Celebrity political statements sidetrack public from critical issues
On Sunday, the United Nations launched an ambitious new women’s rights campaign aimed at people that don’t care about women’s rights campaigns. Titled the “He for She” campaign, this multifaceted lobby hopes to frame women’s rights as an issue that equally affects both men and women, and one in which both sexes should be equally involved. It couldn’t be more timely or more accurate. The Women Against Feminism movement has been gaining traction in recent years, promoting its misconception of feminism as being anti-men and of self-described feminists as being entitled and whiny, blaming society for all of their personal problems. It’s more critical than ever that we understand that gender equality is, in the words of the He for She website, “not only a women’s issue, it is a human rights issue that requires [our] attention.”
The announcement of He for She received huge media attention on Sunday, more than any event at the U.N. in recent months. But after reading multiple news articles from multiple news organizations covering the event, I have yet to find even one that states the campaign’s title, He for She, in more than one sentence.
Instead, all of the news has been focused on the person announcing the announcement, as it were. Emma Watson, the actress who played Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, gave a 20 minute speech at the U.N. on Sunday explaining her own perspectives on gender equality and why she supports the new He for She campaign.
Watson was recently named a U.N. Women’s Goodwill Ambassador, the same title awarded to both a princess of Thailand [which one?] and actress Nicole Kidman. Notably and ironically, some of the media seemed to care more about Watson’s appearance than they did about her feminist campaign. The very first sentence of the UK Daily Mail’s article on the speech is “With her elegant outfit and chic make-up, Emma Watson looks all set for another film premiere.”
Watson is a talented actress, and her ability within her art translates brilliantly into political speech-giving. Her speech was both moving and intelligent, but it followed a curious trend. The first rule most of us are taught about imperative or persuasive writing is to avoid “I” statements; don’t talk about yourself, talk about your ideas. But Watson kicked things off with an allegory about being called “bossy” for wanting to direct plays at a young age and told how her personal decision to be a feminist was “uncomplicated.” A direct quote: “I am from Britain, and I think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision making of my country.”
The message of both the media and the speech itself seem clear: feminism isn’t important for its own sake, feminism is important because Watson thinks it’s important. We understand the issue only as it relates to her, not on its own, highly complex terms. Of course, Watson is far from the world’s only celebrity spokesperson; Bono most notoriously has done concerts raising money to fight famine and AIDS in Africa. It’s a pretty smart media ploy. Celebrities put a human face on often scary issues and theoretically make it trendy to be socially conscious.
Except the ploy doesn’t often work as intended. When the media story isn’t the speech but the spokesperson, the takeaway is a shift in public perception of the star, not the problem. We will now perceive Watson as an “advocate” when we think about her, but the cause for which she advocates will likely be less clearly explained and ultimately less relevant than the fact that she does stand up for something at all. How brave of Watson, stating her opinions to the world’s diplomats, how wise of her to have those opinions in the first place. Never mind the content of the speech, or how best to make her ideals a reality. The glamour shot of Hermione at a podium is more important.
It’s a guarantee in our celebrity gossip-obsessed culture that the speech won’t be forgotten, but it’s hard to believe that anyone will care enough about it to do anything as a result. Feminists will smile that a star agrees with them, sexists will disregard the event entirely, and the world goes on. The most quotable segments of the speech will be immortalized in Buzzfeed GIFs, but CNN won’t run another story on the He for She campaign.
It’s not that celebrities themselves are shallow or that their opinions and advocacy are ingenuine. It is a matter of how the media covers most anything and everything that stars do, and how we, the consumers, like to think of their lives. Everything becomes a red carpet, even the serious work of advocacy.
But, as the counterargument goes, isn’t this speech raising awareness for its issue? Even if no real change comes out of it, isn’t it at least a victory to raise awareness?
To me, calling it a win to “raise awareness” for a cause is like calling someone a brilliant chef because they can follow a recipe. It’s not a bad thing at all to raise awareness, but it isn’t an achievement. True change raises awareness on its own for being true change.
I have high hopes for what Watson will do as a U.N. goodwill ambassador: she was and is a hugely influential figure to a generation of young women, and her efforts to even ally herself with the U.N. show how much she cares about this issue. This only raises my expectations for what she can and should do, though.
If she is serious about being a Goodwill Ambassador, Watson should transcend her media image as an actress and become equally known for her philanthropy. It’s not impossible; Bill Gates makes more headlines for his charity work than his computers these days. Watson is clearly both intelligent and passionate, so she is certainly capable of being more than a figurehead.
Performing the standard work expected of someone in this position—giving speeches to diplomats—isn’t a news event. We shouldn’t applaud someone just for giving one of the hundreds of speeches that will be given at the U.N. this year about feminism while simultaneously being a movie star.
It isn’t noteworthy to be both famous and politically active; it should be the standard for all famous people to be politically active. Just as it should be the standard for all people, period.