Olivia Bergin’s article in The Daily Telgraph this week proved to me why the UN, and ambassadors like Emma Watson, still have an awful lot of work to do in the pursuit of equal rights.
Like many other people, I was thoroughly impressed with both the message and the delivery of Emma Watson’s recent speech to the UN about gender, equality and the definition of feminism. I was also dismayed by some of the cretinous backlash to the sentiments that she expressed. Much of the criticism came from predictable sources (which I will cover in another blog) that, whilst disappointing and vile, were sadly not wholly unexpected. However, when even generally well-respected national newspapers started getting in on the act (as well as The Daily Mail), that was when I realised the extent of the confusion out there about feminism and gender equality, as well as being angered by the insidiously contradictory attitudes passed on to young women by the media.
This confusion, and my anger, are effectively encapsulated by the conflation of incompatible depictions of Emma Watson in sections of the British press. For instance in the Daily Telegraph there are several hard news stories detailing Watson’s speech, a collection of opinion pieces expressing their admiration for her assertions, and then a segment that deals with the make-up and fashion that apparently underpinned the success of her delivery to the UN. Yes, really.
Apparently the Daily Telegraph columnist Olivia Bergin, author of the ‘Emma Watson hits a high note with gender equality speech – and her wardrobe choices’, underwent an irony bypass when penning the article. Amongst her (apparently serious) opinions are statements like ‘a sensible hem length ensured that her style statement did not outshine her empowering mission statement.’ No it didn’t, and it won’t, unless international news outlets choose to make the story, and the success of the speech, about a woman’s outfit being as empowering as her words. The very notion that an ‘outfit’ might ‘outshine’ an ‘empowering mission statement’ is an idea so loaded with regressive attitudes towards women that it might as well be a secretary putting on a push up bra and plumping up her cleavage to please the boss. If Bergin believes that someone as sincere as Emma Watson, whilst making a speech in which she not only had to deal with the social hand-grenade that is gender politics, but also had to address the issue of her own credibility and authority, was using the stage to make a ‘style statement’ then it would appear that misogyny has outgrown men and become an endemic weed.
Bergin’s article, rather than focusing on the formidable task that faced Watson in navigating the semantic labyrinth that faces someone discussing feminism on a global stage (you know – the actual speech writing), and the difficulties of opening meaningful discourse about gender without offending vocal hardliners (and indeed men), instead expresses the asinine assertion that Watson’s foremost concern must have been what she was going to wear. And this is because women like Bergin genuinely believe, in spite of what Emma Watson has said, that the casual use of women’s superficial qualities as a parameter for measuring their success and competency is inevitable or somehow ok. Worse still is the fact that this philosophy is being surreptitiously passed on to young women. Cancerous gender stereotypes like these are being intravenously drip fed to another generation of young women who, like the generation before them, will be unconsciously conscripted into a disempowered army who instead of taking action will be fretting over the sexiness of their uniform and preoccupied with whether their bayonet matches their eye-shadow or makes them seem too assertive.
‘You’re in New York, at the headquarters of the United Nations and you’ve been called up to address Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary -general of the United Nations; excellencies of the global humanitarian organisation and a host of ‘distinguished guests’ with your one-of-a-kind mission to stop gender inequality. So what on earth do you wear?’
Another grotesque flaw in Bergin’s article can be seen in the quotation above, where she casually normalizes the principle that a woman’s appearance is dictated not by herself, but is rather a designer strait-jacket placed upon her in an ongoing contest to win the approval of her audience. The columnist effectively reduces the daunting prospect and magnitude of delivering a speech to the UN to the prom-night angst of an indecisive teenager, riddled with anxiety over whether her dress is sexy enough to impress the boys – exactly the kind of objectification-grounded insecurity that Watson is trying to challenge and eradicate.
Through her muddled attempts to praise Watson what Bergin in fact does is inadvertently give the middle finger to the message that she communicated, suggesting that regardless of the intelligence, sophistication and nuances of a woman’s words and messages, or the poise of their public speaking, a woman should still be defined by her appearance. Or more accurately, defined by how she believes others will judge her appearance. Forgive me for a minute, but when was the last time anybody stopped to dwell on how hot Martin Luther King looked when he took to the Lincoln memorial and told America that he had a dream? So why should the parameters for Watson, or any other woman for that matter, be different?
However, my biggest gripe is really why the columnist has even chosen to focus on this event to talk about fashion. Why needlessly turn a U.N. convention into an extension of a catwalk when you have actual models, walking down actual catwalks, for companies actively seeking the critique of their outfits at, oh let’s see: the London, New York, Paris and Milan fashion weeks, all of which also took place in September? Would we ever dissect and critique Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell for the paucity of progressive feminist discourse in their latest Vogue shoots? Of course not. So why do journalists such as Bergin deem it appropriate to do this in reverse?
‘”I have realised that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” she said – in a dress choice that was as eloquent and sophisticated as her argument.’
By removing the spotlight from arenas and events like fashion weeks – where women (rightly or wrongly) have actively chosen to be observed and considered based on their attire – and shining it on an event that was supposed to be a vehicle for social and political progression, all it does is reinforce the dangerous gender stereotype that essentially, no matter what a woman says or does, the ultimate judgment will be based not upon action but upon her body and clothing, and the signified codes that others perceive in them. It makes me sad to think that there is any woman in the world, who thinks it is worthwhile or newsworthy to note that a ‘dress choice’ is ‘as eloquent and sophisticated’ as a speech designed to free women from the shackles of judgment and inequality; what a tragic diminution of the core values of Watson’s messages.
To anyone who might say that I am overthinking things, let me leave you with an anecdote from my own classroom. Two students who are both incredibly dear to me were named Head Boy and Head Girl of the sixth form at the school I was working at. Both of these students were also in my IB Language and Literature class. As part of their roles, both students had to regularly give speeches in whole school assemblies – so an audience of around 1000 students and teachers. The Head Boy came to see me before his first speech, bringing a transcript of what he intended to say and asking for advice on anything that needed modifying or editing, and inquiring as to whether his jokes were appropriately measured; he knew that he was going to be judged on the quality of what he said, and he wanted to get it right.
On the other hand, the Head Girl, possibly the most intelligent student I have had the privilege to teach, spent the days leading up to the talk sending images of dresses, shoes, jewelry and lipstick shades to her friends in order to make sure that she chose her outfit correctly for the assembly; she knew she was going to be judged on how she looked. I know that the Head Girl is not a vacuous bimbo – she delivered a brilliant speech and will expect a 40-point or higher IB score – and yet, either wittingly or unwittingly, she felt more pressured by the eyes of her audience than their minds and ears (or perhaps it was a fusion of all three).
It may simply have been a case of a young woman being savvy (and possibly cynical) enough to understand the discriminatory nature and rules of the world in which she is living, or more likely it is an example of a brilliant young woman already being trapped within the invisible cage of gender identity, a cage with bars constructed from, amongst other things, articles such as Bergin’s.