Celebrity activism: Examining its ethics and effects

By Simon Brown / Columnist

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Usually when I encounter trending articles, videos and stories on social media sites, I need not ponder long before I can take a stance on them. 

They either deserve attention or they do not. Similarly, the standard editorial thinkpiece takes definitive stances. It supports or it objects. It answers yay or nay to most any situation. 

But the recent viral video of Emma Watson’s United Nations speech on feminism and men’s role within the movement has given me consistent pause all week. Something about it does not sit well with me, but I’m not sure what.

I’m not the only one with feelings about the speech, as it has sparked a dialogue among news and social media. However, I may very well be the only one without a decided position on it, which has ranged from near-religious panegyric to stern critique. It has been variously described as “game-changing” and “30 or 40 years behind the times.”  

My uneasiness certainly does not lie in the content of the speech. Watson delivered a concise call for men’s participation and acceptance within the feminist campaign for gender equality — a call that I enthusiastically embrace and for which I have previously advocated.

I understand the well-placed critique of the gender binary implicit in her call for “men and boys to support women and girls.” But not everyone can be easily identified in one of those two camps, nor does everyone ask to be.

Nevertheless, I can also understand that identities such as transgender and genderqueer may not carry much purchase for policymakers and even feminist activists in many — if not most — of the countries represented at the UN. One can justly militate for those identities’ inclusion, but possibly at the expense of alienating allies for women’s rights in many regions of the developing world. 

If it wasn’t the speech that I can’t easily digest, perhaps it’s the speaker. I first considered my discomfort with the speech’s popularity in the person of Emma Watson. Besides, I thought, no one is paying attention to Emma Watson, the UN Goodwill Ambassador, but to Hermione Granger, Gryffindor’s star pupil. There are people across the globe dedicating their lives to combating sex trafficking, gendered wage discrimination and female genital mutilation. Would any of them receive the attention that one starlet garnered just by her name? 

Evidently not. I had to spend an inordinate amount of time looking for the identity, let alone the speech, of the speaker who preceded Emma Watson. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka — former deputy president of South Africa and current executive director of UN Women, who has spent much of her life advocating for gender-equal education and for the rights of black South African squatter women — has not appeared in any of the articles lauding Watson for her courageous speech. 

But it isn’t that simple. As soon as I had identified that this arbitrary hero worship obscured the work of dedicated feminist activists, I realized that I didn’t have a very good idea of what a dedicated feminist activist should be in the first place. Watson is not the most accomplished or committed feminist advocate, but not everyone has to be. Although the feminist community certainly needs more advocates to dedicate their lives to challenging systematic gender inequity in industry and politics, we need even more people from all backgrounds to address the everyday sexism in language and culture. 

One need not be a full-time teacher at a girls’ school or a full-time labor organizer for female workers to be a full-time feminist.    

What is more, Emma Watson does commit herself to global gender equality beyond the podium. She has travelled to Bangladesh, Zambia and Uruguay within the past year to spread her message. To dismiss her as merely a celebrity advocate disregards the proactive work she continues to do. 

At this point, I was hopeless. How could I not know my opinion about this popular, important issue? Why did I have this lingering unease about an accomplished woman’s admirable message of gender equity?

And then it struck me: I had no objection to the speech or the speaker. I certainly don’t have any objection to my Facebook feed aglow with commentary on women’s rights. My only complaint is that there isn’t more. When gender equality becomes a Facebook trend initiated by big-name actors, the everyday person needs to do more. I’m not opposed to Emma Watson’s popularity, but I am opposed to the lack of recognition for Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. 

I found it difficult to articulate this dissatisfaction because most editorial columns express firm opinions. Watson’s speech had little to do with my opinion, but the fleeting attention to it allows me a moment to address a gathered audience attentive to further commentary on gender equality.

Cultural critique isn’t about supporting or opposing isolated instances. It’s about using an instance to speak to much broader social goals. It doesn’t begin with a definite opinion. It begins with a feeling of unease.    

Write to Simon at spb40@pitt.edu.

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