British actress Emma Watson is known in equal parts for her stellar acting career and her staunch defence of feminist values. In a heartfelt keynote speech at the UN Headquarters in 2014 as part of an event to launch UN Women programme HeForShe, she said that she began questioning gender assumptions as early as the age of eight. Emma also used her position as a celebrated star of the Harry Potter series to promote education for young girls, leading to her appointment as a UN Women Goodwill ambassador. Today, her dynamism and relentless pursuit of equal rights for women and men has become a topic of living room and high school conversations. Earlier this week she donated $1.4 million to the Justice and Equality Fund, spearheading a movement that the women from the entertainment industry came together to launch in UK.
Emma is a true star, not just on-screen but off it too. Apart from being a celebrated actress and women’s right activist, she is also making a difference in one of the most inclusive ways, through her very own feminist book club on Goodreads. The book club is open to anyone who wants to be part of it, with a list of funny, inspiring, sad, thought-provoking and empowering reads on gender equality.
We dived in deep into all that Emma Watson does, her character portrayals, her keynotes, and her personal projects such as the feminist book club, and discovered some amazing lessons from her journey:
Speak up and challenge the status quo
This is perhaps Emma’s biggest lesson for the rest of us. We often shy away from speaking up about what we know and believe is right because we haven't achieved enough influence or aren’t the regular intellectual opinion-shaper stereotype. We fear that our words might fall flat. But even as a young Hollywood star, Emma recognized the influence her voice could potentially have. She knew it was worth a try, even if she failed at it. Emma spoke about this at length in her UN keynote, “You might be thinking who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN. It’s a good question and trust me, I have been asking myself the same thing. I don’t know if I am qualified to be here. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.”
It all starts with education
Emma became a celebrity almost overnight with the Harry Potter series. By the end of the franchise deal, she was already a multimillionaire in her early 20s. But that did not stop her from going back to college and getting an education. In fact, she managed education alongside being a star through the last Harry Potter films, and it was not easy. She says, “I have felt for the last 10 years I have had this battle; I’ve been fighting so hard to have an education. It’s been this uphill struggle. I was Warner Bros’ pain in the butt. I was their scheduling conflict. I was the one who made life difficult.”
Apart from her own education, Emma has relentlessly advocated for women’s education in developing economies. She is also an ambassador for Camfed International, a movement to educate girls in rural Africa.
Take a stand for yourself before taking it for anyone else
We have all seen Emma defend her friends from Draco Malfoy as Hermione. But she is also not one to shy away from confrontation in her personal life – speaking up is an important part of her personality. In fact, when her Vanity Fair pictures led to outrage and the public questioned her feminism, she put a stop to it like only she could. She said, “It just always reveals to me how many misconceptions and what a misunderstanding there is about what feminism is. Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality.”
Experience and failure are part of the learning process
When you start something new, you can find all the mentors you need and learn everything you can by taking a cue from others’ experiences. But this can never be enough. According to Emma, first-hand experiences are the only way to grow. She says, “It’s a journey and the sad thing is you only learn from experience, so as much as someone can tell you things, you have to go out there and make your own mistakes in order to learn.”
Emma also strongly believes that failure powers growth and the fear of failure needs to be banished if you really want to bring about change. “I’ve probably earned the right to screw up a few times. I don’t want the fear of failure to stop me from doing what I really care about.”
True freedom is about being exactly who you are
In her own life decisions, Emma Watson advocates doing what comes naturally to you. That was the reason she almost didn’t renew her Harry Potter contract in 2007 after Order of the Phoenix and considered quitting to go to college, although her co-stars Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe had already signed new contracts. She said at the time, “I always try and make decisions in my life based on what’s right for me and I just try and be true to myself.”
Emma advises against questioning or doubting your own personality and decisions and following the herd when you don’t want to. For Emma, that is all that freedom is about. In her words, “If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are, we can all be freer.”
Emma’s feminist dialogue also focuses on the right to personal choice. According to her, “If you want to run for Prime Minister, you can. If you don’t, that’s wonderful, too. Shave your armpits, don’t shave them, wear flats one day, heels the next. These things are so irrelevant and surface to what it is all really about, and I wish people wouldn’t get caught up in that. We want to empower women to do exactly what they want, to be true to themselves, to have the opportunities to develop.”
Clearly, Emma Watson is a trailblazer. Unapologetic, righteous, fun, she sets all the right examples as a role model for women of all ages everywhere. More power to her!
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