HeForShe seeks joint effort for gender equality

By Kyra Senese Managing Editor

Emma Watson, the famous actress-turned United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador, made headlines last week when she called on men to join the fight for gender equality on Sept. 20 at the UN Headquarters in New York City.

Watson spoke on behalf of the HeForShe campaign, an international movement that aims to unite both genders to achieve gender equality worldwide, according to the campaign website.

“We want to end gender inequality, and to do that we need everyone to participate,” Watson said during her speech. “This is the first campaign of its kind at the UN: We want to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change. And we don’t just want to talk about it but make sure it is tangible.”

Following Watson’s speech, fans expressed overwhelming support on various forms of social media while critics judged Watson’s speech and called into question the validity of her selection as a chosen goodwill ambassador.

Fans of the “Harry Potter” film series or of Watson’s other work were pleased to see her in the spotlight again and advocating for women’s rights, but critics questioned whether Watson was the right woman to speak about the cause. The actress has had the advantages of fame, fortune and a college degree—she graduated from Brown University last May—and for her to speak about the oppression of women seemed insincere and unqualified to some.

This criticism is shallow. Watson is showing support for an issue she feels strongly about. It is understandable that people want to see accurate representations, but this is not the first time that a celebrity has advocated for a cause despite not having been personally affected by it.

No, Watson was not forced to marry as a child, nor was she forced to end her education at the elementary level. But she is a woman, and all women are affected by gender inequality to some degree. As she mentioned in her speech, Watson vividly remembers the first time she was called “bossy”—a trait mirrored by her “Harry Potter” role as the character Hermione Granger—by her peers at 8 years old because she was smart and also admitted to sometimes feeling like she had to downplay her intelligence after being teased and called a “know-it-all” by her classmates in school.

“Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive,” Watson said. “Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two opposing sets of ideals. If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we just are—we can all be freer, and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom.”

The world we live in today would be a significantly darker place if we expected only those people who have been the most deeply affected by certain issues to be the sole advocates for their peers.

Instead of searching for problems with Watson’s role as an advocate or with the campaign as a whole, people should be paying more attention to what has been achieved already. Although the HeForShe campaign was only launched Sept. 20, it has already gained 149,866 signatures, as of press time, from men around the world who have committed to join the fight for gender equality.

Of those 149,866 men, 42,846 are from the U.S.—making it clear that Watson’s speech has had a positive effect on the often-stigmatized perceptions of feminism.

Another point of contention Watson successfully addressed in her speech at the UN was that there is clearly some widespread confusion regarding what exactly feminism is and what the movement aims to fix.

“The more I have talked about feminism, the more I’ve realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” Watson said. “If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.”

Watson did not say anything in her speech that has not been said before, but hearing those words from a widely respected actress may be just what some people need to truly understand the message.

While the desire to see someone who has “been there” spearhead the campaign beyond merely receiving criticism from the media or experiencing street harassment is not unreasonable, Watson should not be shamed for not having been a victim of violence or other severe forms of gender-based discrimination, and her efforts to help both today’s men and women should be celebrated.