Nothing captures the world’s short attention span to a cause quite like a fair-faced celebrity’s endorsement. Emma Watson’s speech as the Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women is no exception. Described by critics, bloggers, multinational news channels and, of course, fellow celebrities in various ways as a ‘game-changer’, Watson’s speech has torn down the gates and brought in a tempestuous flood of voices into the conversation on feminism.
There are, however, some very fundamental issues to be paid attention to wherever such a move is made by a public figure. The first is the issue of why people are talking. Of the several articles I have read about her speech, there wasn’t a single one that broke Emma’s speech down and critically talked through the issues that it raised, bringing them to light. Most of the reports on the infamous speech are much more concerned with the speaker, her eloquence, the surprise that it was that she has such a good head on her shoulders, comparisons of her to her peers in the celebrity circles, as well as fears of this speech perpetrating hate-filled mail filling her inboxes! To many, it was not an issues of hearing ideas that they are keen to dig deeper in and explore, it was a matter of being impressed by a young, apparently virtuous celebrity doing something philanthropic. Mistaking the praise that we have for an individual because of their position in society with strides taken for the cause that they stand for is something to be extremely wary of.
Secondly, in a world where a movement’s success is best measured by the level of attention the media and social media pays to it, we need to take care to look beyond all the noise being made about the impact of Emma’s speech, and look more critically to quantitative and qualitative proof of the progress of that impact with regards to conversations about and moves towards gender equality. Media’s attention to Emma Watson’s speech is not to become an indication to us of a victory for feminists everywhere. Although it is in itself a very valid indication of conversations beginning, it is not an indication of progress for women. When the very same media that would no sooner to spread the news of a female celebrity’s nude photos leaking, or publish articles in which they mock and publicly shame another for putting on a few kilograms, it is highly problematic that their praises of Watson’s speech and their deeming it ‘ground-breaking’ becomes synonymous with triumph for women everywhere. The media is abuzz, but that buzz is nothing but tabloid chit-chat that will soon fade into oblivion. Conversations and actions are what will truly deem the speech successful, not the amount of attention it receives.
Has Emma Waston’s speech, then, really changed anything besides what the media is talking about? Is the world’s perception of the need for equality changed in any way? These are a few of the questions that we need to seriously ask, because at the end of the day, the importance we place on it should be because of its contents, and not because of its speaker.
When Emma Watson made this speech, she made her presence known in the space occupied by the feminist movement. Finding herself in this space was akin to entering a large room where people are communicating shouts, each trapped in their own echo-chamber, so that few listen to each-other, and even less are accommodating of any perspective, view, or definition that differs or dares to differ from theirs. Those who do not enter the room peer from the windows and snicker haughtily at the goings-on within. Some of those who do enter the conversation do so on the defensive, ready to catch any assertion made in the favour of feminism as it flies, snap it into cleanly in half, and toss it into the wild fire of their fury. Others, like Emma Watson emerge from the crowd and speak up with the goal of unifying the two fronts, calling a cease-fire and most importantly, inviting the bystanders in to join in. Many have done this before Emma Watson in the past, but the world is suddenly drawn to her speech as though she reinvented the wheel.
While I am of the opinion that Emma’s speech, as any other voice out there, is welcome to join and add to the conversation, I do not agree that it should be deemed as ‘ground-breaking’ because she is one of so many that have articulately spoken up about feminism and its importance. A good example is that by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an award-winning Nigerian novelist who is very accomplished in her own right, but whose accolades seem to hold mere drops in comparison to the water that Emma Watson’s do in the eyes of the media. In discussing the issue, Chimamanda Adichie delivers an eighteen minute talk that is both humorous, as well as thoughtfully constructed to draw listeners in to all the reasons why feminism matters in the world today, and touches on the issues of society’s allergy to the movement. Adichie’s speech started off with a few thousand views on YouTube, but soon started to capture people’s attention. While less celebrated, it has been so impactful that by popular demand, it was adapted into a short book, and has sparked discussion all over the world. An excerpt of the talk was also slotted into one of Beyonce’s hit songs, Flawless, widely broadening its audience. While its new-found fame is great, it is not and has never been an indication of how impactful her speech was. Rather, it is a consequence of how impactful it was. This is only one example, but there are many others of men and women across the world who have spoken up about feminism.
No matter how intelligent Emma Watson is, by virtue of her fame, she has been reduced down to her image, and this renders her commoditized- she, and everything she says, are both consumable as well as disposable. Sadly, this is a consequence of the celebrity status, and her speech is not exempted. (Watch GOT’s Jack Gleeson’s talk about the plight of celebrity below. [start at 23:00) We live in a world where the importance of what you say is determined by your anonymity or your recognition, and even then, the importance is only fleeting. In the world of celebrity, what’s hot now is forgotten as quickly as it came. This, in my opinion is what is most tragic about Emma Watson’s speech.