STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS IN BOOKS, GENDER EQUALITY AND EMMA WATSON'S U.N. SPEECH

Every Monday on this blog, we do a Top 10 Monday. It's our way of showing consistency, both to our readers and to ourselves, and of maintaining a sliver of stability in an otherwise unpredictable world of blogging about contemporary literary trends. So each week, we pick a topic which is in some way related to books, or which we choose to relate to books, and we pick ten books/characters/concepts from literature which best illustrate the theme chosen. Sometimes we do a joint list, sometimes we make separate ones. But we always agree on the theme, and always discuss it as we compile our lists throughout the week.

These are the not-so-fascinating inner workings of blogging. And not-fascinating as they may be, we enjoy them immensely.

For this Monday, we have agreed on - as Natalie so English-like puts it - "Top 10 Kick-Arse Female Characters". This particular theme had been a long time coming, given the almost daily discussions we have on the subject of the strength some female characters exhibit in the books we read, and the lack thereof displayed in others. The subject of the "strong, female lead" has been thoroughly canvassed between ourselves over the time we've known each other, and it is one which seems inexhaustible.



But yesterday we both sat down to elaborate on our choices - to explain why the ten kick-arse female characters we chose were so kick-arse in the first place. The subject of female empowerment was one I was particularly excited to incorporate into our top 10, though it was one which Natalie originally thought of and suggested. We are both eager and excited about raising issues we feel are worth raising, and all in relation to the books we love and enjoy. It is a rare privilege to have and nurture a hobby which not only keeps us occupied, but teaches us lesson after lesson after lesson in humanity. Our love of reading is one of the foremost hobbies of the kind, and we take maximum advantage of that on this blog whenever possible.

But as I sat down to elaborate on my top 10, to pinpoint exactly why it was that I chose the characters I did, and what it is that makes them strong, I've come to realize that the idea of a "strong, female character" is one that doesn't sit quite right with me. I was often tempted to suggest that the character was so strong because she saves the world without having had a man by her side to do it. And with many of the characters I chose, it was the truth. But try as I might, those words didn't come. I was unable to hit the corresponding letters on the keyboard to phrase it in such a way. Because I don't feel that female empowerment has anything at all to do with needing or not needing a man. I feel that female empowerment boils down to being independent of a man, and not being without one. It is a minuscule distinction, but one which makes all the difference. It is the difference between believing ourselves to be strong only when we eliminate men in our lives, and believing ourselves strong regardless of whether we have men in our lives - because we're strong all on our own. The former of the two philosophies is one which at first made me hesitant to discuss women's rights at all. I was never, nor will I ever be, a man-hater. And as with any sensitive topic (which topics of equality of any kind sadly always are), the phrasing makes all the difference. I shudder to think of someone googling "strong female characters" and somehow miraculously stumbling upon this blog and being left with an impression that a strong female is one who has to sacrifice companionship and partnership in life for the sake of her strength and her status. It is not an either-or issue, nor should it ever become one.

I was also hesitant about the very notion of a "strong female character", for one simple reason. As I sat struggling to formulate the virtues and traits which define a strong, female character, I became aware of one thing: while the strong, female character is so frequently mentioned it's almost a trope, there is no male counterpart of any kind. We celebrate strength in female characters and praise their authors for "leading by example", as if suggesting that strength in a woman is a feat which is uncommon, rare and one which the world is not used to. The female stereotype is still that of an emotional, fragile human being, only mildly decisive and only moderately firm. The male stereotype, conversely, is one of a dominating, severe,  forceful male (further accentuated by the alarming spike in the alpha-male trend in Contemporary Romance, New Adult and Erotica - the genres far more indulged in by women than men). At the same time, it is noteworthy that we also tend to bestow accolades and embrace the male characters of a more sensitive disposition - those who are less than secure, without perfect self-assurance, and who openly demonstrate vulnerability. The success of novels such as Paper Towns, Looking For Alaska and The Perks of Being a Wallflower is proof enough. It is exactly the same in real life, in many places in the world. A strong female is considered an aberration, as is a sensitive, vulnerable male. Those who don't fit the stereotype allotted to their gender are considered outliers. And by continuing to reinforce these stereotypes as they were presented to us, we are inadvertently standing in the way of progress without ever realizing it. It was certainly not our intention to celebrate a stereotype when we chose to commend those female characters who have inspired a growth and strength in us. It was the exact opposite. It was our attempt to once again address an issue close to our hearts in a manner connected with the books and the characters we love.

But phrasing is everything. So we tried our best to phrase it right.

To accompany our Top 10 Monday list, we typically put together a graphic - a picture and the Top 10 theme title. The graphic chosen to illustrate our theme was that of Emma Watson, in her Hermione Granger costume. We felt it appropriate, as we have both grown up with Hermione, and it was Hermione's intelligence and strength - both on-screen and off - that has emboldened and shaped us as we grew. Hermione might, in fact, be one of the foremost reasons we love books to this great extent. We will never truly know.

The timing for raising the issue and the decision to pick Emma's photo to accompany it could not have been better. Less than 24 hours ago, Emma herself co-hosted an event geared towards gender equality at the United Nations' headquarters in New York City. The event was hosted in the honor of the new HeForShe organization by U.N. Women. While there, Emma delivered a powerful, unforgettable speech on the subject of gender equality exactly as we see it. In her speech, she addressed the stereotypes that both genders fall prey to, and proceeded to encourage men as well as women to stand up for one another's rights, and take action at this very moment. Feeling that it was of the utmost importance for her voice to be heard and for this message to spread worldwide, we have transcribed Emma's speech verbatim below. In mere twelve minutes, she has said all we hoped to address in this very article, and we are therefore choosing to end it in her own words - "If not me, who? If not now, when?"





Emma Watson's speech on behalf of U.N. Women
for the HeForShe organization
September 21st, 2014


Your Excellencies,
UN Secretary-General,
President of the General Assembly,
Executive Director of UN Women,
and distinguished guests,

Today we are launching a campaign called HeForShe. I am reaching out to you because we need your help. We want to end gender inequality. And to do this, we need everyone involved.  This is the first campaign of its kind at the U.N. We want to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change. And we don't just want to talk about it. We want to try and make sure that it's tangible.
I was appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for U.N. Women six months ago. And the more I've spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women's rights has too often become synonymous with man hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.
For the record, feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.
I started questioning gender-based assumptions a long time ago. When I was eight, I was confused for being called bossy, because I wanted to direct the plays that we would perform for our parents, but the boys were not. When at fourteen, I started to be sexualized by certain elements of the media. When at fifteen my girlfriends started dropping out of their beloved sports teams, because they didn't want to appear muscley. When at eighteen, my male friends were unable to express their feelings.
I decided that I was a feminist. And this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating and anti-men. Unattractive, even. Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one? I am from Britain, and I think it is right that 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 the decisions that will affect my life. I think it is right that socially, I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights. No country in the world can yet say that they have achieved gender equality. These rights I consider to be human rights.
But I am one of the lucky ones. My life is a sheer privilege, because my parents didn't love me less because I was born a daughter. My school didn't limit me because I was a girl. My mentors didn't assume that I would go less far because I might give birth to a child one day. These influences were the gender equality ambassadors that made me who I am today. They may not know it, but they are the inadvertent feminists who are changing the world today. We need more of those.
And if you still hate the word, it is not the word that is important. It's the idea and the ambition behind it. Because not all women have received the same rights that I have. In fact, statistically, very few have.
In 1997, Hilary Clinton made a famous speech in Beijing about women's rights. Sadly, many of the things that she wanted to change are still true today. But what stood out for me the most was that less than 30% of the audience were male. How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too. Because to date, I've seen my father's role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence as a child as much as my mother's. I've seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men, between 20-49%, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I've seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes the male success. Men don't have the benefits of equality, either.
We don't often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don't have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won't feel compelled to be submissive. If men don't have to control, women won't have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive, both men and women should feel free to be strong.
It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals. If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are, we can all be freer.
And this is what HeForShe is about. It's about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle, so that their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human, too, reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.
You might be thinking "Who is this Harry Potter girl and what is she dong speaking at the UN?", and it's a really good question. I've been asking myself the same thing. All I know is that I care about this problem and I want to make it better. And having seen what I've seen, and given the chance, I feel it is my responsibility to say something. Statesman Edmund Burke said "All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph, it is for good men and women to do nothing". In my nervousness for this speech and in my moments of doubt, I've told myself firmly "If not me, who? If not now, when?". If you have similar doubts when opportunities are presented to you, I hope that those words will be helpful.
Because the reality is that if we do nothing, it will take seventy-five years, or for me to be nearly a hundred, before women can expect to be paid the same as men, for the same work. Fifteen point five million girls will be married in the next sixteen years as children. And at current rates, it won't be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education.
If you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists that I spoke of earlier. And for this, I applaud you. We are struggling for a uniting word, but the good news is that we have a uniting movement. It is called HeForShe. I am inviting you to step forward, to be seen, and to ask yourself "If not me, who? If not now, when?"

Thank you very, very much.


Share

DON'T MISS

STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS IN BOOKS, GENDER EQUALITY AND EMMA WATSON'S U.N. SPEECH
4/ 5
Oleh

Subscribe via email

Like what you see? Add your email to subscribe.