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.