Feminism needs more than a 'moment': lessons from Beyonce, Emma Watson

Beyonce, Emma Watson

 There is no doubt that feminism is having a moment. Between Beyoncé’s “FEMINISM” backdrop that stole the show at the MTV Video Music Awards this year, to young celebrities like Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, and Emma Watson publicly taking on what has been a fairly stigmatized, maligned, and misunderstood label, it might feel as though the movement is making a comeback.

Watson, who is a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, recently spoke at the United Nations Headquarters in New York about why she identified as a feminist and why the movement still matters.

In her speech, which was part of the launch of a campaign called “HeForShe,” which aims to get men involved in the fight for women's rights, Watson explained that, for her, deciding she was a feminist was “uncomplicated,” yet said her “recent research has shown… that feminism has become an unpopular word.”

Of course it has. Any movement that challenges the status quo and kicks at the wheels that make the world go round is bound to have a troubled relationship with all that is mainstream.

Of course, an easy way to popularize a cause is to have celebrities take it on. But making feminism “popular” can bring problems in and of itself. Mainstreaming feminism has often been synonymous with watered down or even contradictory messages. Despite the apparent power of Beyoncé's message at the VMAs, she is a good example of that.

The question so many have asked this past year -- “Is Beyoncé a feminist?” – is an easy one to answer. Sure. Sure she is. But what her feminism means for the global women’s movement is a little more complicated. 

Let me preface this with a few facts: I like Beyoncé. I like her music, I like her outfits, I like her hair, I like her Instagram posts. I like her sister, Solange. I liked her in 1997 when she sang "No, No, No" with Destiny's Child. I liked grinding up in the club to "Drunk in Love" all year. I like her relationship with Jay Z (the version offered to the public, in any case).

I like the fantasy they feed us about their perfect life, their perfect love, and their fidelity in the midst of a culture that accepts that rich, celebrity men will ignore their families, cheat with groupies, and eventually leave their wives for younger women. I swooned right along with the rest of you when the camera showed Jay Z holding his baby girl in the audience during Beyoncé's VMA performance.

The image of an incredibly successful, powerful man -- literally taking a seat -- minding his child, while his wife takes center stage got to me. This, I thought, is proof that things can change – that things are changing. I want to believe all of it. I really do.

But reality challenges me.  

Earlier this month, line backer, Ray Rice, was let go from the Baltimore Ravens after a video surfaced showing him knocking his then-fiancée, Janay Rice, unconscious in an elevator. NFL officials were aware of the incident back in May, but only chose to discipline Rice after the video went public. 

On September 1, South African sprint runner Oscar Pistorius was found guilty of "culpable homicide" (the equivalent of manslaughter) for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The judge believed Pistorius’ improbable claim that he shot Steenkamp four times through the bathroom door by accident. He will get a maximum sentence of 15 years and plans to return to the sport. 

Over the past few weeks, one of the biggest news stories focused on Rotherham, a relatively small town in the UK (the population is only 275,000), where 1400 girls as young as 11 years old were sexually exploited, abused, trafficked, and raped by multiple men between 1997 and 2013. Despite the fact that both the police and the Rotherham Borough Council were aware of the ongoing violence, reports were ignored and suppressed until now. 

We can see all too clearly, even if we've only paid attention over the past few weeks, that violence against women is an ongoing, global epidemic – almost unimaginable in its enormity. The lives of women and girls, by all appearances, still don't matter. 

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