With a crisp British accent, an aura of confident intelligence and a much-envied physique, Emma Watson is a darling of the big screen. Her role as the witty, courageous Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise has made her a household name, and she knows it. However, what makes her stand out from her Hollywood counterparts is how she has harnessed her celebrity power to influence and effect change beyond the movie theatre.
Beyond earning a comfortable living or honing her artistic talents, Watson’s heart is for a cause greater than herself: gender equality. At just twenty-five, she is the appointed UN Women Goodwill ambassador, and her speech at the launch of the HeForShe campaign in 2014 provokes one to pause and reconsider the word “feminism”.
“Gender equality is your issue too,” she confidently states, as a direct address to the men in the audience. For “how can we effect change in the world, when only half of it is invited, or feel welcome to participate in the conversation”? To be feminist is not to be men-hating. It is as much about giving men the freedom to speak about their feelings, and for fathers to be recognised in the household, as it is about female political representation and closing the pay gap between the sexes.
To further this cause, Watson has also started a Goodreads book club, Our Shared Shelf. This open online channel encourages active and dynamic public engagement on feminism and related issues. Titles so far have included Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom and this month’s read: Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Watson has certainly put much effort into keeping the conversation going. Take for example the one-hundred handwritten notes in hard copy books, hand-delivered, stashed away in corners of the London subway last year. One certainly wonders how many lucky commuters would actually heed the note’s advice to pass the book on after reading.
With so much to her name, it easy to forget that Watson is also just another young adult, trying to find her way in the world. She is human too, just as vulnerable to the slings and arrows of hurtful comments. She admitted being particularly hurt by comments made by those she thought were her feminist peers over the recent Vanity Fair photoshoot. Is the act of baring one’s breasts for fashion modelling encouraging female sexualisation and objectification, or is it a daring celebration of a woman’s body? There are certainly no quick and easy answers, but surely we can cut our beloved “Harry Potter girl” some slack? It can’t be easy to juggle her personal and private lives—attending university (at Brown, no less), cherishing time with family and friends, while working (acting, modelling, activism), and managing her public image (most of us don’t have to worry about personal photos being leaked, or whether what we say affects the whole feminism movement). Being overly obsessed with the female body and beauty is a distraction from the real concerns she voices.
With her compassion, sincerity and charisma, Emma Watson has come to represent issues far greater than herself. We would do well to look beyond the trivialities of magazine covers and listen to what she has to say, because it is something that matters to every one of us.