Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech: what has it achieved?

Since actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a speech to the UN about feminism last week, her words have been widely discussed. The speech, which sought to ‘galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for gender equality’ has been praised by many as ‘game-changing’, while others have dismissed it as unoriginal and even patronising to men, as she formally invites them to take part in the campaign like children to a birthday party. Of course some misogynistic geniuses couldn’t let a speech about feminism pass without proving Watson’s point that it is necessary, by threatening to leak nude photos of her (4chan, we’re looking at you). But what has Watson’s speech really taught us about the public’s attitude towards feminism?

To most feminists the content of Watson’s speech was not remarkable or original, however she clarified her points so well that even the least informed (but open-minded) could access them, and might even consider adopting the title ‘feminist’, which she rightly argues has become a dirty word, ‘synonymous with man-hating’. It can be argued that her ‘formal invitation’ to men to participate in feminism indulged and patronised them, however those who didn’t already agree with Watson that feminism is vital for both genders probably needs a bit of babying.

That is not to say that all misogynists have now been converted. Not in the slightest. I can quite confidently say that most of those who did not identify themselves as feminists before Watson’s speech have not had sudden epiphanies and discarded their sexist ways. This is because of reactions like that of 4chan threatening to reveal nude photos of Watson on a web site called ‘Emma You Are Next’ and the Daily Mail choosing to focus on her outfit instead of her argument. I even know of some people who have since decided to support feminism because Emma Watson provides them with a more attractive figurehead than the bra-burning, hairy, lesbian stereotype. I think they have slightly missed her point.

However, it is true that the HeForShe campaign would not have received nearly as much attention had Watson not fronted it. As uncomfortable as this is for those feminists among us who know that her words are more important than her stature – Watson herself highlights the strangeness of ‘this Harry Potter girl’ speaking at the UN – it undeniably has helped to spread the word. The video has gone viral and been watched by over 1 million people. When there is a choice between the power of patriarchy or celebrity, the latter is definitely the lesser of two evils and can be used for good.

So what have we learned from Watson’s speech? It is clear that Watson is a powerful and popular figure and that those of us on social media are paying attention to her words. As for the older, less tech-savvy generations, the section of parents and grandparents instilling sexist ideas into their children, it remains to be seen whether any impact has been made at all. What is certain though, is that there is clearly still a lot of work to be done to encourage feminism, and the public will be keeping a close watch on Watson and the HeForShe campaign.




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