Don’t blame Emma Watson’s speech for liberal feminist failures.

Emma Watson’s speech isn’t the problem. The problem is liberal feminism.

Emma Watson’s speech at the UN has made headlines worldwide. It wasn’t a bad speech. Like all women, Watson is doing the best she can with the information she has available to her.

Several feminists have already addressed some of the problematic aspects of her speech. Like many, I am critical of the strategies employed by transnational organisations like the UN. I am also critical of liberal feminism.

But as a woman who is most concerned with women’s liberation, I acknowledge that Emma Watson has created more awareness in ten minutes than I could in my lifetime.

So you know what is more problematic, male-centric, and piecemeal than Emma Watson’s speech?

Liberal feminist analysis. Let me give just a few examples:

  • The liberal feminist movement argues sexist objectification and violent pornography can be feminist, but that Emma Watson’s speech was barely sufficient.
  • Liberal feminism frames sexual violence in porn as an empowered choice for women.
  • Liberal feminism responds “not all porn” in the same way sexists respond “not all men” when we talk about male violence and misogyny. Feminists ought to be aware that criticism is aimed at cultures, classes, and industries, not individual people.
  • While we are in the midst of a child porn and pedophilia epidemic, liberal feminism argues we should sell sexy lingerie to 7-year-old girls because children need “sexual choices.
  • Liberal feminism applies criticism to every industry except the sex trade despite the fact that the sex industry hinges upon classism, sexism, racism and the global trade of violence against girls and women.
  • Liberal feminism prioritises first-world women’s accounts of feeling empowered, shunning women who don’t have the language, resources, twitter or Tumblr accounts to articulate the extent of their oppression.
  • While liberal feminism claims to be “intersectional” it concomitantly evades structural analysis and conceals multiple oppressions with a rhetoric of agency. This is an issue that Kimberle Crenshaw has spoken on recently (1). As if feeling agentic is going to keep the most vulnerable women alive.
  • Liberal feminism claims to want to end sexist stereotypes, but freely labels women “thin-lipped,” prudish, and anti-sex if they dare say any of the things that I have just written here.
  • Liberal feminism has been so concerned about “including men” and being “pro sex” that they have repeatedly published ‘feminist’ works on behalf of male sex predators and attempted killers.

Liberal feminism is not only male-centric in rhetoric, but is institutionalizing and abetting global male entitlement as feminist.

Yet now, I hear, the liberal feminist movement is upset because Emma called upon men in her speech. Pot calling the kettle?

I say, at least Emma isn’t advocating for sex predators, at least Emma isn’t advocating for pedophiles. At least Emma isn’t advocating for men who produce violent pornography. At least Emma isn’t advocating for human traffickers. At least Emma is advocating for women.

Yes, Emma is another white woman adding her voice to a movement that continues to prioritize the perspectives of white people. But does that mean professional white feminists are going to renounce their careers? I wouldn’t expect so. But I would expect that they might consider whether their political analysis serves to amplify or obscure the reality of women already marginalized by the current white-male-centric world order.

Perhaps Emma’s critics can also ponder if liberal feminism is really working to change male hegemony while we continue to be served up diatribes about “finding agency” in oppressive circumstances, by both the feminist academy and its media counterparts. Perhaps they can question whether this liberal, postmodern, anti-structural, a-contextual approach to feminism even means anything for women outside of first-world capital cities… Marketing something as “intersectional” doesn’t just make it so.

It would seem that we can either fight to end patriarchy and the institutions that prop up its existence, or alternately we can work to make patriarchy more acceptable and equitable by selling it as “choice.” One of these options sounds like feminism and the other sounds like corporate strategy. Choice is great… when you are a wealthy consumer.

If the sex trade were a choice that supposedly liberates women, wouldn’t we all be liberated by now? What with pornography making up over a third of the whole Internet, and with the global sex industry estimated at being worth over $7000 billion (nearly ten years ago by the EU). So why is male sexual violence, sexual coercion, sexual assault, global trafficking in children, self harm, objectification and eating disorders as well as suicide rates all on the rise for girls and women in a whole variety of countries?

As it turns out nobody is liberated by these industries and they are rarely a choice. In fact research shows quite the opposite with very few South East Asian women ever personally seeking out the industry. To defend an industry that hinges upon impoverished girls and women’s lack of choice, and instead frame it as being primarily about “women’s choices” shows that liberal feminism is only for women with the social mobility to choose, commonly first-world women. Framing oppressive systems as “choice” is a classist marketing strategy, not an intersectional feminist analysis.

Yes, some women can choose. Some women have the social mobility required to move in and out of different fields of work and that is great. Of course, no woman should be stigmatised for her choices, whatever they may be. But feminist analysis is not just about women with choices. Feminism that only reflects women with choice serves to further silence women who have few or none.

As bell hooks has said:

[Feminism] has never emerged from the women who are most victimised by sexist oppression; women who are daily beaten down, mentally, physically, and spiritually – women who are powerless to change their condition in life. They are a silent majority.

Girls are increasingly surrounded by sex trade influences, with much of the visual culture saturated by pornography, often of young and underage girls. Male entitlement is both global and dangerous. Thai reports show 40 per cent of the sex industry is made up of underage girls. Male sexual entitlement is colonizing the third world faster than trans-national corporations ever could. This local-global industrializing of sexual exploitation is constraining the rights and choices of girls globally. Working to legitimise this exploitation only solidifies the lack of choice for these girls and women.

How then, can liberal feminists bolster these industries and simultaneously claim to fight for choice? Whose choice? Male sex tourists perhaps? And don’t even get me started on just how ethnocentric, individualistic and consumerist the entire notion of “choice” is. From my experience living throughout South East Asia, a deep sense of collectivist culture, filial piety where children are strongly obligated to support their aging parents, combined with poverty; all make the idea of individual choice and empowerment laughable. Poor women living in South East Asia don’t simply log on to and peruse potential career ‘choices’. Life is just not that simple, despite the supposed binary it is certainly not as simple as victims vs. agents.

An all too common story across Asia is parents who cannot afford to feed their children. They may find themselves forced to send their daughters or sons to the city with the promise of “school and work”, this is increasingly impacting strained rural populations. Are these girls going to be helped by “feeling agency” while they are exploited? Or, perhaps they could benefit from state sanctioned and local development programs, rather than sex predator tourists?

Through conversation, Australian writers have told me that girls in Asia have to “choose” between the garment industry and the sex industry, or otherwise beg. This is an entirely reductionist, ethnocentric and distorted idea of women’s reality overseas. Why is this first-world ‘choice’ narrative homogenizing feminist discourse? What ever happened to intersectionality?

Liberal feminist rhetoric is dominated by first-world accounts of “I think this is empowering so it is.” This apolitical approach evades the statistics and realities of millions of girls and women whose stories we will likely never hear in a feminist bestseller. Feminism has come to mean whatever wealthy consumers want it to mean: “feeling good,” rather than actual change or justice. We seem to forget that the world is not full of women wealthy enough to try out oppressive systems for fun like pole-dance for “sport.” We’ve ended up in a situation where Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus call their actions feminist. While that’s ludicrous, I can see exactly how they came to that conclusion.

I understand that liberal feminism does seek to change sexist norms and attitudes, but it does so by supporting the industries that ensure sexist behaviour is normative, institutional and profitable. Not only does this garner political legitimacy for sexist industry, but it bolsters the male consumers who can argue their sex tourism and excessive porn use is acceptable or even “feminist.” Empirical evidence shows that first-world male consumers of pornography have higher sexist and rape-accepting attitudes — attitudes that they can more easily enact in locations with fewer law enforcement resources.

I have been told this is all just “good for business,” which sounds more like the perspective of a capitalist, not a feminist. I am struck by recent liberal feminist texts criticizing “neoliberal feminism” (which isn’t actually a thing) while the crux of liberal feminism could not be more closely aligned with neoliberal exploitation of women.

So, is #heforshe going to actually achieve anything with men? At an individual level, I hope so — we certainly need it. What I do know is that, for my friends living in poverty, having men hear about this will likely do more for them than talking about feminist agency or feminist porn.

I understand entirely why Watson’s speech was somewhat piecemeal, problematic and feminist-lite… But that is because she is working with liberal feminist theory, and it’s the best she (or anyone) could do with that body of work.

Watson is simply advocating for girls and women the only way she knows. So all I have to say to her is “Thank you. You did what you could, we have a lot of work to do and we welcome you.”


(1) Kimberlé Crenshaw, ‘A Conversation with Founding Scholars of Intersectionality: Kimberlé Crenshaw, Nira Yuval-Davis and Michelle Fine’ in M Berger and K Guidroz (eds), The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy Through Race, Class, and Gender (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).


16 thoughts on “Don’t blame Emma Watson’s speech for liberal feminist failures.

  1. So what’s the alternative to liberal feminism? From reading this and listening to it’s opponents it seems the alternative is authoritarian feminism which tells women they must not do this and shouldn’t do that.

    1. not at all. There is nothing authoritarian about taking a critical perspective. Being critical of the foundation of certain oppressive practices is not the same as telling women to ‘not to this and that’.

  2. “As it turns out nobody is liberated by these industries and they are rarely a choice. In fact research shows quite the opposite with very few South East Asian women ever personally seeking out the industry. ”

    I’m South Asian. I grew up in a what I would call an intellectually liberal and open minded, but socially conservative family. Most South Asian Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains are like that. Spiritually, philosophically and intellectually we are very free and open but socially we tend to be conservative and family oriented.

    When I found out about the proliferate sex industry in Thailand (East of us, in SouthEAST Asia) I was dumbfounded. Thais are a sister civilization to us. Hinduism flourished there in the past and today Buddhism flourishes. I assumed they were as socially conservative as we are so their world famous sex industry baffled me.

    India of course has a sex industry too but its not gained international noteriety. We don’t get foreign men coming here en masse to patronize Indian prostitutes. That’s because our industry is covered by shame and it is not openly flaunted. The prostitutes in India don’t fuss much over their looks or weight because their local Indian clients will patronize them regardless. Most of our marriages are arranged and dating is not common, something only done by westernized Indians in the big metros. So there is a lot of sexual repression and frustration and some of those girlfriendless and wifeless men go to prostitutes. Beggars can’t be choosers. Also many married are frustrated sexually due to our joint family living arrangements.

    But the “bar girls” in Thailand seem to be world renowned for their looks and that’s one of the reasons they get international clientele. Also in India they “bar girl” grey area isn’t really there. Either you are a prostitute or not. Young Indian women looking for (perceived to be) wealthy foreign sugar daddies are not hanging out in bars where those sugar daddies go to meet them and establish a “relationship” or the month or so they will be in Thailand.

    Young Indian women, unless they are straightforward prostitutes, just would not do this due to our conservative and family oriented culture. It is not a badge of honor for an Indian woman to associate herself with a foreign man. The general thinking about western men is that they lack culture, morals and family values and therefore are NOT seen as “great catches” in the collective Indian psyche

    So then I read all these things going on in Thailand and thought “how could it be.. I thought they were like us, like Indians”. And I read some sites by “feminist sex workers” (western one) claiming that some Thai women are “freely choosing” to work in the sex industry. I thought, “hmmm…. they are Southeast Asians and come from the same civilizational values that I do so I can’t believe they are “choosing” this. I tried to argue that they are poor people on the margins of society and lack opportunities and thus are forced by circumstances into the industry, but these western feminist sex workers/bloggers insisted they are grown women with “agency” entering this field out of a love for it!

    Coming from the general same area of the world with general same civilization, and having been to Thailand myself, no I can’t agree.

    1. Family oriented culture aside, prostitution is not just about having sex. Especially in those countries where people do have sex outside of marriage freely, those who pay for sex tend to be those who, for some reason, don’t want to make the minimum effort of winning a woman’s affection, even if it is just for one night. They don’t pay for sex, they pay for being able to treat her like garbage. Which is why I cannot understand the “choice” of those so-called sex workers, even though there is no taboo about sex.

    2. Very interesting insights, thank you for sharing.

      I think its also worth noting a different international political history for Thailand. During WW2 America made a deal with the Thai government to develop certain areas as “R & R” tourist retreats for American soldiers. Which meant bars, clubs and of course brothels. This was then set further in stone with international economic policy that pushed Thailand into further developing these R&R areas as international tourist destinations (still typically for men).

      I do wonder if, in the absence of this kind of colonisation, Thailand may have retained more cultural similarity to India?


  3. Thank you. I was getting somewhat annoyed about people bashing Emma Watson for not doing feminism right. In my mind, she’s still Hermione, barely an adult. And she is brave enough to talk about feminism in public. I think that deserves some appreciation.

  4. Han sido todo un descubrimiento tus artículos. En España eso que llamáis liberal feminism llegó como una moda y ha conquistado la socialdemocracia e incluso gran parte de los movimientos anarquistas, prácticas como el bdsm o la prostitución se consideran la liberación y el empoderamiento del cuerpo de la mujer. Mientras, las compañeras feministas radicales son insultadas y vejadas con violencia. Por supuesto, no tenemos el poder que tiene la industria del sexo. Es una batalla muy dura.

  5. Ha sido todo un descubrimiento encontrar tus artículos, me parecen genia. En España eso que llamáis “liberal feminism” llegó como una moda y ha conquistado desde la socialdemocracia hasta incluso gran parte de los movimientos anarquistas, prácticas como el bdsm o la prostitución se consideran la liberación y el empoderamiento del cuerpo de la mujer. Mientras, las compañeras feministas radicales son insultadas y vejadas con violencia. Por supuesto, no tenemos el poder que tiene la industria del sexo. Es una batalla muy dura.

    Un saludo.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s