THINKING OF FEMINISM, how many see women marching in the streets compared to performing in TV shows and conferences? Feminism has usually been a bottom-up movement, its arguments brought to public attention by grass-roots activists. However, recently an increasing amount of celebrities have become spokespersons for the feminist cause. Beyoncé brought the word and its definition to the houses of millions of Americans (especially young Americans) during the VMAs last August, and last week Emma Watson delivered a powerful speech at the UN.
Given the hostility that many self-proclaimed feminists face online and in real life, the British actress recent speech at the UN was remarkable. Even if she did not speak for everyone, she spoke candidly and openly to everyone. Her speech was significant not just for the way it put feminism even more in the (positive) spotlight, but also because it touched upon a crucial, often debated issue in feminism, the role of men: “Gender equality is your issue, too,” she said.
Celebrities’ involvement does not fail to raise criticism, as they are accused to portray a more “mainstream” version of feminism than the one advocated by “radical” feminists. To some, Watson’s speech was diluting the essence of feminism, to others the idea of “HeforShe” reiterates the idea of women needing men’s support and protection. Yet, showing that men suffer from gender stereotyping does not necessarily mean prioritising their issues or putting them at the centre of the movement, it simply means showing that feminism is a movement that men too can and should embrace. Watson firmly called for ceasing to see gender as binary, and appreciate it as a spectrum instead.
Her words are fair, her intentions are good, and she should receive the media attention that she has, but she’d probably be the first one to reject the idea of being a “game-changer.” In fact, many of what some magazines consider her “best quotes” are things that a lot of people have been saying for a lot of time already. Given the audience and the attention receive, Watson actually missed an opportunity to properly discuss the issue at the heart of the fight for gender equality worldwide: the idea of privilege, both in terms of gender, and also in terms of social class.
Watson started one of her sentences with the words “I am from Britain…” and went on to explain how lucky she was to grow up in a society that valued her development as much as that of a man. The emphasis on her country of birth was problematic because it suggested that the Britain, a developed, Western country, was somewhat of an oasis of equal opportunities. Having access to equal opportunities though, is often not a matter of where you are born, but of which family you are born into.
In fact, while many so-called developed countries, including the UK and the USA, face gender inequality issues of their own, high barriers to good education, health services, and good jobs hardly allow the same opportunities to all citizens. Ms. Watson comes from a background that allowed her to attend private schools and receive the best and most exciting possible education. Actually, children born out of prosperous families in developing or less developed countries also share these same privileges. If Ms. Watson had been born from a family of a different social background, this may not have been the case, or her path to success would have likely been steeper.
The acclaimed “genius response” of the 15 year old boy who wrote a letter to The Telegraph in support of Watson’s speech is no better in this sense. Its opening sentence is “We are lucky to live in a Western world where women can speak out against stereotypes.” Granted, he’s only 15 years old, but even then, he should consider what happens to those women, in the West as in everywhere else in the world, who speak out against stereotypes. They get bullied, they get harassed, they suffer violence. Some women in fact are not that free to speak out to begin with. Not everyone is a Beyoncé, or an Emma Watson.
The recognition of privilege and the fight against it is essential in moving towards a more equal society, one that truly grants equal opportunities in the sexes and within those sexes, too. Emma Watson’s speech is a timid step in that direction, but hopefully one that will encourage more and more people to look at these issues, and to move on from there to dismantle the ubiquitous system of inequality together. That, is what feminism is all about.
Written by Sofia Lotto Persio
Picture Credits: UN Women Gallery