Emma Watson’s Empty Performance at the U.N.

A sweet, unassuming delivery from the young actress cannot hide the unoriginal and problematic themes within her September 20th address

After social media exploded with re-posts of actress Emma Watson’s speech on feminism at the United Nations on September 20th, some dissenters have since questioned the speech’s relevance, its observations about men, and its general coherence. Cathy Young, a contributor to Time and Reason magazines retorted in Time’s most recent issue with an article entitled, “Sorry Emma Watson, but HeforShe is Rotten for Men”. Young takes issue withthe campaign which the U.N. asked Watson to launch.

HeforShe (www.heforshe.org) describes itself as a solidarity movement for gender equality, separating itself from other women’s movements by claiming its inclusion of men is unique. But Young questions whether this inclusion is meaningful, suggesting that it is not only patronizing, but that HeforShe is actually damaging to solidarity. She argues that the commission and campaign do not give enough attention to injustices committed against men and blatantly ignore the damage the feminist movement has historically done to men.

Watson’s speech was out of place, as she apparenty recognized: “You might be thinking, ‘Who is this Harry Potter girl, and what is she doing speaking at the UN?’ And, it’s a really good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing.” A sweet, unassuming delivery from a brave, polished young actress is not enough to hide the unoriginal and problematic themes for both women and men within the address. Since it was delivered as if these themes had never been discussed before, and since it is given so much credence by U.N. Officials, Youtube watchers, and pundits, it is worthwhile to examine it against long-standing discussions on the matter.

“A real conversation must let men talk not only about feminist-approved topics,” Young demands. Bringing this theme to the table as if it were revolutionary, without referencing any historic male efforts, suggests that it has not yet been done, or that it has been done ineffectively until Emma Watson and the U.N. did so. Extending “a formal invitation,” to men to join the discussion is not only trite and a bit patronizing, it is also unnecessary.

Men don’t need an invitation. Let’s extend that much to both their intelligence and their history.

One man, for example, already presented the idea to the U.N. nearly a decade ago: “My word of thanks to women thus becomes aheartfelt appealthat everyone, and in a special way States and international institutions, should make every effort to ensure that women regain full respect for their dignity and role.” That man was Pope St. John Paul II, in his June 29, 1995 “Letter to Women,” issued prior to the United Nations Fourth International Conference on Women, held in Beijing.

Institutions which have endured the test of time and the purification of fire have something to say on the matter. “In this vast domain of service, the Church’s two-thousand-year history,” said the late pontiff, “for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the ‘genius of woman.’”

Complementarity might be at the root of Watson’s speech, but we wouldn’t know it, and neither would she. Her lack of deference to older, wiser contributors to the discussion makes a truly new contribution impossible. Several good points are hinted at in the brief speech, but lines of logic are ambiguously glazed over, nullifying and ignoring the gravity of their potential fruition and ultimate importance. In fact, she ends up on a different path than the one on which she started. And then doesn’t tell us how she got there.

For example, the concession that “feminism,” may not be an “accepting” term, is important. But she does not qualify why this is the case, for there is no mention of historical man-hating movements which have disrupted progress. Where did we go wrong? What, at the root of that movement, got us off track from our goal? When did we begin doing more damage?

Perhaps one poisonous seed was the unspoken idea that it is a competition between women and men. “I can do anything you can do, better.” But do I, a woman, want to? Or do I want to do different things? Am I ashamed of my female strengths? What are they, really? Am I not more than a reflection of man? Do I not have unique qualities, which, when accepted, separate me from men, and foster my and society’s relationship with men?

These are questions worth discussing. Even, again, because we seem to have forgotten. The female-led feminist movement had its minute—and it failed. As much as HeforShe claims it is an all-encompassing effort, I don’t buy it. Until it starts asking, and sincerely trying to answer the questions above, I’m not listening. I will not be persuaded by cheesy sound bites and propaganda. Been there, done that! Whether the poster child is wearing an apron in the kitchen, a shaved head and a birthday suit, or a mod silver belt at the U.N., women should refuse lack of substance. The absence of logic and meaningful content is insulting. And for the record, we are wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

It is important that Watson wants men to be involved in efforts such as women’s education or wage equality. She talks about people realizing their true identity in an appealing, almost humanistic way. But then she uses the term “gender spectrum,” which is confusing, undefined, and ambiguous, and what would have been a logical path toward a discussion of harmony and complementarity, is effectively thwarted.

Pope St. John Paul II said of men and women that their “most natural relationship, which corresponds to the plan of God, is the ‘unity of the two”‘ a relational ‘uni-duality’, which enables each to experience their interpersonal and reciprocal relationship as a gift which enriches and which confers responsibility.” One can see that this complementarity extends beyond the unitive relationship, to society at large, which is a reflection of the family unit.

Perhaps this is the teamwork Watson is getting at. But perhaps not—one cannot tell.

Finally, the speaker’s unabashed misquoting of Edmund Burke, though seemingly bold, is problematic. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men and women do nothing.” (Edmond Burke and Emma Watson).

To include “women” is, of course, intentional, but it is assuming, projecting, and irritating; it is also indicative of a misunderstanding of the humanistic use of the word “men.” To be offended by it, I believe, is incorrect (I will not say it is petty). It is a term that was never meant to be sexist. It is encompassing of women—which, ironically, you might think some “feminists” would like, considering they want women and men to be the same, so why not just use one word?

This debate is not new. Unfortunately, if Emma Watson was not the one delivering, it would not have received this kind of press. Good for her, for using her platform to bravely speak on issues that are important to her, many of which are helpful. But the lazy, rhetorical devices end up being unfinished, illogical provocations which need to be countered in a serious way. It is saddening to watch an important issue be addressed in such a trivial and inadequte way—and then spread around like wildfire and proclaimed so new and wonderful.

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About Tessa Bowman 0 Articles
Tessa Bowman manages contracts at Ignatius Press. She holds a degree in International Development Studies from UCLA.