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Neha Chandrachud Headshot

We Should be Critical, But Not Dismissive of Emma Watson's UN Campaign

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Image via Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, Getty Images

When I saw Emma Watson's UN speech begin to slowly infiltrate my newsfeed, I cringed. As with most socially-conscious viral videos, I knew I was about witness the same, reliable formula unfold.

The first 24 hours were a barrage of YouTube clips of the speech paired with exciting phrases like "feminism at the forefront!" and "courageous!" and "game changing!"

Then came the second wave: the critics and the ego-driven arguments. Many long-winded comments chasing one another down my Facebook page, spiralling into heated debates about class, race, world politics and of course, celebrity culture.

And finally, the third wave arrived. Several days after her UN speech, the inevitable quiet after Emma Watson was dethroned from atop the 'trending now' list and was replaced by something far more banal (to be specific, the latest Budweiser puppy ad).

I watched Watson's HeForShe speech about two days after it was released. I found her obvious nerves to be earnest and her resolve to be admirable. I certainly didn't agree with everything she said in her 12 minutes, but I was moved by her willingness to take on the daunting task of being a UN Goodwill Ambassador.

What I was less impressed with though, was the overwhelmingly antagonizing reaction of many of her critics.

They claimed her speech was pandering. It reeked of a watered-down feminism. It painted men as the saviours of women. Watson wore a Dior suit.

It's healthy to be skeptical of any celebrity making bold assertions about feminism, race or virtually any political issue. And while I agree that Watson's speech was certainly imperfect, I disagree that this gives us permission to limit its cultural significance.

It's important to note that despite my appreciation for Watson's UN campaign, I believe much of the criticism she's faced has been warranted. Liberal white feminism tends to cling to these seemingly iconic moments in which feminism briefly becomes more palatable, more easily sold to the masses. We should absolutely be weary of the long-term effectiveness of the #HeForShe campaign. Join the conversation with a hashtag! End global misogyny with an empty promise and a tweet!

So far, over 120,000 men have signed up to "stand up for women" through the campaign's website. This number will inevitably grow, but it's still unclear what the HeForShe pledge really entails. Signatories are asked to commit to an oath promising to take action against violence and discrimination faced by women and girls. It also emphasizes that gender equality is a human rights issue -- all of which sounds great until you realize that this sizeable societal change is going to be achieved simply by providing the UN with your email address. I remember another campaign with a similar strategy.

I predict many well-intentioned men will excitedly pledge their names in solidarity with women, only to quietly unsubscribe from the HeForShe email list in a few weeks. Engaging people across multiple online platforms is a great way of connecting with them through a familiar format. But it can just as easily allow for a misguided sense of self-satisfaction without having really done anything.

In her speech, Watson also calls on men to consider the impact of sexism on their own lives. And while this may seem noble, I agree that it's slightly duplicitous. Men shouldn't care about feminism because it may improve things for them. They should care about feminism because it will improve things for women.

Undoubtedly, dismantling patriarchal systems benefits men as it challenges harmful notions of masculinity -- but this should not be a focus of HeForShe. In a society that so rarely places the needs of women above men, it's crucial to create a movement that is both centred around and led by women.

Perhaps the most noticeable issue missing from Watson's speech though, is her persistent reinforcement of the gender binary. She does mention that "gender exists on a spectrum" but shies away from directly involving trans and genderqueer people into her feminist conversation -- a noticeable trend in the mainstream feminist movement that only further marginalizes these groups.

Many people have also praised the HeForShe campaign for finally making feminism digestible. But I find this to be dangerous and unsettling. Feminism is hindered -- not aided -- by the belief that in order for it grow, it needs to adjust to society's preference of a moderate, less threatening political movement.

But despite all of the reasons I too have been critical of Emma Watson's UN campaign, one fact alone has been disregarded by most of my fellow critics.

Mainstream feminism often serves as an entry point for both women and men to begin to consider social inequity. For some, that critical perspective will evolve into a vein of feminism that challenges oppression rather than teaching women how to succeed within its grasp (I'm looking at you, Sheryl Sandberg). A feminism that is inclusive of trans, racialized and other marginalized groups of women.

I know this because it happened for me.

Watson as a UN Ambassador makes sense as a political choice. She's young, tactful and scandal-free. She's famous without seeming fame-hungry à la Kim Kardashian. She hasn't yet been photographed tumbling out of a cab sans underwear and so the Internet hasn't been forced to tirelessly debate her role model credibility.

I'm not suggesting there wasn't room for Watson to deliver a more progressive speech at that podium. But neither the world nor the United Nations is comprised of activists and women's studies majors so understandably, Watson towed a pluralist ideation of feminism to cater to an audience spanning numerous generations, religions and cultures.

Disparaging Emma Watson as an ambassador is ineffective. It's easy to say that through her speech, she's co-opted decades of work by feminists and activists. That she simply repeated the same non-threatening, pseudo-feminism of a Dove commercial, only she's being lauded as a revolutionary because of her celebrity status. I'll admit I had the same cynical reaction at first.

But it's crucial we don't view Emma Watson in a one-dimensional light because otherwise, we commit an even worse offence: we disregard her.

I'm ultimately less interested in the words she delivered during her 12-minute speech and more curious to see what she's going to do with the impressive platform she's been given. That will be the true measure of her commitment to gender equality.

It's important we view women, particularly young women like Watson, as fluid and evolving. As UN ambassadors, as role models and simply as people. The revolutionary aspect of the HeForShe campaign doesn't lie within Watson and her apparent status as the hip, new Feminist du Jour. It lies within a growing public acceptance, rather than disdain, for feminism and ultimately -- for women.

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