Emma Watson, popular actress and newly appointed United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, has garnered both significant praise and criticism for her introductory speech to the UN Women’s new solidarity movement for gender equality, He For She.
“We want to try and [sic] galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates of change,” Watson declared during her September 21 speech delivered to members of the UN.
In urging men to join in on the feminist dialectic, Watson hopes to both affect a widespread acceptance and recognition of the movement, and change the negative connotations often attributed to the word feminist. And in openly inviting men to be part of the movement for gender equality, Watson believes that the realm of discourse, often considered private and esoteric by men, will become a universal one to be addressed and discussed by all.
While Watson’s speech has gained much support from celebrities and politicians alike, it has also attracted significant criticism and skepticism from journalists and experts who deem the scope of the campaign too narrow to be effective in furthering the movement for gender equality.
The majority of criticism points towards the campaign’s acceptance of gender norms and its unwillingness to challenge the preexisting power dynamic that sits in the favor of men. While the campaign hopes to achieve equality for both men and women, critics say, the campaign panders to and centralizes men by underscoring the benefits achieved by males through gender equality and ignoring the benefits conferred onto women.
Additionally, critics are concerned about the use of gender binary language in Watson’s speech. In simplifying and reducing the dialogue to speak only of the gender binary, critics argue, people who don’t fit into such strict definitions of gender are completely ignored. While the campaign is a step towards achieving equality, without considering the full spectrum of gender identities true gender equality can never be attained.
Aside from criticism directed towards the campaign’s procedure and efficacy, the UN’s decision to appoint Emma Watson has gone under fire as well.
“What I do criticise, then, is that the United Nations chose to use a white, western, heterosexual, upper-class woman to speak for a group of united nations,” Julia Zulver, Aljazeera writer and Latin American Studies graduate student at the University of Oxford, opines. “Why should the mouthpiece of an international campaign be such a foreign, distant figure to so many girls and women?”
In appointing a young, inexperienced woman of privilege, critics worry that the essence and accessibility of the message will be lost to those of less privilege. In choosing Emma Watson, the United Nations is appealing to young people of privilege who know her fame and see her as a role model. Observers believe that the UN is hoping Watson will help proliferate the campaign through social media, which the publicity of the campaign predicates itself on.
However, those who do not fit into this demographic, critics stress, will not be able to see themselves as part of the campaign and will feel increasingly alienated from the topic of feminism, seeing it as something unrelated to themselves. Such a conclusion goes against the intended end result of the UN’s campaign.
While the United Nation’s He For She campaign may not be perfect, such criticism serves to open the realm of discourse on gender equality, unpack the components necessary for the advancement of equality and bring attention to an issue otherwise deemed unimportant.