The context, delivery and reception of Emma Watson’s recent speech to the United Nations about the launch of ‘He for She’ demonstrates a troubling feature of mainstream feminism and of public receptiveness to its ideas: we only want feminism when it is presented to us palatably, eloquently, without ‘shrillness’ or ‘hysteria’. He for She, a UN Women awareness campaign, purports to engage men in a ‘solidarity movement for gender equality’. Responses to Watson’s speech and the He for She campaign have ranged from adoring praise for its refreshing take on feminism and its engagement of men, to Clementine Ford’s sarcastic commentary that “it’s a game-changer, folks!” (hint: it’s not), to criticism of Watson’s failure to engage with intersectional feminism, and for wresting power away from the women she seeks to empower by centering on the agency of men in defining their own gender identity.
Watson’s speech is commendable for its success in reconfiguring feminism in the public consciousness not as a man hating, unreasonable movement bent on female supremacy, but as equality for all sexes. However, while well intentioned, its content is unremarkable, harmful in its perpetuation of certain assumptions about the gender binary, and careless in its negation of other dimensions of feminism such as race, able-bodiedness, cisgender and the experiences of transpeople. As Flavia Dzoda asserted, “my feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.” While Watson says that “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals”, her message is confused when she refers to “both men and women”. While He for She recognises that men, too, are imprisoned by gender stereotypes, it stops short of validating the experiences of those who fall outside the traditional binary of male/female.
Watson’s ideas are not revolutionary, impressive, nor game-changing for anyone who is even slightly versed in the discourses of feminism. I am mindful of the irony and counter-productiveness of belittling her speech, as her feminist cause is one that, foundationally, I am aligned with, and high-profile advocacy of feminism is all too rare and inadequately covered in the media. The central problem is that of public ignorance. Her speech should not have been characterised as a new message. It says a lot about our world and the state of gender inequality that we receive it as such.
The legitimacy of feminist thought is often sidelined and dismissed as being too extreme, yet Watson’s speech has seen consensus in the mainstream media that it is so positive to be able to engage with someone who is so reasoned, passionate (but not ‘fiery’), and a great role model. It is likely that the same speech by a politician would have been received completely differently; if Hillary Clinton had launched this campaign, it would perhaps be a moderately sized blip on the media landscape. Julia Gillard’s speech on misogyny also provides an interesting contrast; while well received by some, she was also cast as an angry feminist who had emotionally and inappropriately hijacked the political arena.
Why, then, was Watson’s speech so well received?
In many ways, it is because she conforms to society’s standards of the empowered, but unthreatening woman: Watson is powerful, but not emasculating; passionate, but not shrill; intelligent, but not ideologically extreme. These ideas of a ‘strong female character’, ‘upstanding young woman’ and ‘female role model’ are so quintessential they border on a tired trope. For these purposes, Watson’s mode of delivery was flawless. The context of the United Nations commands immediate respect, and her appearance and respectful manner neatly conformed to these social parameters. Contrast the measured, conservative demeanor and tone of Watson’s speech with Miley Cyrus’ flamboyant brand of feminism: defiantly sexual, often permeated with expletives, and more colloquial in delivery. Which is received more positively? It is true that Watson’s stature as an internationally renowned actress makes her advocacy well placed; yet in terms of pure prominence in the media and fame, arguably, Watson and Cyrus are quite equal. Watson and Cyrus have shared the double standards, sexualisation, and tribulations that permeate the life of a female celebrity from a young age. The important distinction between the two is, sadly, not the content of their message, but of the mode of delivery, and society’s construction of the woman delivering the message.
Feminism is only taken seriously when it works within the confines of rational, reasoned dialogue. While it may seem odd and counter-intuitive to cast these as ‘confines’, these ideas of reason and rationality are often imbued with gendered, structural biases that dismiss the voices of those who do not conform to its narrow standards about what a strong female role model is. To reject these confines is not to discourage well thought out arguments, or to encourage anarchy, incoherence and intelligibility in the public reception of feminist discourse. It is merely to recognise the shortcomings of the dialogue as it currently stands in the public sphere. It is to recognise that feminists, whatever their gender, are dimensional and diverse human beings who are, too often, marginalised when they speak out. Feminism is not permitted to be fiery, raw or dimensional in its fight against systemic oppression and gender inequality. Feminism is only legitimised as rational and reasoned when it works within parameters dictated by the very perpetrators of inequality, on their terms; then, and only then, will it be taken seriously.
We need to move toward a world where the reception of Watson’s speech is neither of adoration nor of apathy, but one where her speech is not praised for the newness and insight of its content because it is already basic knowledge. The widespread coverage of Watson’s speech is, sadly, attributable to her (probably unconscious) adherence to the condescending expectations that feminism, and other movements that challenge the status quo, be neutral, restrained, and measured.