Emma Watson’s UN speech: what our reaction says about feminism

The fallout from Watson’s UN speech suggests we’re far from gender equality. Jason Szenes/EPA

It is now more than a week since actress Emma Watson delivered what has repeatedly been described as a “game-changing” speech about sexism at the United Nations New York headquarters. The response to the speech, which launched the UN’s HeForShe campaign for gender equality, has been massive, but not universally positive.

Watson’s speech, which extended a “formal invitation” to men to participate in conversations about gender equality, has been highly praised, radically critiqued, and acted as a spur to a bizarre hoax involving a threat to publish nude photographs of Watson.

Just how can young feminists get their message across in such a complicated climate?

Did Watson really change the game?

Much of Watson’s speech contained fairly basic points about feminism that have nevertheless been distorted in light of the increasing normalisation of anti-feminism, as is evident in the #womenagainstfeminism hashtag. Watson is right that feminism is not innately about “man hating”. Nevertheless, a number of feminists have clarified that not hating men does not necessarily equate to needing the direct involvement of men to advance women’s rights.

As Mia McKenzie points out at Black Girl Dangerous, it is simplistic to assume men have not been involved in work toward gender equality simply because they haven’t been “invited". McKenzie argues that the more logical reason why men have not been extensively involved is because they “benefit HUGELY (socially, economically, politically, etc. infinity) from gender inequality and therefore have much less incentive to support its dismantling”.

Emma Watson’s speech to the UN.

A number of feminists, including Australian journalist Clementine Ford, took issue with Watson’s emphasis on “men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes” and men’s “freedom” being the key to changing the situation for women. As Ford notes, while patriarchal structures do have some negative consequences for men, their affect on men is different and not as “drastically violent” as their toll on women. Moreover, men systematically benefit from the power conferred on them by those gender stereotypes.

In contrast, girls and women are more likely to find themselves unable to receive an education, being subject to violence or sexual assault, being paid less than men, or unable to make their own life decisions.

For example, it’s now almost six months since 270 Nigerian schoolgirls were captured by Boko Haram, who oppose girls’ education and are likely using the girls as domestic and sexual slaves. The international #BringBackOurGirls campaign has not been able to free a single one.

Watson’s speech has also been critiqued for ignoring the issue of intersectionality. The gender inequality that she describes as part of her experiences (being called “bossy” as a child, being sexualised by the media, and having friends who abandon sport because they don’t want to become “too muscly”) is the kind that affects comparatively privileged, white, middle-class, Western women.

Blackfeministkilljoy and The Middle Eastern Feminist, among others, explain that women of colour experience different kinds of discrimination to those that Watson has felt. Yet her speech made no reference to how other women’s lives might differ, or might be more difficult because the effects of gender, race, class, sexuality, class and disability discrimination can magnify each other.

The voices of women who lack the privilege of a wealthy, white woman like Watson – those who suffer most at the hands of gender inequality – have not been given the same platform or the same global attention.

In addition, Watson has also been criticised for reinforcing the gender binary, thereby dismissing the issues facing transgender people – though transgender model Geena Rocero has spoken out in support of Watson’s definition of gender as “a spectrum”.

Could Watson ever please everyone?

Many of the points raised by feminists about Watson’s speech, including questioning just how effective an online pledge will be in changing the violence and discrimination enacted on women, have merit. But there is little about Watson and her speech, including her highly feminine appearance, her nervous delivery, and her heterosexuality that has escaped criticism.

Feminists have been careful to explain they are not aiming to tear Watson down and to acknowledge that elements of her speech could provide an accessible introduction to feminism. Yet the ability of white, privileged celebrity to act as a spokesperson for women’s rights on a global scale is immensely fraught.

It is Watson’s fame and image that make her the kind of person who can inspire widespread interest in the topic of women’s rights. Yet those same qualities are also seen as detrimental to the cause because they work to present a concept of gender equality that is palatable to men, as does the HeForShe campaign.

The question is whether a marketable and non-threatening brand of feminism founded on the most acceptable model of femininity could every really dislodge the power structures that make such an approach necessary in the first place.