Is Emma Watson the right woman for the job?

It will take more than just waving a magic wand to enact real change to deeply engrained normative g

Uruguay's vice president applauds after a speech by Emma Watson in the Parliament in Montevideo [AP]

“Emma Watson delivers Game-Changing Speech on Feminism for the UN” blazed a headline in Vanity Fair on September 21.

Game-changing? In 2014, what about what Watson said was even remotely novel? After her speech at the UN last week, it is apparent that it will take more than just waving a magic wand (sorry, cheap shot, Emma) to enact real change to deeply engrained normative gender discourses.

The United Nations is supposed to represent all people, particularly those without a voice. The organisation is often criticised for being ineffectual, for not having any real “power” in the world. With that said, what it does have is an enormous reputation. When the UN speaks, people listen (whether or not they then take action is obviously another story).

Why, then, did they choose Emma Watson to represent the new UN Women HeForShe campaign? Picking a young celebrity was obviously an incredibly calculated decision: a good role model for young women around the world, a recognisable face, no nude picture leaks (although apparently there are threats now in the works). Basically, the UN knew that if Hermione – I mean Emma Watson, was speaking, people would tune in.

Large audiences

How can we blame this decision? I am all in favour for generating the largest audiences possible when it comes to topics as important as feminism and gender equality. What I don’t understand, however, is why the UN decided to re-invent the wheel. Why, in 2014, did a keynote speech about gender equality focus on girls dropping out of sports teams, or boys not being able to show their emotions by age 18? I understand that Watson was speaking from personal experience, and even found that her candour added real emotional appeal to her message, but in a world where femicide, FGM, and child marriage are pertinent issues, I don’t think the girl-next-door experience is good enough.

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. For anyone who has ever attended a class even remotely related to gender, anything said in the speech was archaic.

Let me underline, italicise, put in bold, that this is not supposed to be a criticism of Emma Watson. I admire her intelligence, her bravery, and her thoughtfulness. I do not blame her for talking about the experiences she knows. 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.”

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. 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? Just so that people who have never heard about feminism will be able to understand? I would rather trust in the intelligence of the masses, and (simply and accessibly) talk not just about feminism as it relates to equal pay, but rather as a complex, reflexive, and discursive system of power structures with the ability to both oppress and liberate.

Gender binary

Furthermore, I am concerned at the gender binary developed in the speech. We talk about men and women, but where does everyone else fit? As blogger babywasu question: “What about inclusion of people who merely do not exist within the gender binary – agender and genderqueer individuals – who are erased by the reduction of gender equality and feminism as a political ideology to ‘equality between men and women?”

What if this is the first speech about gender that a young transgender child hears? What is the UN saying to the many social movements around the world fighting tirelessly for the legal ability to self-define their identity? Can we accept that these movements don’t matter when it comes to international speeches, because we need to make gender rights palatable to the lowest common denominator? How can we ethically justify this sort of collateral damage when we are supposedly promoting a discourse of inclusivity and equality?

I am often reprimanded by friends for being too critical. Maybe I should take heed, and just enjoy that my Facebook newsfeed is, for the first time, filled with celebratory feminist messages, and with friends publicly declaring that they too are feminists. Maybe I am even becoming one of those feminists who generates the notoriety that leads to assumptions of man-hating (which, for the record, I don’t).

This article, however, is my contribution to the debate. As an academic, I am sure that Watson would be glad to know that her words aren’t being taken as gospel, but rather, are being debated, unpacked, and questioned. I did not have the opportunity to speak in front of the United Nations, but I do have the opportunity to share my opinions through other mediums. What’s more, I do acknowledge that the speech has made a difference – it has caused me and many others to tweet and blog and post our opinions, to engage and be critical through various social media networks.

My bottom line remains: When we have women carrying around the mattress on which they were raped in an effort to have their attacker expelled, women protesting outside jails for those incarcerated for miscarriages charged as aggravated homicides, women going to jail because they used their music to promote LGBTQ rights in an oppressive society, can we not think of better reasons for the UN to promote feminism than to prevent young girls from worrying that they are becoming “too muscly? When we have a global stage and a voice that is dripping in discursive power, can we not think of a better reason to promote feminism to the masses?

The real debates should be around how we can be accessible without being exclusive, and on speaking “in solidarity with” as opposed to “on behalf of” the many different women who desperately need a change in their lived reality of gender (in)equalities. Otherwise, as Spivac noted in 1988 (yes, 26 years ago!) we run the risk of “white [wo]men saving brown women from brown men”. The subaltern can and should speak, and in 2014, I am disappointed that a body promoting international solidarity is not giving him/her/them the chance.

Julia Zulver is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Her upcoming thesis focuses on women’s mobilisation in El Salvador.