by- Subha Wijesiriwardena, Colombo

Emma Watson, at the UN

A young, educated, privileged, white woman-celebrity gets appointed a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador six months ago (UN Women is the United Nations organisation that works with women’s rights and issues). At the UN General Assembly, to launch a UN Women campaign on gender equality, this celebrity spokesperson, the Goodwill Ambassador, is asked to make a speech. She makes a speech — about gender equality.

THERE IS NOTHING AT ALL EXCEPTIONAL OR EXTRAORDINARY ABOUT THIS SITUATION. Emma Watson, 24, the star of the Harry Potter film franchise, basically did what was expected of her, as the Goodwill Ambassador for a UN organisation, at a major UN event. Here is the transcript of the speech, which much of the media, online and off, praised for being ‘game-changing’, and ‘smart, important, sociologically informed and compelling’.

When I finally got down to actually watching her speech, intrigued by what all the fuss was about, I went from being simply bored to actually frustrated. The call for everyone — men and women — to participate in the women’s rights movement is not new. The idea that gender stereotypes are bad and destructive for us all is not new. Many more have spoken about how the word ‘feminism’ has taken on negative connotations for the post-feminist generation, my generation: that’s not some ground-breaking revelation ‘her research’ has revealed. There is nothing game-changing about a celebrity ambassador making a speech on the topic relevant to her appointment as ambassador, at an event organised by the people who appointed her.

By now, I’m sure you’ve also realised that the ‘threats’ levelled against her by ‘hackers’ — threatening that nude photos of her would be leaked on to the internet — were false. This scandal was created by a notorious super-troll community 4chan and their site /b/; even the simplest Wikipedia read gives you enough information to know that ‘Gawker once jokingly claimed that “reading /b/ will melt your brain”‘, and that they are more or less always linked to glamorous online pranks.

Emma Watson’s speech was just a wasted opportunity. Standing there and telling us things that we have all heard before — from women far braver than she, women who have had far less opportunity to be seen and heard than she has had, women who have suffered indignity and violence in order to stand and say those things, women who have sacrificed their freedom, their lives to make that very point, women who have risen to the occasion to speak out after being at the receiving end of gender-based discrimination or violence themselves — she does not stop to remember any of these women, this entire movement that has gone before her, and continues to rise around her. She does not stop to applaud the men and women fighting this battle of inequality around the world, in far more severe circumstances: in situations of war, conflict and religious extremism, against deeply ingrained cultural dogma, against socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural structures.

Though she begins by saying we must reclaim the word ‘feminist’, she does not even directly stand up for the word or the movement; instead, in a cop-out move, she merely says, ‘And if you still hate the word, it is not the word that is important. It’s the idea and the ambition behind it,‘. She then does what a lot of young women seem to feel the need to do these days: she feels the need to say ‘Feminism is not man-hating’. She can only dismiss the idea of ‘man-hating’ itself so completely because she refuses to  acknowledge where the association comes from; because she does not acknowledge the history of feminism, she cannot understand the possible influence that this very ‘man-hating’ has had on our generation. She cannot understand that it is our privilege to be able to say ‘we do not hate men’, because feminists from a generation ago did what they felt was necessary, never once caring about how it made them look. ‘Public image’ wasn’t exactly at the top of their list of priorities. She cannot understand that ‘man-hating’ was indeed once the only choice, if you took into account centuries of blatant oppression, discrimination, and violence, at every level of life; it was the only way. Why is it so hard to defend feminism, the idea of equality for all, totally? Why the need to make these justifications and excuses?

The call for male participation in the struggle for women’s rights is something we have heard before; it’s crucial, but it’s a tricky business. The UN Women campaign HeForShe itself seems slightly problematic — is it placing too much importance on revealing what we suppose is the natural virtue and respectability of the man? Isn’t it basically just a ‘clean-up your image’ campaign for men? Isn’t it just asking, once again, that we restore honour and glory to the image of the man? I’m not sure.

All it was, was a publicity campaign, an advertisement, for the HeForShe campaign, to be launched by UN Women. Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that: that is all Goodwill Ambassadors are; they are advertisements, advertisers. As Watson so cleverly puts, once again dodging the work of actually standing up for the feminist movement itself, instead selling the campaign: ‘We are struggling for a uniting word, but the good news is, we have a uniting movement. It is called HeForShe.’

Watson’s speech and the subsequent media-fuss reveals to us perfectly that none of this is about ‘feminism’ or gender equality at all. It’s a reassertion of the monopoly of the Western, capitalist narrative over all other narratives in the mainstream, even when we’re talking of rights. It’s great if we are actually thinking more about gender itself, drawing our own attention to the problems with patriarchy for us all, as a society, and the need of male participation in the women’s rights movement. But, really, are we?