Just over three weeks ago, Emma Watson spoke to the UN General Assembly in her capacity as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador to launch the HeForShe campaign. Watson’s aim was to rally men to the struggle for gender equality. ‘We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence,’ she observed, essentially proclaiming that men and women must work together in order to combat socially entrenched sexism.
Within days of the speech, news articles and think pieces responding to Watson’s address had taken over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. To many, she had delivered a ‘game-changing speech,’ that was ’stunning… Stunning.’ Others were less enamoured by Watson and the UN’s approach. Many women of colour have argued that her approach was exclusively white and Western, and did not account for different (and more extreme) types of oppression that woman of colour experience. Other feminists (from both women of colour and white women) critiqued Watson’s implication that feminism had actively excluded men from the discussion (this isn’t the case) and that her focus on men detracted from the actual point of the whole campaign, which is to improve conditions for women.
Interestingly, even though commentators from both sides fervently analysed the content of Watson’s speech, very little was said about the politics of the concept of the celebrity advocate. No one sought to explore the limitations and benefits of having a famous actress as the face of a campaign, nor, as far as I could see, did anyone discuss in detail what we should expect from celebrity advocates.
Celebrities are partly able to contribute to social causes because they have large amounts of money. The most well-known celebrity philanthropist today is perhaps Angelina Jolie, whose advocacy work for refugees has earned her numerous humanitarian awards. Jolie has made field visits to over 20 countries to meet with and raise awareness about refugees, donated millions of dollars to various charities and began the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, a Cambodia-based conservation and community development organisation that largely employs local staff. Many celebrities have invested in their own foundations, such as the Ian Somerhalder Foundation, which focuses on animal protection, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which focuses on species and environment conservation (Leo is also a UN Messenger of the Peace and addressed the recent UN Summit on Climate Change). Plenty of others regularly donate to various causes.
Celebrities can also be influential advocates because they have power, a type of cultural capital that ensures people listen to what they have to say. In just a few short weeks, more than 168,000 men around the world have pledged to ‘commit to take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls’ on the HeForShe website. Whether or not the nuances of Watson’s speech were problematic, her ideas have inspired some men to list their support of feminism in a public way.
But what should we expect celebrity advocates to deliver? Emma Watson is an educated, twenty-four-year-old woman. She is not a full-time activist, but she does have millions of fans around the world, who are probably her age or younger, since she became famous through the Harry Potter films. If she inspires other young people to take an interest in gender equality, is that not a good thing? Taylor Swift has already applauded Watson’s speech, and observed that her own fans – ‘real girls out in the world living their lives’ – have responded positively to HeForShe. Yes, it’s hugely important to critique and analyse different approaches to gender equality so that we can improve, but we need to be careful not to assume that Watson tried to proffer the only path to gender equality, but rather one approach that can complement the other work that feminists are doing.
Of course, the difficulty is that Watson’s (or any celebrity’s) star power means that her approach may overshadow others. I admit that what I found most frustrating about the positive reactions to her speech was the idea that everything she said was new and radical – as if many feminists (both women and men) hadn’t already been working towards gender equality for the past century. I felt saddened that so many people only seemed to take the issue seriously once a celebrity spoke about it. In another instance of celebrity advocacy, J.K. Rowling spent the past few months actively involved with ‘Better Together,’ the campaign fighting against Scottish Independence. Rowling donated to and spoke on the campaign’s behalf voluntarily (i.e. she held no formal role) and gave extremely well-considered and compelling reasons for her position, yet I remember fearing that her popularity would encourage people to vote one way or the other regardless of her reasons. Perhaps I don’t have enough faith in people to make informed choices, but what I’m trying to illustrate is that the power of celebrity can be great in these cases if its used to raise awareness and encourage people to learn more about an issue. However, it also has the potential to drown out other voices, simply because it’s harder for those who aren’t already famous to be heard.
In the end, I think the effectiveness of the celebrity spokesperson phenomenon says more about Western society’s respect for fame and fortune than it does for much else. It would be great if all people were interested enough in social issues to make informed decisions about them; since this isn’t the case, I’m grateful for stars like Watson, who use their popularity in order to make a difference.