In Emma Watson’s U.N. address, argumentative impurity

Opinion by Mina Shah
Oct. 14, 2014, 7:00 p.m.

On Sept. 20, U.N. Women Global Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, best known for her role in the “Harry Potter” film franchise, gave a speech in front of the U.N. General Assembly, launching a campaign for feminism entitled “HeForShe.” Watson’s speech received a standing ovation from the floor and a generally positive response from various groups, especially younger viewers.

It is certainly admirable that Ms. Watson wants to address the issue of gender inequality head-on, but the speech that she gave, while arguably inspirational, was ultimately a failure in terms of both the consistency of its content and its delivery.

In terms of her actual argument, there are several different places in the speech where Watson falls short. We need to look no farther than the name of the movement to find an initial contradiction. Throughout the majority of her speech, she discusses the importance of breaking down gender stereotypes for both men and women, that stereotypes for masculinity are just as harmful toward men as they are toward women. It makes little sense to call the campaign “HeForShe” if it’s looking to benefit men as well. The way in which she asked for the help of men in the fight to end gender inequality was further problematic. Almost pleading, it’s as if she’s asking men to bring women out of obscurity.

Furthermore, several of the statistics she cites toward the end of her address are of questionable plausibility, and Watson fails to consider aspects of historical and cultural traditions in other geographic areas that create particular aspects of inequality in those areas. For example, she alleges that if we don’t make any active progress, it “won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls will be able to receive a secondary education.” It’s not clear where she got this statistic, nor does it make any sort of intuitive sense. What about boys living in rural Africa? And if no effort is made to foster education growth in rural Africa right now, for example, what would indicate that any progress might be made?

Watson does a great job defining what feminism means. She pushes back against the idea that “feminism” is equated with “man-hating.” She lauds people who push for gender equality even if they don’t want to identify as feminists. She spends time breaking down common assumptions related to the word “feminism” itself, in order to sensitize listeners to it. But then, she proceeds to accept a continued hatred of it. She uses personal anecdotes from her privileged life as evidence that gender equality has not been achieved. For example, she cites that at age eight, she was called “bossy” when directing plays for parents, unlike the boys who behaved similarly.

However, the soundness and consistency of her speech are not the only ways in which she did not do her cause justice. Her delivery left much to be desired. She seemed terrified speaking in front of the General Assembly. This makes sense, in that the stakes of this speech were higher and more significant than any she’s had to perform in any of her professional roles before. But her professional background should more than compensate for the stage fright that she exhibited. Though her performance doesn’t materially alter the validity of her arguments, it certainly makes her less convincing.

If Watson really wants to promote feminism, she needs to be more consistent when she makes arguments in speeches. She needs to take specific historical and cultural traditions of oppression into consideration when pushing for policy changes or piloting campaigns. She’s made a good start in attempting to make the movement more inclusive, but she oughtn’t sacrifice any sort of argumentative purity in order to persuade others into falling into line.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’

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