Why does feminism need a face?



Susan Park

An award winning actor, a star in a million-dollar film franchise, an Ivy League graduate, a UN ambassador. Undeniably an impressive resume for anyone, let alone a 25-year-old.

Emma Watson is going from strength to strength. One of the nation’s sweethearts, it seems she can do no wrong. Recently she’s been hailed as the new ‘face of feminism’, in light of her UN speech late last year promoting the HeForShe campaign – ‘…a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.’

On the surface, the idea of using a well-liked and well-known celebrity as the face of a campaign which seeks to encourage gender equality seems like a perfectly good one. However, perhaps the question we ask ourselves shouldn’t be who should be the face of the campaign, but rather why does feminism need a ‘face’? Should we have to worry about making feminism a marketable commodity? Is the HeForShe campaign a kind of watered down feminism, created in an effort to make feminism more palatable to men? Does it focus too much on what men can do for women, rather than what everyone can do for feminism?

In some circles “feminism” remains a dirty word, synonymous with “man hating” and bra burning anarchists. There are many female celebrities who distance themselves from the term simply because they don’t understand the true meaning and do little to help the status and stigma of feminism. On the other hand, Emma Watson has consistently championed the idea that there needs to be a better understanding of the word feminism and the ideas behind it. An honourable intention, but rife with problems; with Watson being seen as the face of feminism and the face of HeforShe, it caters too much to this idea that men need to be ‘won over’ by the case for feminism. It also suggests that feminism needs to be packaged and sold in some way by someone young, attractive and palatable to both women and men. Any male celebrity who publicly speaks out positively on feminism is seen as a hero with a great new idea, rather than an expected societal norm.

Watson aside, it is infuriating that an ambassador or a marketing campaign is required just to promote the idea that women deserve to be treated like human beings. As a woman growing up in the spotlight – experiencing the awkward transition from girlhood to womanhood being scrutinised at every moment – Watson is no stranger to at least some of the inequalities women can face in such an environment. Yet, it is also Watson’s upbringing and privileges which perhaps make her being chosen to embody feminism and represent the movement as something inaccessible to many people. For example, Watson regularly comments on the challenges she has faced in her career, yet how many people can truly relate to this? As a white, middle class, highly educated film star with millions in the bank, how many men and women will take what she has to say seriously? That is not to say that Watson’s opinions and her desires to promote feminism to the masses are not valid, but more that as the ‘face’ of a campaign for everyone she represents only one, very small section of society. One face is only ever going to represent one part of society whether that be with regard to race or class or nationality. The media’s desire to pinpoint the campaign on a single, famous face will surely only succeed in further disillusioning those who aren’t willing or ready to listen.

Emma Watson and indeed the HeForShe campaign should not be criticised for their desire to intensify the fight for gender equality. However, announcing a celebrity as the ‘face’ of such a fight is all very well in promoting discussion but it is the fighting and the actions which are truly important. By focusing too much on who is endorsing it, we forget what needs to be done in order to achieve it. If we don’t manage to look past this idea that feminism needs to have a likeable celebrity promoting it women, men, girls and boys everywhere will suffer the consequences.