According to an interview in this month’s issue of Porter magazine, Emma Watson’s celebrated HeForShe gender equality campaign was unsuccessfully censored. Watson explained the internal backlash: “I was encouraged not to use the word ‘feminism’ because people felt that it was alienating and separating and the whole idea of the speech was to include as many people as possible...But I thought long and hard and ultimately felt that it was just the right thing to do. If women are terrified to use the word, how on earth are men supposed to start using it?”
The divisive speech she’s referencing, which kicked off the launch of UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign (hashtag is theirs, not mine) in September 2014, was the clickbait heard ’round the Internet. Lady assemblages, from book club email chains to Facebook groups to friend group texts, were smitten with the actress more commonly known as Hermione Granger—fictional supergirl turned IRL feminist hero.
In the magical world of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger is, hands down, the smartest and most capable magic practitioner. While her male cohorts are busy failing out of potions and challenging each other to homoerotic duels, Granger studies hard, consistently saves the day, and still finds times to manage trifling boys and a demanding hairstyle. Harry Potter is well meaning and all, but the books (and movies) really should have been all about Hermione. Unfortunately, Watson’s much-discussed speech fell into a similar trap—basically, it was a total sausage fest. Instead of talking about amazing ladies or vital feminist projects, the #HeForShe agenda focuses on men. Because, as we all know, if men aren’t immediately centered in any conversation, they’ll immediately throw a temper tantrum and try to overturn Roe v. Wade.
To give credit where credit is due, Watson’s speech was articulate, well-informed, and well-intentioned. She addressed men directly, saying, “I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.” Then, she further explained how outdated gender roles punish both men and women. Of course, Watson isn’t wrong. But the new revelation that the word “feminism” almost didn’t make it into the final draft is further evidence of the extreme efforts being made to make feminism (or feminism by any other name) needlessly palatable for the general public.
As a mainstream celebrity, Watson is already going above and beyond. In a world where women as accomplished and influential as Meryl Streep, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Lady Gaga have publicly distanced themselves from the “feminist” label, any young star prioritizing feminist values is a blessing. While Hollywood is inarguably sexist, with women fighting tooth and nail for jobs, visibility, respect, and equal wages, a number of big-name female celebrities are still afraid of the F word. Cue sidestepping, evasive language, and the most cringe-inducing utterance of all: “I’m a humanist.”
So, all things considered, Watson’s personal and political evolution is a Hollywood unicorn; her revelation that, “For the first time in my life I feel like I have a sense of self that I’m comfortable with,” is pretty inspirational, and her insistence that, “I actually do have things that I want to say and I want to be my most authentic self,” sets a sterling example for outspoken young female fans.
While it’s important to be grateful for all the little things, it would be nice if Watson’s feminist awakening could be separated from such a superficially presenting campaign. As the very recent fall of everyone’s favorite “feminist” male porn star James Deen proves, making men conscious of and attuned to certain feminist values is far from a fix-all. Even the language around the importance of “feminism” as a term is a bit of a distraction; as long as we’re calling for substantive action and real-life equality, who cares what we call it. While we’re at it, in addition to giving Watson her well-earned round of applause, let’s start sending around links of women who have dedicated their lives to researching, living, and articulating their own feminisms, like bell hooks, Laverne Cox, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She for she, y’all.