Never have I heard so many conversations on Occidental’s campus surrounding feminism and gender equality—especially among men—than I have in the past week. The power of British actress Emma Watson’s speech on Sept. 20, in support of the launch of the UN Women’s HeForShe campaign, undeniably has played a role in this.
Watson’s speech was an important step forward for global feminism. It included a concrete call to action and was met with worldwide exposure, differentiating it from past speeches of its kind. Though valid criticisms surfaced following the speech, mainly around Watson’s failure to address further ways in which women are oppressed, these points can be addressed without completely disregarding the benefits of Watson’s words.
The recently launched HeForShe campaign calls for men to physically sign a pledge of their intention to fight alongside women for gender equality worldwide. This call to action gives men and boys a concrete way to get involved in fighting gender inequality, without feeling insecure about their actions. Watson invites men to join in the feminist movement, arguing that it is a human rights—not just women’s rights—issue.
“How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feels welcome to participate in the conversation?” Watson said. “Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender inequality is your issue too.”
Watson’s use of the word “invitation” suggested that previous feminist movements have been exclusive, and insinuated that men need to be allowed in before they can help the cause. While her word choice may not have been perfect, her intention was. Conversations surrounding gender inequality can be uncomfortable for both men and women. Watson cut through this insecurity and nervousness by identifying a concrete action men can take to join the conversation.
“We don’t just want to talk about [feminism]. We want it to be tangible,” Watson said.
The tangible solution that Watson proposed is signing the HeforShe pledge. The signatures from men across the world will provide a visual representation of the support behind the campaign, encouraging the UN to take specific action.
In response to Watson’s speech, Vanity Fair asserted it was “game-changing,” and they were right. It was game-changing not because the world had never heard these ideas before, but because it was the first time many in our generation had heard them on such a large stage, with such a specific call to action attached.
Some commentators have criticized Watson’s speech for not addressing her privilege, and the other ways in which women across the world are marginalized (such as race and class oppression). Watson herself identified that others might question her qualifications for speaking on the topic, but stressed that her passion qualified her well.
“The reality is that if we do nothing, it will take 75 years … before women can expect to be paid the same as men, for the same work,” Watson said. “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
In the end, Watson was right to utilize her celebrity to give massive exposure and universal accessibility to the HeForShe campaign, even if she is not the perfect representation of all forms of women’s oppression.
The fact that Watson’s speech was so well received by males worldwide is also a sign of its success. Ed Holtom, a 15-year-old from St. Albans, England, submitted a letter that subsequently went viral to the Sunday Telegraph, one of the biggest national newspapers in the UK.
“I watched Emma Watson’s UN speech and agreed with everything she said, so I was disappointed by how ignorant some of the boys in my class were,” Holtom wrote.
Given the existing criticisms of Watson’s speech, Holtom’s piece in support of Watson carried significant weight. If, as a result of Watson’s speech, Holtom and other young men like him will now discuss the issue of gender inequality with each other, Watson has done her job. With the encouragement of celebrities such as Watson, future generations of men will continue to join the conversation.
“I think that most people do care about gender equality, in that they want it to happen, but celebrities as role models have the ability to empower a younger generation,” Holtom said.
The exposure Watson’s celebrity brought to the issue of gender inequality has placed the issue of feminism on the world stage. And while debate is crucial to moving the discussion forward, we must not lose sight of action as well. We should recognize the faults as well as the highlights of Watson’s speech, and then—please, everyone—sign the HeForShe pledge.