Earlier this summer, fresh from college graduation, Emma Watson, was named a U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador. Though the ripples of her involvement over the past six months can be seen online (crashing the U.N. website, using Twitter to denounce a sexist politician in Turkey or respond to the gender politics of the recent celebrity nude photo hack), Watson’s power in person is an entirely different matter.
The actress gave an impassioned speech on feminism and gender at the U.N. Headquarters in New York this weekend to launch the “HeForShe” campaign which aims to galvanize one billion men and boys as advocates for ending the inequalities that women and girls face globally.
Watson’s speech, which was met with a thunderous standing ovation, not only called for action from male allies, but clarified a persistent misconception about feminism in general. She said:
I decided that I was a feminist. This seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, [women’s expression is] seen as too strong, too aggressive, anti-men, unattractive.
Why has the word become such an unpopular one? I think it is right I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decisions that affect my life. I think it is right that socially, I am afforded the same respect as men.
Watson is pushing back against recent campaigns like Women Against Feminism. As Watson puts it elsewhere in her speech, these campaigns portray the feminist cause as “man-hating.” By involving both genders in the “HeForShe” campaign, Watson hopes to abolish the “us vs. them” mentality.
Watson is potentially in an even better position than many of her peers to do so. Her role as Hermione Granger, the universally-adored heroine of the Harry Potter series, gives her an automatic in with male and female Millenials. This is a rare case where an actor being conflated with their role might be a good thing. In this way, her wide-spread influence on young minds (still forming their opinions on gender roles and advocacy) is even stronger than other high-profile defenders of the f-word like Beyoncé.
Watson’s Harry Potter association also carries with it a disadvantage –– the fear she might not be taken seriously. She addresses this concern in her speech:
You might think: who is this Harry Potter girl? What is she doing at the UN? I’ve been asking myself at the same thing. All I know is that I care about this problem and I want to make this better. And having seen what I’ve seen and given the chance, I feel my responsibility to say something. Edmund Burke said all that is need for the forces of evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing
That Harry Potter association will always follow Watson. Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon joked, “She’s been waving a magic wand. I hope you use your magic wand to end violence against women!” But with her serious approach to advocacy, it’s impossible to laugh off Watson’s message. You can watch her entire speech here: