men – are impossibly vast and impossibly ingrained into the political fabric of daily life. Feminism <em>has</em> to be about women. All women. The men I know that call themselves feminists are motivated by this.

Finally, and unforgivably, she self-deprecatingly says:

“I bet you’re wondering: who is this Harry Potter <em>girl</em>, and what is she doing speaking at the UN? And that is a very good question…”

Instead of asking her audience to take her seriously as a young woman that cares about – and understands – feminism, Emma refers to herself as a ‘girl’ and reminds them of the film that led to her being sexualised at the age of 14. There is no plan of action. There is no indication of how we should move forward with the HeForShe campaign. She simply retreats back into the comfortable shell of her own oppression.

And this is the tragedy of Emma Watson’s UN speech.

As the newly appointed Goodwill Ambassador, Emma is masquerading as a force for change whilst actually contributing to keeping things as they are. In the true neoliberal tradition, Emma has introduced her brand of cupcake feminism- pacifying a generation of already un-politicised men and women. Her speech is sugary, infantile, insubstantial and – most importantly – an invitation to ‘play feminists’ on Facebook without actually having to engage with feminist theory or ‘do’ anything.

So it turns out that Emma is not the passionate, knowledgeable, outspoken feminist leader she is being hyped as. But BOY do we need one.

Natalie Diddams

One comment

  1. Really? Because I thought her speech was an attempt to reframe gender inequality from a ‘woman’s issue’ (and sadly perceived by many to be a ‘hysterical women’s issue’) to what it fundamentally is; a structure of rigid societal ‘norms’ of what it is to be feminine (or masculine) which produces a xenophobia (sexism) with prejudices about a woman’s ‘place’ and (to a much, much smaller affect but no greater extent) a man’s ‘place’. Perceptions that start at a very young age and continue to grow in later life through the objectification of women, religions with archaic ideas of propriety, and corporate old boy clubs.

    I suppose she could have talked about how the more liberal and ‘free’ a society becomes the more fluid gender and sexuality can become, how masculine and feminine are in reality messy venn diagrams and increasingly how ‘male’ and ‘female’ are too (and earned some more cheers from the LGBTQ crowd). However she would have immediately alienated a great deal of the world who fixedly (and backwardly) believe in the ‘place’ of a man or a woman. The very people this speech seems designed to reach out to.

    Equally she engages with the expected and immediate criticism from those who will dismiss her as an irrelevance because she’s a celebrity (DiCaprio framed it better with his “I pretend for a living, but you do not”) but even more-so because she is a ‘girl’. Do we, when fighting for the very basic tenements of equality need to preach to the near-enlightened; maybe walk around in a posse with banners and flags in middle-England, make it clear that we have a club? Or do we need to challenge and interact with those whose rigid ideas of how a woman ‘should’ be, and work to change their minds by at the very (very) least exposure to the idea that gender equality is fundamental human right. This wasn’t a pitch to those who have lived with nearly a hundred years of suffrage, it was in a hall of represented nations that don’t allow women to drive, implicitly support honour-killings, and consider FGM to be necessary. I think when considering that we all wish she’d crammed her wand up their asses, but speaking in terms of ‘mothers, wives, daughters’ is an attempt to engage some empathy in those where traditionally there is little.

    Were you expecting a 24 year old actress to provide the UN with a workflow for solving inequality? I thought she was there to draw attention to the issues and get an otherwise dry UN session in to the newspapers where it belongs. Maybe her terminology was irritating, the invite thing was pretty demeaning but maybe she has a point, I think it’s pretty crass to suggest that because John Stuart Mill wrote a book in 19th century England the invitation to enter a dialogue was made and ignored, it wasn’t ignored. This invitation should be made every day by everyone female or male who believes in it, because a lot of the world is culturally still living in the equivalent of Victorian England, and some areas are rightly described as medieval. Maybe you experienced the speech from a place where it felt all cupcake-y and obvious, as did your Facebook friends and everyone who reposted it from Upworthy, punch the air! woot! But the speech was made to an international body of nations and not Heat magazine, so maybe you weren’t the target audience.

    There is no conspiracy, men are not an homogenous group that want to subdue us, they don’t meet up at the weekends to talk about how to keep women in the kitchen. Many might call us bitches when we’re assertive, many might objectify our bodies and many may pay us the least they can get away with. But they are for the most-part sleepwalking into that (and need to be woken up), here in the UK we’re past the point where the majority think that a woman should be seen and not heard, here we can start to deal with the injustice that comes from echoes of millennia of patriarchal structure, the injuries and slights still inflicted on us by a dying way of thinking. Internationally however we’re still fighting the same fight we were in the 19th Century and before, and maybe it was worth delivering the old invite again.

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