Some Thoughts on Emma Watson’s Speech

Emma Watson UN Speech


I’m going to try to ignore the media backlash/exultation as much as possible, and focus on the content of the speech itself. This is the transcript I referred to, and these are the excerpts that made the strongest impression on me.

We want to try to mobilize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change.

I wish people would stop using pseudo-militaristic verbs to describe activism. “Mobilize” can be used to describe people rallying around a common cause, yes, but more often it’s used to describe troops preparing for battle and countries readying themselves for war. The feminist cause is not a war; nor is it a battle or even a struggle. Ok, maybe it’s a struggle. But it’s not a militaristic one.

…the more I spoke about feminism, the more I realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating.

Based on my weekly consumption of numerous articles from SlateBuzzfeed, and other dubious sources, I have to say that Emma Watson is correct in this assertion.

…feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.


…at 14, I started to be sexualized by certain elements of the media.

Make that basically every part of the media.

I decided that I was a feminist, and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word.

She only realized this recently? I highly doubt it. I would assume that an education from Brown University, paired with more or less constant media exposure from the age of nine, would have lead her to this conclusion much earlier than six months ago when she was appointed a UN ambassador. I’ve known since middle school that it was unpopular to call yourself a feminist. Then again, the atmosphere on a movie set is doubtless much different than that of a rural school in Illinois.

Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one?

That’s an extremely good question, and the primary one that I hope Watson answers throughout the course of this speech.

…if you still hate the word, it is not the word that is important. It’s the idea and the ambition behind it, because not all women have received the same rights I have.

Actually, I think the word is pretty damn important. Otherwise you end up with a lot of cowardly folks who claim to support equality between the sexes, but who aren’t “comfortable” calling themselves feminists. It’s akin to saying that you approve of homosexuality in theory, but you aren’t willing to let same-sex partners get married. Being half of a supporter of a given social cause is almost worse than opposing it outright, because soon that’s the route everyone starts to take — and progress is stymied before the conversation has even begun.

In 1997, Hillary Clinton made a famous speech in Beijing about women’s rights. Sadly, many of the things that she wanted to change are still true today. But what stood out for me the most was that less than thirty percent of the audience were male. How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?

Watson is drawing unsubstantiated conclusions here. The presence of a 30% male audience at Hillary Clinton’s 1997 speech is not evidence that men were not “invited” or did not “feel welcome to participate.” That might be true for some men, but many other men don’t listen to feminist speeches, read feminist texts, or take feminist problems seriously because they are either apathetic or, worse, actively opposed to feminist ideals. There’s a big difference between passive indifference (which Emma Watson seems to assume is the problem) and passive-aggressive opposition, whether silent or perceptible. I’m not saying that Watson isn’t partially correct — there are many men who don’t bother with feminism because they aren’t, well, female — but it’s a rosier view of the world than I have. Giving people more credit than they deserve is not an honest way to launch an allegedly world-changing campaign.

Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.

I vacillate between thinking that this is a calm, clever way to include men in the feminist agenda, and being upset by the fact that this is far too little, much too late. Watson’s invitation is an intentional conceit, a literary device, and it remains to be seen whether it will be effective. I do think that every generation needs a fresh reminder that gender inequality is still an issue, and maybe this method will be successful. By “method,” I mean asking a famous, respected young actress to peacefully address the issue while being backed and legitimized by an INGO.

I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

That first sentence pleases me immensely — gender expectations have a negative impact on everyone, and people often fail to realize that. However, the second sentence worries me because of the implied causation. The way it’s structured, it sounds like men must first be freed from masculine expectations in order for things to change for women. I get frustrated whenever I hear versions of this argument; that people have a finite amount of attention/capacity for caring, and that it’s necessary to focus on one thing first before committing resources elsewhere. A common example is when people argue that the U.S. shouldn’t give financial assistance to third-world countries, because there are still poor children in the United States. It’s possible to work towards solving several issues simultaneously. And besides, when you start prioritizing causes, the implication is that someone, or some issue, is less important than another’s.

If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.

Incorrect. Men and women don’t interact as part of a yin-yang relationship. Neither men nor women should perform gender stereotypes, and it’s not a matter of waiting for men to cease being controlling before women can “finally” be free.

Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals.

This is my favorite part of the speech. Gender as a spectrum? Yes.

I want men to take up this mantle so that their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too, reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.

Again, the idea is there, but I take issue with the phrasing. Some men don’t have daughters; some men don’t have sisters; some women don’t want children. I wish women could be discussed without being reduced to common social roles.

You might be thinking, “Who is this Harry Potter girl, and what is she doing speaking at the UN?” And, it’s a really good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing.

All I know is that I care about this problem, and I want to make it better. And, having seen what I’ve seen, and given the chance, I feel it is my responsibility to say something.

Emma Watson anticipated that she would be on the receiving end of some serious criticism after delivering this speech, and she was right. After all, she’s not a professor or a politician; she hasn’t saved lives or made an important scientific discovery. She’s an actress, and one known for a series of children’s films at that. But she shouldn’t question her right to deliver a speech like this at the United Nations. She has just as much of a right to assert her beliefs as does anyone else. Is she the most credible person to deliver this speech? Perhaps not. But she’s extremely well-liked, and the UN’s decision to appoint her an an ambassador was shrewd indeed. I object to Watson’s need to apologize for her opinion.

15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children. And at current rates, it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education.

Ah yes, the stereotypical examples. I wish she hadn’t included these, especially so close to the conclusion of her speech, almost as though these statistics were an afterthought.

If you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists that I spoke of earlier, and for this, I applaud you. We are struggling for a uniting word, but the good news is, we have a uniting movement. It is called HeForShe. I invite you to step forward, to be seen and to ask yourself, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

The last paragraph is interesting, because although the campaign is called HeForShe, Watson avoids limiting her clarion call to men alone. Instead, she’s addressing all “inadvertent feminists,” who could theoretically be male or female. Nonetheless, I take issue with the name of the campaign, largely because it seems fundamentally disempowering to take the responsibility for equality out of the hands of those who are seeking justice.

When I was at university, there was a student group that quickly and surprisingly grew to prominence. It was called Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, or MARS for short. I immediately felt conflicted. While I was glad to know that male students at the university recognized that men disproportionately committed acts of sexual assault against women (and other men), I wasn’t sure what the impetus was for forming the group. Were the “good” men in MARS going to oppose the “bad” men who attacked women, thus setting themselves up in the classically sexist “protector” role? Or were they just generally opposed to all sexual assault, and wanted to make their opposition clear by forming a public group, participating in public discussions, and publicly patting themselves on the back for not being bigots? Since men don’t listen to women, were they going to intervene on women’s behalf and talk to their frat brothers and convince them that women really do deserve respect, but we know that since you currently don’t respect women, we, as men, will do the convincing?

No matter which way I look at it, I find something twisted. And that’s sort of how I feel about the HeForShe campaign. The name alone places all responsibility on male catalysts — as though the time has finally arrived for women to sit back and wait for men to improve themselves and then, as an afterthought, women will benefit.

I’m glad Emma Watson gave a speech, because these days it’s unpopular for celebrities to identify as feminists. But I wish, wish, wish that she had done more with the opportunity she was given. She never did bother to explain why the word “feminist” makes some people uncomfortable, besides pointing out that some people assume it’s synonymous with hatred of men.

As for the flurry of articles I’ve encountered tearing Watson down because she’s white, wealthy, and extraordinarily privileged, I just want to say that none of these things bar Watson from having an opinion. Her opinion may be limited and painstakingly palatable, but (and I sigh), it’s still better than nothing. At least it isn’t the same nonsense that gets spewed out by Sheryl Sandberg and the corporate 1% feminists.

Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s in any way sufficient.


19 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Emma Watson’s Speech

  1. […] will also, when inspired, discuss some social & cultural issues more in the vein of my post on Emma Watson’s He for She speech. I don’t want to lose sight of this, especially since I’m reluctant to let Literary […]

  2. What an interesting deconstruction and analysis of Watson’s speech! I didn’t hear it and quite honestly am not too interested in what Watson has to say on the subject (though I guess I am happy someone of her stature is talking about it at all (?)). This part of the speech really bothered me: “If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.” As a lawyer who worked to advocate for survivors of domestic violence, this kind of argument really irks me. Yes, social constructs are such that men are expected to be more masculine and physical and the “fairer sex” is to be more dainty and submissive, but to state that one begets the other is false and irritating. A woman’s own compulsion to “be submissive” is not a cause of a man’s need to be aggressive in order to feel accepted. Nor should we think that a woman “has to be controlled” because men have the urge or expectation to control. You’re right; we’ll never get anywhere if we think women can’t be liberated until men are liberated from social expectations.

    1. YES! Exactly!! That’s exactly what bothered me about that section, too. Everyone should be simultaneously liberated from social expectations; it’s not a matter of waiting for men to be free first. And nobody has “natural” urges to be either submissive or controlling; both of those are learned traits, and the way the sentence is phrased calls that into question. To be honest, I’m surprised that section snuck through. I would have thought that one of the countless people who proofread Watson’s speech would have pointed out how problematic it was! I guess not…
      I think the main reason I paid attention to what Watson had to say was because 1) her speech got a lot more attention that most things on this topic usually do, and 2) she’s more or less my “peer” in terms of age, but certainly not wealth or celebrity. Who do you look to for intelligent discussions about gender, norms, and society? For me, it’s Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag!

      1. My first reaction to this speech was “Who were her editors/ speechwriters?!” I felt they should have consulted folks more knowledgeable in this area. But then again, perhaps they did and this was the result of trying to appeal to the masses(?). I don’t necessarily read feminist works or follow those who speak out on gender and social norms, but I have great admiration for women who work quietly, unrelentingly for what they believe in, such as Ruth Bader Gingsburg (the lawyer in me adores her) and Aung San Suu Kyi. Susan Sontag and her works is another favorite of mine, dating back to my college days. Keep up these great discussions, Alina; I enjoy being invited to think about such important issues.

        1. I know!! I don’t know how some of the really problematic areas weren’t ironed out. The problem with trying to appease the masses is that if you state something incorrect, it’s MUCH more difficult to go back and change opinions afterwards. Better to deliver a complicated and ACCURATE message than a pandering, ambiguous one!
          Ruth Bader Ginsberg is an excellent example. Did you know that the high school I attended was named after Sandra Day O’Connor? 🙂 And Aung San Suu Kyi was a recurring theme in my high school debate team because she was still under house arrest at that time. It was the period in which her house arrest kept getting illegally extended, and there were protests left and right (2007-2009). I must have given at least 3-4 speeches about her.
          Thank YOU for participating in this discussion! I think a lot of the people who regularly comment on my blog were afraid of saying the wrong thing in the feedback section. Again, it’s one of those cases where it’s far better to have a conversation than to stay silent out of fear!

  3. Don’t know if you’ve seen it, but has what I think is a pretty good analysis of Watson’s speech: Mia McKenzie addresses a lot of the same points you’ve raised here. She does touch on Watson’s privilege, but not so much by implying that that means she shouldn’t have a forum: more as a plea for her to acknowledge and reflect on what that privilege means (which, yes, it would have been really nice if the speech had been more intersectional, but 1) as you say, anything that doesn’t tout female CEOs as feminist icons is an improvement and 2) really digging into that kind of analysis probably requires a theoretical framework that Watson may or may not have been exposed to).

    Actually, a lot of what McKenzie has to say deals with just that: the lack of any broader framework in Watson’s speech. I think it’s really important to acknowledge the interrelated nature of gender norms, and the ways in which they can harm men as well. But I also think that the speech Watson gave was just a little too conciliatory, and that it risks diluting the meaning of feminism into something completely meaningless (or, worse, something entirely centered around men). As McKenzie points out, it’s dangerous to (implicitly) equate all forms of oppression, especially when–gender norms aside–a lot of men have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Like you, I’m inclined to think that the lack of male involvement in the feminist movement is often a matter of active hostility rather than apathy.

    To be fair, I sort of suspect that Watson knows this; there’s so much vitriol directed at feminism that you’re likely to come across some even if your research into the movement is pretty cursory. But in a way, that makes the entire thing even more disappointing to me; I’m guessing Watson felt that the placating approach was the best one, and that makes me sad. Still, I’m…cautiously optimistic about what Watson might have to say in the future? I think she did hit on some really important points in this speech, it’s just that they needed to be 1) fleshed out more and 2) perhaps presented in a less palatable way.

    1. Hi there, and thanks for the extremely thoughtful comment! I was hoping that this post would generate discussion. And yes, I read the Black Girl Dangerous post before writing my own, and to be perfectly honest, I felt the need to do so because of Mia McKenzie’s observation that “Some of the mainstream (white) feminist interwebs are all abuzz because, according to said mainstream (white) feminist interwebs, it was all kinds of awesome and really, really next-level or something.” I didn’t want to be grouped together with said interwebs, because I obviously found Watson’s speech problematic as well, though my interpretation of those problematic sections was slightly different from McKenzie’s (which makes sense).

      Like you, I was — surprised, almost? — by some of the tropes that Watson fell back on during the course of her speech, as I generally give her the benefit of the doubt by assuming that she’s a smart person. I would have expected her to have been exposed to gender-based theoretical frameworks, to be capable of delving into a greater level of analysis, and to have at least addressed intersectionality among feminism, racism, social inequality, etc. My impression is that a lot of that intersectional work in mainstream, academic feminism has only been accomplished in the last 10-15 years, and it often takes much longer for “the public” to catch up. Of course, that might just be my impression based on the scant number of feminist courses I took in college; I can tell you that in the class I took on the 1970 women’s health movement, several of the students still struggled with the concept. When you go back and look at Watson’s definition of feminism (“the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes”), it’s correct at a very basic level, but also very narrow. Of course, Watson’s point was that feminism is a theory of equality, not a man-hating movement, and when your argument is that basic, you simultaneously include people who’ve never thought about/have opposed feminism before, while alienating those who’ve thought about it a little more deeply or frequently.

      Back to Mia McKenzie. I mulled over this observation for quite a while: “And, importantly, does [Watson] understand that as a white woman she is granted access and taken seriously by mainstream feminism in ways that a woman of color wouldn’t be and why, then, it’s necessary for her to step aside and make room for women of color to be heard if gender inequality is ever to be eradicated?” She’s right, of course, but at the same time I don’t see many/any famous women of color (and yes, they do need to be famous if you’re talking about having a celebrity-based impact like Watson’s speech had) giving these kinds of speeches. Watson has all the trappings of someone who would be highly respected even outside of the celebrity world; she’s extremely pretty, very thin, highly educated, dresses fairly conservatively, and has a British accent to boot. These symbols simultaneously lend Watson credibility, as well as oppress people who don’t share those attributes by implying that even if they were to deliver exactly the same speech, they wouldn’t be “heard” in the same way. It’s really a Catch-22 situation.

      So, in the end, maybe I agree with McKenzie even more than I realize. But it still makes me sad that there seems to be such a rift, both perceived and realistic, between feminists of different races. White feminists did an excellent job excluding discourses on social, economic, and racial inequality from the movement in decades past, both consciously and unconsciously, and they shouldn’t be allowed to forget that. But I’m afraid that continuing to discuss feminism in two different spheres, as it were, will only continue to deepen the rift. I don’t have an answer to this, or even a suggestion, but if you’ve read anything that addresses this issue in an intelligent way, then I’d love to read it.

      Whew! This was a long comment. And I don’t think I even responded to all of the points you’ve raised. Obviously, I could talk about this stuff for hours! Thanks again for pushing me to think even more.

      1. Thanks for the detailed reply! There’s definitely no need to worry about not hitting everything point-by-point, particularly since my initial response was a little disorganized–at least in the sense that I was working my own response to McKenzie out while writing.

        In any case, it’s absolutely true that the push to contextualize our discussion of gender in terms of race, class, etc. is recent. My own experience in college was very similar to yours. In fact, it wasn’t until graduate school that I was really exposed to intersectionality in any organized, comprehensive way; the gender theory I studied as an undergrad was filtered through the lens of literary theory, and tended to be pretty abstract as a result. So it’s not particularly difficult for me to imagine that someone who didn’t major in Gender Studies might have an incomplete or even outdated understanding of where feminist theory currently is; it seems to take a couple of years for research in one academic discipline to begin to make waves in other fields, let alone in the world at large. On the other hand (and based primarily on my admittedly limited experience volunteering with NOW), I’d say that women’s rights organizations tend to be fairly in sync with academic theory. The chapter I was working with devoted a lot of its resources to tackling urban poverty, and there was a tacit understanding that challenges surrounding race, gender, class, etc. can’t be pried apart and “fixed” one at a time. Again, though, without knowing more about the depth of Watson’s interest in feminism, it’s hard to say whether that’s something she would be familiar with. All I can really say is that I know a lot of (educated) women who identify in a casual way as feminists, and that their understanding of the movement tends to echo the concerns of white, second-wave feminists pretty closely.

        That being the case, I definitely understand the need to push for a more inclusive feminist movement, particularly when it comes to what I’ll somewhat snobbishly call “popular feminism”–the kind of feminism that people without a deep and longstanding commitment to the movement commonly subscribe to. At the same time, I have to say that the quotation you pulled from McKenzie’s article made me a little queasy when I initially read it, because while I absolutely agree that the public face of feminism is due for a change, it seems…harsh to ask someone like Watson to “stand aside”– and not just for the pragmatic reasons you outline. For one, there are gender-related issues that continue to negatively impact even well-off, straight, white women (domestic and sexual violence, pay inequality, restrictions on reproductive rights, etc.). These may not represent the whole picture–or even the most pressing problems–but they are problems nonetheless. Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s possible for someone like Watson to take a sincere interest in the particular issues that concern women of different races, sexualities, etc. That doesn’t mean, of course, that women in comparable positions have no responsibility to educate themselves about their own privilege and potential biases, and care needs to be taken to avoid casting wealthy white women as the “saviors” of other women. All that said, though, I think there’s still a place for relatively privileged women within a more expansive feminist movement.

        As for reading suggestions…I wish I had some! To be honest, I’m much better versed in literature than I am in women’s studies. I’m partial to bel hooks, but I’m guessing you’ve probably come across her before? It’s been awhile since I read her, but my recollection is that she does a good job making the case for broad-based involvement in the feminist movement by treating oppression as something that varies enormously based on context, but that is always structurally the same.

  4. I’m not smart enough to contribute much to the discussion but i consider myself a feminist and agree that this speech contains a lot of language that is extremely palatable to a general audience. I don’t see this as a bad thing as many feminism advocates can come across as confrontational.

    Also I feel that sometimes there’s far too many arguments between feminists about what the word should mean instead of actually talking about the problem of sexism. This internal squabbling hurts the cause which is why i’d consider myself a moderate feminist (if there’s such a term).

    1. Yes, the speech was written cleverly from that perspective. But it also wasn’t very challenging, and it IS possible to make challenging ideas palatable… Particularly when they are coming from such a well-liked speaker!

      You are definitely right about feminist in-fighting. Trying to get a handle on the theoretical background to feminism is almost impossible because the word and concept has been redefined again and again since the 1970s at least, and probably earlier than that. I took a class on the feminist health movement, and after a while I just gave up trying to follow the feminist arguments! But I think that overall, there are FAR more moderate feminists like yourself (and me, most of the time!) than there are “confrontational” ones. It’s an unfortunate stereotype, and Emma Watson was a good choice in terms of trying to undo some of that… although as many have pointed out, she was not a risky choice.

      1. There also seems to be a competition by groups to see who can out-feminist the others. The movement should be more inclusive instead of being overly judgmental.

        It would be nice to see more prominent people do what Emma Watson did even if her message was a bit bland.

        Again I’ve never studied any kind of feminist theory so i’m not great a conveying what i mean so i’ll sum it up by saying – chicks rule!

        1. Haha yes! And I agree. I’ve always liked Emma Watson as a person, and goodness knows young girls need a good role model what with the constant stream of gibberish and superficiality being pumped out of the media industry… Even the fact that she cut her hair into a pixie cut was pretty forward-thinking, in my opinion!

          Though, I do have to ask what you mean by groups trying to out-feminist each other? I’m not really sure I’ve noticed that… Just more individual-level crazy pseudo-feminist stunts from folks like Amanda Palmer and Lena Dunham, and the opposite – a bland call for women to treat each other with respect and to “end the bitchiness.” People often conflate constructive criticism with cattiness these days.

          1. I suppose i’m thinking of the battle between old school feminism and post-feminism about which is right. One person’s exploited stripper is another person’s empowered businesswoman. They seem to have such opposing views even though they’re supposed to represent the same ideal. It all becomes very confusing for me and takes away from the real message of equality.

            1. Aha yes, I see what you mean. Personally, I have no freaking idea which is right! Some people do legitimately enjoy being strippers, I guess. But flashing your boobies isn’t inherently empowering. I guess it’s just a case-by-case basis! I would say that Kate Winslet uses nudity in a self-aware way, but that doesn’t necessarily make her any more empowered than another actress who doesn’t like to show skin! Haha I think we will both have to go on being confused about this one.

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