HeForShe and Emma Watson – Fame is fine; personal threats are not

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This week, instead of ice buckets and selfies, my Facebook feed has been taken up by the eloquent, moving call to action made by actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson at her HeForShe UN address. “This is the feminism I stand for,” said my friends. “What an amazing speech”; “Too good not to share!”

A part of me feels vindicated. The speech is being shared not only by the ‘usual suspects’ – i.e. those Facebook friends of mine who know their Germaine Greer from their Hélène Cixous, and those whose response to rape jokes isn’t the usual “It’s just a joke, luv” – no; this video is showing up on the walls of people who have been mostly silent and passive, or who have outright disassociated themselves from the label of ‘feminist’ for fear of being seen as man-hating.

When I first saw the speech being described as “game-changing”, I have to admit I rolled my eyes a little bit. I mean, I love Emma Watson: she’s talented and articulate, but it felt to me like the words she was saying were things my feminist friends and I have been saying for years now. Things like: we can only push so far forward with this cause unless we’ve got the men on our side; we are not man haters, we believe in gender equality; and we believe a patriarchal society is harmful to both women and men, as any roles imposed on the basis of gender are obviously detrimental and a hindrance to a person fulfilling their subjective reality and reaching their potential. Things like: the sexualisation of unconsenting women by the media is not okay; and it is not alright that women are paid less than men for the same job because they might have a child someday. If we had been saying these things for so long, I thought, how is it “game-changing” when they are said by somebody famous?

But I humbly bow my head to Watson. In just over ten minutes, she has managed to make more people understand the point of feminism than so many others have done in countless blog posts, Facebook posts, and so on. And maybe that is because she is famous. And maybe that is okay. After all, what use is fame if it is not being used for good? And what can be more good than raising awareness and fighting for equal rights for all humans, regardless of where they were born, and regardless of whether they are men or women? Using one’s fame to spotlight a difficult problem is a laudable thing, and if that is what it takes for people to recognise the problem, then so be it.

Using one’s fame to spotlight a difficult problem is a laudable thing, and if that is what it takes for people to recognise the problem, then so be it.

Sadly, the video had only been around for a few hours when the dangers of publicly declaring oneself a feminist became apparent. While my Facebook friends responded to the speech with admiration, a group of people decided to react in a different way altogether: by threatening to publish stolen, presumably nude pictures of Emma Watson on 4Chan – the notorious corner of the internet where similar stolen photographs of a large number of female celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence and Rihanna were published earlier this month.

This reaction is shocking, but hardly a surprise. Unfortunately, when one comes out as a feminist and dares to speak out about gender issues, threats, personal criticism and harassment are par for the course. It is a large reason why so many of us stop talking altogether: once bitten twice shy. The backlash ranges from seemingly ‘harmless’ comments such as “Go buy a sense of humour”, to counterproductive reminders to “Check your privilege”, to personal insults such as “You are so ugly nobody would ever want to fuck you”, all the way to serious rape and death threats.

In Watson’s case, this has taken the form of a website entitled ‘Emma You Are Next’, which features a clock purporting to be a countdown to a mass-publishing of stolen photos of the actor. “She makes stupid feminist speeches at UN, and now her nudes will be online, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH,” wrote one user – a comment which is deeply revealing of the motivation behind the threats. It is a form of retaliation against a speech which threatens to remove a group of people from their position of privilege or, more accurately, which threatens to empower women to occupy that position of privilege together with their male counterparts.

In her speech, Watson said the following: “I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.”

Those words ring true with me, and with my own experience of identifying as a feminist. It is seen as unattractive to suggest there might be a problem with society and, within a patriarchal society in which reducing women to sexual objects is a norm, the easiest (and sadly, often the most effective) way to minimise the perceived threat of a woman questioning these norms is to impose that sexual objectification onto her and “put her back in her place”.

“I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.”

On the site threatening to expose Watson’s nude photos, beside the countdown clock, is a photo of Watson herself wiping away a tear. It is a powerful image, symbolic of the drive behind the website itself: to humiliate a woman who has made the brave decision to use her fame for good; to terrorise a human being by subverting her sexuality and using it against her; and to serve as a warning to all those who are thinking about standing up for this cause, that any such initiatives will be met by a most brutal attack on their privacy.

What is strangely heartening, however, is this: that by doing so, these terrorists (for that is what they are) have further highlighted the dire need for gender equality. They have made it clear that in this society, a woman’s words are not acceptable unless they appease the patriarchal consensus. They have illustrated the fact that there was never a time as good as this to galvanise together, men and women, to work towards a better world in which all human beings are equal, and every single person has the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Count me in.

Edit: Sept 24 14:28 – I’ve been informed that the ‘nude photo leak’ was exposed as a hoax. I believe that, hoax or not, my argument still holds water: whilst doing research to put this post together, I had a little wade in the comments sections of  various news articles. Many were in favour of the speech, but many others had posted comments along the lines of “If she gets her tits out I’ll stand with her”. I’m glad this turned out to be a hoax, though anything which threatens a person’s privacy still a pretty awful way to go about anything, but it doesn’t erase the millions and millions of threats sent to feminist activists as an attempt to shut them up. When I write about gender issues, it is from a place of concern not only for myself and other women, but also for those decent men, the vast majority of men I know, who are affected negatively by the behaviour of those who perpetuate misogynism. If there is a tone of hatred in my words, it is not for any individual, but for the social structure which allows people to be harassed and objectified and does not move to stand in their defence. 

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