My whole generation Y knows Emma Watson. We grew up with her as she learned wizardry and fought “You-Know-Who” on screen as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film series. She played the smart girl in the bunch and did accordingly in real life, too. Nowadays she focuses more on women’s issues than acting, and girl, she is damn right about that one. Emma Watson is a real-life feminist icon and women’s rights activist with an occasional side hustle like modelling for Peter Lindbergh or playing in some unknown low-budget flick like Beaty and the Beast (2017).
A Bit of Acting Before Feminism
So how did Emma Watson become the feminist icon she is today? Playing witty Hermione Granger in the phenomenal Harry Potter film series is one thing. But Emma Watson was also smart about choosing her roles outside of the wizarding world.
At first, she took a small, but remarkable part as a wardrobe assistant in My Week with Marilyn (2011). Then Watson portrayed Sam, a free-spirited senior in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) who showed us a way of living outside of ordinary. After that, she starred in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013) as a member of a teenage gang burglarising celebrity houses. Emma Watson also made an appearance as an exaggerated version of herself in This Is the End (2013).
Then finally came the much anticipated live version of the ultimate chick flick: Beauty and the Beast (2017). Emma Watson did an excellent job of portraying bookworm Belle in the classic tale. Unfortunately, the representations of women and gender relations showed in the feature feel a bit outdated compared to today’s feminist agenda.
Furthering Her Education
After finishing high school, Emma Watson split her time between working on film projects and continuing her education. She studied at Brown University and spent a semester at Worcester College, Oxford as an exchange student. Watson graduated from Brown with a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2014. After that, she was ready to start the tough journey of learning more and taking a stand and eventually becoming a feminist icon.
Women’s Rights Work
In July 2014, Emma Watson was appointed as a UN Women Goodwill ambassador. In September that year, she delivered an address at UN Headquarters in New York City to launch the UN Women campaign HeForShe. In her speech, Watson talked about how the idea of feminism is sometimes misunderstood and misused in various contexts.
“[T]he more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. For the record, feminism by definition is: The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”
In the central part of the HeForShe campaign speech, she addressed men and called them to advocate for gender equality.
“Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.”
In her HeForShe launch speech, Watson also elaborated on how men are also affected by traditional gender expectations. She also claimed that men’s participation in women’s rights activism is essential to reach equality one day.
“We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.
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.
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, not as two opposing sets of ideals.
If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are—we can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom.”
It was a well-phrased, forward-thinking and inclusive talk. I also appreciate that Emma Watson addressed her involvement. Furthermore, she showed her insecurity about the whole UN ambassador function.
“You might be thinking who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN. It’s a good question and trust me, I have been asking myself the same thing. I don’t know if I am qualified to be here. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.”
I love that she showcased vulnerability and at the same time showed the initiative to grow and learn new things.
Backlash After Launching HeForShe
Emma Watson later said she received threats within 12 hours of making the speech. Despite the risks, she was not frightened away, and intimidation only made her even more dedicated to the case.
“I was just raging. It made me so angry that I was just like, “This is why I have to be doing. This. This is why I have to be doing this. If they were trying to put me off, it did the opposite.””
Following her HeforShe campaign speech, seeing her commitment to the feminist case the ‘Ms. Foundation for Women’ named Emma Watson its Feminist Celebrity of 2014 based on an online poll.
Development of Feminist Knowledge
To evolve her understanding of feminist topics and issues of equality Watson started reading various texts by leading feminist authors and thinkers. It began as a personal project of self-development, then it turned into a book club on Goodreads called Our Shared Shelf. Emma Watson started the book reading club in January 2016. Now it has more than 200 000 members. As Watson phrased it:
“As part of my work with UN Women, I have started reading as many books and essays about equality as I can get my hands on. There is so much amazing stuff out there! Funny, inspiring, sad, thought-provoking, empowering! I’ve been discovering so much that, at times, I’ve felt like my head was about to explode… I decided to start a Feminist book club, as I want to share what I’m learning and hear your thoughts too.”
The goal of the club is to share feminist ideas and encourage discussion on the topic. A book is selected every two months. Then the members discuss the text and the related issues together. Watson serves as moderator and regularly posts some questions or her thoughts on the book. Sometimes the author is invited to join the conversation too. But it is the engaged community that makes Our Shared Shelf work. The first book to be selected was My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem.
After the US election in 2016, many people were left confused and disappointed. Millions felt that their opinions would not be represented. Many felt puzzled and unsure about how to proceed. Watson wanted to show them support, and luckily she did it her way.
Emma Watson tweeted the following:
“Today I am going to deliver Maya Angelou books to the New York subway. Then I am going to fight even harder for all the things I believe in.”
She hid inspirational feminist books all around New York City to cheer people up a bit and inspire them to go on. She continued her quest of hiding books in other cities too (like London) and even after the elections (e.g. on International Women’s Day).
In March 2017 Emma Watson was criticised for a photograph made by Tim Walker, published in Vanity Fair in which her breasts are partly visible. Some journalists accused her of hypocrisy and that she doesn’t hold up to feminist standards. Watson was surprised by the backlash and thought the picture to be quite artistic. In an interview, she argued that feminism “is not a stick with which to beat other women” but is instead about freedom and equality. She funnily added to that: “I really don’t see what my tits have to do with it”.
A Feminist Icon Fights Back
Emma Watson is also involved in the Time’s Up movement. She brought the activist Marai Larasi as a guest to the 2018 Golden Globe Awards where most of the celebrities wore black to express their support. She has continued her work as a UN Women Goodwill ambassador and partnered up with likeminded initials and organisations to promote gender equality and empower girls and women worldwide. Emma’s Partnerships among many others include the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Planned Parenthood and Malala Fund. Watson keeps on working and learning about the issues that affect us women the most. And she is ready to share all of that with the world. Emma Watson is a quintessential 21st-century feminist icon and a real fighter who inspires us all.
- “Emma Watson named UN Women Goodwill Ambassador”. The Independent. 8 July 2014.
- “Emma Watson Gender Equality is Your Issue Too”. UN Women (official transcript). 20 September 2014. Official video.
- Joanna Robinson. “Emma Watson on How Being Threatened for Speaking About Feminism Enraged and Motivated Her”. Vanity Fair. 8 March 2015.
- Melissa Locker. “The Feminist Celebrity of the Year Is … Emma Watson”. Vanity Fair. 21 December 2014.
- Travis M. Andrews. “‘Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women’: Emma Watson tells off critics of revealing photo”. The Washington Post. 6 March 2017.