Has Emma Watson’s ‘HeForShe’ campaign really had as much of an influence as we’d like to think?

Lucy Goldsmith

It seems that the relative buzz surrounding UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women/Harry Potter actor/all-round wonderful woman Emma Watson’s apparently ‘game-changing’ speech (thanks, Vanity Fair) of last September has died down to a distant memory as we approach mid-2015. With ‘not enough’ people signed up to the HeForShe pledge – positive in its intentions but vague on desired action – I can’t help but wonder what influence, if any, it has had. Amongst the masses of immediate responses to the video, watched over 11 million times, there was criticism regarding Watson’s simplification of both the nature of feminism and her western-centric approach (check out Mia McKenzie’s excellent breakdown on blackgirldangerous.org). Indeed, she helped re-popularise the so-called ‘dirty word’, but at what cost?

Half a year on, perhaps now is as good a time as any to reflect on what I’d call ‘Emma Watson Feminism’ – attractive and appealing, with good intentions but weak content, although demanding no necessity for a virulent attack (I will say the lack of intersectionality in her speech, and the nature of her as a white woman – a global minority – as the chosen female representative is somewhat puzzling. I mean, she could’ve used that celebrity platform to promote the voices of other women, but I’m going off on a tangent). Safe feminism, if you will; pretty, white-centred and clinging to heteronormativity (look it up) despite her challenge of traditional gender roles. But I mean, the woman was new to the job, so she’s still growing and learning, right?

“I can’t help but wonder what influence, if any, it has had.”

However, the nature of viral media, in particular the celebrity involvement in campaign promotion, plays a somewhat unfortunate part to this. The fast turnover of fresh content in popular media means that any gravity gained by Watson’s original speech is going to be a tough act for her to follow up. The more informed she gets, the better her speech content – but the lower the viewership. The original speech stands as the one of viral significance; the novelty of Hermione Granger all grown up and ‘humanitarian’ is lost. For example, did many of those who watched the original speech hear about the January response speech Watson delivered at the World Economic Forum in January of this year? Didn’t think so – at under 800,000 views (by no means a small number), the difference in viewership is remarkably reduced. Similarly, the International Women’s Day Q&A with chirpy Radio 1 DJ Greg James, although broadcast live over Facebook and sitting on YouTube now with 200,000 views, felt overlong at an uncomfortable hour and ten minutes and as such struggled, perhaps, to garner a general viewership outside of the Watson fan base. Yet is this simply down to the nature of viral content’s gravitas lying in lengths under the ten-minute mark? And is it tied to the dangers of involving celebrities as spokespeople and marketing ploys for social causes?

Despite their obvious passion and often impressive formal education, activist actors such as Watson, Ruffalo, Jolie and DiCaprio (who similarly spoke for the UN, at their 2014 Climate Change summit) to name but a few ultimately want to solve crises ‘not as expert[s], but as concerned citizen[s]’, to use the words of DiCaprio himself. Although highly successful in capturing public awareness, their communication is rather basic and simplified, given to a primarily western audience with the hope of rousing western support via financial and aid-based solutions; feeding back into this cycle of western liberation and saviourism for those poor, disadvantaged little developing nations. Ironic, considering the western colonial world profited mercilessly off the backs of such countries and were central in weakening them during their scramble to make themselves into present leading global powers. Let’s give some pennies to the people we made poor, let’s keep up their dependence on our generosity, yeah?

The generalisations posed in mass-market celebrity/charity speeches often oversimplify concepts that don’t benefit from being oversimplified (and often within the content delivered by the under-informed celebrities). Sure, feminism’s media attention in the west has possibly shifted towards the positive due to Watson’s rousing validation of its authenticity and necessity. Yet with the focus of the attention primarily stemming from her celebrity endorsement rather than with the hoped-for beneficiaries of the cause, are we not missing crucial – and more appropriate – insight into issues from more learned voices? Indeed, Emma Watson’s girl-next-door personality helped renew the image of feminism from the ‘dirty word’ she felt it’d become, but beyond this, even in her follow-up speeches, there seemed to be little new progressive ground communicated with regard to the global nature of the UN’s HeForShe campaign goals. I mean, one of the most direct answers given by Watson in the Q&A with regard to feminism’s global necessity was, ‘I’ve had access to a lot of opportunities that women in other countries probably have not’ … yeah, not the best.

“ ‘Emma Watson feminism’ – attractive and appealing, with good intentions but weak content ”

The Women in the World Summit that has taken place this month has been serving up some realness on the whole issue of feminism, best summarised by journalist Barkha Dutt; ‘gender is more complex than we think.’ This simple positive promotion of complexity and intersectionality not weakening but enriching feminism’s definition is sorely needed. Instead of building generalised narratives around countries or prioritising a western voice, we instead should be recognising the different and localised ways in which feminism can serve to help women – and men – in their unique cultural experiences of gender roles.