When Goodwill United Nations ambassador and actress Emma Watson delivered her speech announcing her He For She campaign — “a solidarity movement for gender equality” that aims to include men in the conversation — the Internet erupted.
A Vanity Fair headline called it “game-changing.” I’d call it “well-intentioned.” There were definitely parts of her speech that were A+. But it also had problems; I mean, I feel like we dedicate enough collective energy to making men feel comfortable in our society. Now they require ‘a formal invitation’ to give a shit about gender equality, too? And also, I don’t really see what’s “game-changing” about a famous person saying the same things feminists have been saying forever.
Soon after, I posted an article by Mia McKenzie on my Facebook wall called Why I’m Not Really Here for Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech at the U.N.
I felt McKenzie made some salient points about the fact that Watson’s speech glosses over the fact that men actually stand to benefit from inequality and that their motivations for not getting on board with feminism have little to do with the fact that they haven’t been asked nicely.
A few friends took issue with the piece, arguing that Watson shouldn’t be cut down for just trying to fight the good fight. And I completely agree that Watson should not be dismissed. But I’d also argue it’s precisely that kind of criticism that makes one’s feminism stronger. Having your ideas challenged makes you a better thinker.
Celebrity feminism seems to be having a real moment this year; as Roxane Gay notes in the Guardian, many famous women, from Taylor Swift to Jennifer Lawrence, have reclaimed (and, in many ways, rebranded) the F-word, making it more palatable to people whose ideas about feminism may have been shaped by stereotypes and misinformation.
Watson isn’t the only face of rebranded and reclaimed feminism. This has been the year when many of us, myself included, have been giddy over Beyoncé boldly declaring herself a feminist. At the MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé stood in front of the word FEMINIST and it felt like a moment. Here was a young, powerful, black woman openly claiming her feminism. Who wouldn’t want to be a feminist, too, with Beyoncé as a face of feminism? Unfortunately, Beyoncé will represent the only face of feminism for too many people who will incorrectly assume feminism begins and ends with her. She is one woman – an amazing woman, to be sure – but she is a gateway to feminism, not the movement itself.
That’s why criticism, debate and dialogue surrounding these high-profile declarations of feminism is so, so, so important. I mean, had I not had some intervention, I would have thought that feminism began and ended with the Spice Girls.
Let me explain.
I wasn’t introduced to feminism via academia; I’ve never set foot in a women’s studies class. Instead, I slowly built my feminism out of books, blog posts, songs, interviews, columns, conversations and debates. Eventually, I got confident and passionate enough about it that I felt I could write from a feminist perspective because HOLY SHIT I HAD A FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE.
But well before I was afforded a cool big sister figure in my former co-worker (now friend and co-blogger) Marlo Campbell — who introduced me to good blogs and (lovingly) called me out on my shitty, half-baked opinions about Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey over a depressing grey cubicle wall — and before I discovered Bikini Kill, and before I discovered Daria, the first time I heard the word ‘feminist’ was from a Spice Girl.
The year is 1997, and I am going into Grade 7. I am not cool, despite the fact that I’m starting a new school — JUNIOR HIGH, a BFD — armed with a Seventeen subscription and much aquamarine Bonne Bell eyeliner. I’ve already gotten my period; compared to these children, I’m a woman, basically. I manage to make a few friends later in the year, but mostly my life sucks because of this one girl in my homeroom who was friends with me for five minutes in September until she told EVERYONE that she found a used pad under my bed during a slumber party. (THE TRUTH: It was an OPEN pad. It was not a USED pad. The adhesive had come open in my backpack and it seemed super wasteful to throw out a perfectly good pad. ANYWAY.) But really, Grade 7 wasn’t all bad; that was also the year I won a Macarena contest at a Bar Mitzvah I attended by myself because the dude’s mom totally made him invite me. (DON’T CRY FOR ME, ARGENTINA.)
I didn’t really know anything about the Spice Girls; the first album I purchased myself was Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill, which I bought on cassette from the check-out at Safeway. But EVERYONE was into them, so I thought I might give Spiceworld, the 1997 sophomore album from Baby, Spice, Posh, Ginger, Sporty and Scary, a whirl. I mean, it couldn’t hurt my quest for popularity. Also, who was I to judge? Back in the halcyon days of Grade 5, my favourite band was Ace of Base.* (I also owned Snow’s 12 Inches of Snow and Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Blood Sugar Sex Magix on cassette because 10-year-olds have terrible taste in music.)
I ENDED UP LOVING SPICEWORLD. It wasn’t long before I had a Spice Girls poster displayed prominently on my bedroom wall — you know, the one in which the circulation to Baby Spice’s thighs was being cut off by her white Go-Go boots.
I collected the stickers from the bubble gum and the lollipops. I knew all the words to every song (I learned recently that I still have full recall of the lyrics to Viva Forever which is, like, the worst song ever written.) And I bought the messaging hook, line and sinker. Their whole Girl Power thing really resonated with me. And when I read Geri Halliwell (Ginger, my fave) get quoted as saying something like, “You can be a feminist in a Wonderbra,” I was all like, “YEAH!” even though I wouldn’t get my first real bra until Grade 10 and I didn’t really know what a feminist was, exactly. Ditto the sentiment of “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.” I definitely had neither.
I was reminded of The Spice Girls’ bubblegum reclamation/rebranding of feminism when think pieces on current celeb feminism began proliferating on the Internet.
We’ve been here before. My gateway to feminism was a gimmicky British girl band — and I’m not alone — and then I grew up. I read more. I sought out more. I met like-minded people. I became angry. And then I became motivated.
But most importantly, I AM STILL FIGURING IT OUT.
I believe that celebrity feminism can be a useful tool for introducing women — young women especially — to the movement. But I sincerely hope it’s just a start, that it encourages those women (and men, too) to dig deeper. It’s as Gay says, “Feminism should not be something that needs a seductive marketing campaign. The idea of women moving through the world as freely as men should sell itself.”
*My Say Anything moment was soundtracked by Ace of Base. I was in Grade 5, and I was rehearsing a dance routine to Don’t Turn Around in my front yard. I was really giving it my all, the way only a completely unselfconscious 10-year-old can, until I was abruptly snapped out of my Swedish pop-induced reverie by a hot teenage boy who rode by on bike and casually said, “Loser.”