Sunday, May 22, 2022

Women’s History Month: Emma Watson

Welcome to our first-ever Women’s Month Series! Throughout the month of March, we will be highlighting different women in pop culture — fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — who we think exemplify accurate and honest portrayals of women in the mainstream media and use their voices to empower and uplift.

There are very few actors who have embodied their most well known role as completely as Emma Watson. First introduced to the world in 2000 as the bubbly ten year old set to take on one of the most iconic female roles in fantasy, Watson and her fictional counterpart Hermione Granger are so linked in the public eye as to be inseparable. Her portrayal of Hermione helped make the Harry Potter film franchise the massive success that it was, inspiring millions of fans around the world to fight for justice and stand up for what they believe in.

But Watson’s most valuable accomplishments have been offscreen, both in front of the world and in more private spaces. Watson is the rare celebrity who consciously chooses to use her platform to center issues that are important to her, from feminism to eliminating racist power structures to transgender rights to climate justice. As she told trans activist Paris Lees in a Vogue interview, “I feel uncomfortable taking up as much space as I’m taking up and not speaking about [politics and social justice]. It just doesn’t feel right anymore.” Visitors to her Instagram feed will find rare promotional photos from upcoming film projects (and never carefully curated selfies designed to sell sponsored products). Instead, Watson more often shares posts from other activists, handing her 65 million follower count to experts in their fields and giving them visibility it would be nearly impossible for them to achieve on their own.

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Most importantly, Watson backs her words with action. Watson co-founded Time’s Up UK, establishing the Justice and Equality Fund with a £1 million starting donation and creating a legal advice hotline for victims of sexual harassment. On the environmental front, she is an investor in FabricNano, a company aiming to eliminate plastic in manufacturing. Watson has partnered with Good On You to ensure any clothes she wears for events meet ethical and environmental standards in their production, bringing exposure to the app’s rating system for brands. In the wake of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s reprehensible comments about the transgender community, Watson made her stance clear by donating large sums to charities focused on helping transgender youth (Mermaids UK) and intersectional feminist causes (Mama Cash).

Watson isn’t just a performative feminist. And she’s open to criticism in a way that most celebrity activists are not. For years, from her first speech supporting HeForShe at the United Nations, the main critique of Watson’s work centered on the idea that her particular brand of activism was an example of “white feminism.” After all, Watson is white, cisgender, and an absurdly wealthy actor who attended one of the most prestigious and exclusive universities in the world. What, her critics said, could she possibly have to contribute to feminism both as a movement and a field of study? She was just a figurehead, the latest young white celebrity to become the face of a movement pioneered by Black and transgender women.

It’s a charge Watson took seriously. When her feminist book club Our Shared Shelf read Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Watson publicly reckoned with her privilege and her blind spots in a lengthy essay that introduced the concept of white privilege and performative activism to her many followers. It’s incorrect and hyperbolic to say that no one was talking about these issues before Watson published her essay. It’s insulting to the many scholars who coined the term “white feminism” and documented its impact for years. But Watson frankly discussing her place in the world and how it influences her biases and assumptions provided a role model for others to begin to interrogate their own privilege.

“When I heard myself being called a ‘white feminist’ I didn’t understand (I suppose I proved their case in point). What was the need to define me — or anyone else for that matter — as a feminist by race? What did this mean? Was I being called racist? Was the feminist movement more fractured than I had understood? I began…panicking.

It would have been more useful to spend the time asking myself questions like: What are the ways I have benefited from being white? In what ways do I support and uphold a system that is structurally racist? How do my race, class and gender affect my perspective? There seemed to be many types of feminists and feminism. But instead of seeing these differences as divisive, I could have asked whether defining them was actually empowering and bringing about better understanding. But I didn’t know to ask these questions.”

Our Shared Shelf

Nothing Watson says in her blogs or speeches is groundbreaking or new, and she would be the first to point that out. But when “Hermione Granger” talks, people listen, and the well documented “Emma Watson Effect” has raised a new generation of feminists. Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai informed Watson that it was her HeForShe talk that inspired Yousafzai to call herself a feminist. Watson expanded on how she sees her place in the world of feminist activism in an interview with renowned scholar bell hooks for Paper Magazine.

“In ‘Feminism is for Everybody,’ you write about the ways that feminism almost got hijacked a little bit by academics and by gender studies and by only being talked about by this specific group of people. It can and should be academic, and that kind of thinking is so important, but you talk about how it has to be a mass movement to make a big difference. I don’t want to preach to the choir. I want to try to talk to people who might not encounter feminism and talk to them about feminism. It’s a really interesting job, and it’s a really interesting line to tread. I want to engage in the topic with people who wouldn’t normally.”

Paper Magazine
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What Watson has a great talent for, and always has, is bringing these ideas to people who may have never heard of them otherwise. She makes complex subjects approachable and is always there to provide a resource for learning. When Watson made her first speech to the UN back in 2014, she was just three years removed from the Harry Potter limelight and one of the most well known young actors of her generation. Children and teenagers followed everything she did with rapt attention, wanting to be just like her. She made feminism “cool” again, made caring about the world around her something to be proud of instead of mocked. On a personal level, hearing her words as a high schooler inspired me to be more vocal about my beliefs and devote more of my time and attention to feminist issues. I am far from the only one.

For the millions who grew up watching Harry Potter, Emma Watson remains our Hermione. She is deeply concerned with Hermione’s legacy in a refreshingly unselfish way, enthusiastically supporting Noma Dumezweni when the actress faced racist vitriol after being cast as an older Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. She candidly described the way seeing Hermione onstage made her feel, noting that, “It was so emotional for me to know that Hermione was going to be okay, and that everything sort of worked out, and what her future would look like.” She has never belittled what Hermione and the films meant (and continue to mean) to fans because Hermione means the world to her too.

But like the rest of us, Hermione had to grow up at some point, and Watson has grown into the kind of woman who would make Hermione proud. Emma Watson is equally as powerful with a wand or a book in her hand, defending the halls of Hogwarts or fighting for equality in the real world.

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