Actress and United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson delivered a speech at the U.N. in conjunction with its new “HeForShe” campaign. The speech, which essentially says that feminism is about equality, has been described as “groundbreaking” or even “game-changing.” In reality, the most groundbreaking part of it was the fact that it was Watson giving the speech. Watson is obviously a good role model for young girls and she is extremely famous. Tasking her with delivering speech on feminism at a U.N. conference was not a bad idea in order to make it as accessible as possible to those—and there are many—who are not open to feminism.
Unfortunately, the truth is that Watson is only one of many very privileged women (or men) to say something very rudimentary about feminism and get disproportionate attention for it.
Nothing she said is new. Feminists were saying the same thing decades ago, and there is more ground to be traversed than “feminism is for men too.”
We do not blame Watson for her decision to adhere to the gentlest definition of feminism, considering there is so much hostility toward it. Moreover, she is receiving threats after saying practically nothing about feminism. But, if that’s the case, she probably could have said something of far more substance with a similar outcome.
Her appeal to gain male allies is important, but not new and certainly not the most important aspect of feminism. The most important part of having male allies for feminism is their ability to integrate feminist ideals into different spaces, especially those that are male-dominated.
Watson is also not incorrect in saying that feminism helps men too—it does. But rather than women having to make space in feminism for men to fit in, men should be making space in, you know, nearly every sphere of life for women so they are not at a disadvantage.
It is also difficult to ignore the lack of attention to other related issues. While she speaks to the entire U.N., Watson’s examples of oppression in underdeveloped countries are true, but more often than not these sorts of examples lead to a colonialist gaze that ignores the plethora of problems in industrialized nations. We live in a country where our politicians vote against an equal pay bill. Not that we shouldn’t focus on this, but there are far more issues at stake (like sexual assault or women being incarcerated for miscarriages) than those affecting the most privileged, like Watson herself.
All in all, the speech was underwhelming and oversimplified. It’s 2014—you shouldn’t need to tell men that their sisters, daughters or mothers are at stake to make them care about women.