Yes. Emma Watson is a white feminist. Because she is white and she is a feminist. Her priorities often center around ways in which she is personally affected by inequality, but the ideas that she promotes can and should focus more on concepts that are central to intersectional feminism. In her speeches, she often acknowledges her own privilege, as if her awareness of it erases the personal bias that her statements still include. She is speaking from her own perspective about her own experience, and we need more.
One prominent critique of her activist work hones in on the #HeForShe campaign, labeling it as trans-exclusionary. I agree that it objectively excludes many whose rights must be fought for, such as trans men and non-binary people. However, I believe that calling on cisgender men, especially white cisgender men, to amplify feminists’ voices is crucial to any form of progress. It’s not as “game-changing” as some news outlets reported after her U.N. speech back in 2014 launched #HeForShe, but it still needs to be explicitly said. Some argue that it encourages men to speak for women and injecting their own views into the feminist rhetoric, but I disagree. The phrase “he for she” doesn’t include those ideas. It simply states that men should be supporting women in their quest for equality. If anything, I see it as a call for them to listen. As Watson said in her speech, “We want to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change,” not implying that they should be setting the terms of any sort of feminist agenda.
One caveat that I will give her on this point is that her official position within the United Nations is U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador. According to the U.N. Women site, their goal is to “[focus] on priority areas that are fundamental to women’s equality.” Her job is to represent women, but, even so, she should be representing all women, especially those of other minorities whose voices are limited. Due to her high socioeconomic status and extremely positive public perception, she has the power and the privilege to make a notable impact.
When Watson was directly asked if she was a white feminist back in 2015, she released a short statement on Twitter. She wrote, “I can’t speak on behalf of intersectional feminists specifically but I can use my platform to give those that do have personal experience a spotlight. And I see this as my role- to speak to my personal experience and to amplify the experiences of other people.” Maybe she sees the term “intersectional feminist” as meaning a female feminist who is oppressed due to identities apart from their gender, but men can (and should) call themselves feminists. Intersectional feminists are those that stand up for equal rights and recognize that it is the overlap of various identities that leads to the type and level of discrimination that an individual is subjected to.
And then there’s her now-infamous criticism of Beyoncé’s music videos for her album “BEYONCÉ.” Although some quotes were taken out of context, Watson did initially say in the interview, “[Beyoncé] is putting herself in a category of a feminist…but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her.” She later seems to contradict herself, saying, “The fact she wasn’t doing it for a label, she was doing it for herself and the control that she has directing it and putting it out there, I agree is making her sexuality empowering because it is her choice.” Watson fails to differentiate between seeing a woman through a sexual lens and seeing her through a male lens.
Beyoncé is choosing to sexualize herself. As she says herself in “Self-Titled,” a multi-part video series to explain the creative process behind the new album, “I wanted to show my body… I don’t have any shame about being sexual and I’m not embarrassed about it and I don’t feel like I have to protect that side of me because I do believe that sexuality is a power that we all have.”
Still, in the past three years since that interview, Watson seems to have changed her mind. In a recent Vanity Fair shoot, controversy swirled around a picture of her mostly exposed torso. In an interview with Reuter’s, the interviewer brought up the contention over the photos. Watson said, “Feminism is about giving women choice…. It’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.”
We have to reflect on the outrage this shoot has caused, especially considering the relatively little anger about the fact that her own private photos were leaked earlier this month. (Note that, as her publicist made clear, she was not pictured nude.) It’s almost as if we’re uncomfortable with women who choose to expose themselves, and yet are comfortable with others exposing them without permission.
Watson should be addressing a wider spectrum of inequality, especially in relation to race, socioeconomic status, ability, and sexuality. However, I am still glad to see a celebrity standing up for women’s education and other crucial issues. So is white feminism real? Yes, obviously. Does Emma Watson need to refocus her personal brand of feminism? Yes. So, Emma, use your platform for good. Promote equality. But promote equality for all, not just those that share your cis white female identity.