On Saturday, Emma Watson gave a speech about feminism and gender equality. She said things that many of us have said a thousand times, online and offline, about the right to choose, healthcare, equal pay, and men’s duty in fighting for gender equality. The Internet went crazy with applause, praising her as a feminist hero. Although nothing Watson said was groundbreaking or especially unique, it’s great to see a young woman of her celebrity use her position of influence to make an intelligent statement about feminism. I love Emma Watson. She’s bright and positive and it’s great.
What isn’t great is the attitude I saw on social media following her speech, in which a comparison began to be drawn. “That’s feminism,” I’ve seen it tweeted over and over since Saturday. “Not a neon sign and spandex.” The digs at Beyoncé got louder and bolder. One of the tweets that started it all (by a Twitter user who has now made her account private, @sandyzzzen) read: “Well done Emma Watson. THAT is feminism (watch and learn Beyoncé).” And it wasn’t just random Internet users. Vanity Fair wrote an article praising Watson and comparing her feminist impact to Beyoncé’s, stating, “[Watson’s] widespread influence on young minds (still forming their opinions on gender roles and advocacy) is even stronger than other high-profile defenders of the F-word like Beyoncé.”
Needless to say, this piece prompted a lot of discussion on Twitter, and I tweeted this:
Now, obviously I was feeling a little sassy. The Internet’s overwhelmingly positive reactions to Watson’s feminism were exciting, but also troubling when I remembered the way Beyoncé’s feminism was dissected, critiqued, and doubted last year when she dropped her self-titled album that included a recording of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking about feminism.
Hopefully you all remember the numerous times Beyoncé’s feminism has come under attack in the past? No? I’ll refresh your memory. When Beyoncé dropped Beyoncé last year, accompanied by a corresponding collection of music videos, the think pieces flew fast and thick. “Is Beyoncé a feminist?” “OK, but is Beyoncé actually a feminist?” The speculation was endless, despite the fact that Beyoncé was self-identifying, answering the question before it was even asked. But somehow many mainstream publications still thought that their opinion on Beyoncé’s feminism overrode her own identification.
When Emma Watson gave her speech on Saturday, I didn't see a single tweet (other than from Men’s Rights Activists) criticizing her. No one dissected the roles she’s taken in Hollywood, the times she posed in sexy clothes, no one has questioned her relationship status.
Yet when I tweeted the above tweet, those kinds of dissections were exactly what filled my mentions—dissections voiced by white feminists. No angle was left uncovered. The responses ranged from “Maybe because Emma actually dresses like a lady!” to “Maybe because Emma has a college degree!” “Maybe because Emma didn’t dedicate an album to her husband and take his last name!” “Maybe because Emma doesn’t gyrate on stage!” “Maybe because Emma included men in her argument!” Don’t believe me? Look on Twitter. These tweets aren’t hard to find.
Guys…as a white feminist whose feminism is by no means perfect and has committed her share of missteps in the past, let me say this as gently as I can: This…has…to…stop.
Maybe because Emma dresses like a lady? What does a lady dress like, exactly? And who decided what a lady looks like? What bearing should one’s clothing have on one’s identification as a feminist? This is exactly the kind of misogynist policing we’ve fought tooth and claw against for decades, and to level this line of “reasoning” at Beyoncé is not only antifeminist, it is despicable.
Maybe because Emma has a college degree? You can’t be serious. Since when does education level have anything to do with whether or not a woman (or man) can identify as feminist? My mother didn’t finish college and she created a feminist in me by the time I was five. Does she not count? Beyoncé is incredibly successful and self-sufficient, and you would target her college education as an area of critique?
Emma didn’t dedicate an album to her husband or take his last name? Oh? So taking your husband’s last name means you’re not a feminist now, huh? Beyoncé is a wife and a mother, so now she’s not a feminist? OK. I’ll remember that. Don’t ever get married or I’ll picket your wedding.
Maybe because Emma doesn’t gyrate on stage? Hmm. I seem to recall a lot of white feminists defending Miley Cyrus for doing exactly that, proclaiming her a feminist and shielding her from slut-shaming. Last I checked, part of feminism is owning our sexuality and expressing it however we choose.
Maybe because Emma included men in her speech? Oh god. So including men in conversations about feminism is now a box that must be checked to consider oneself a feminist? That’s just silly.
There were other bits of drivel that dropped—and continue to drop—in my mentions on Twitter, but these are the attacks on Beyoncé’s feminism that I saw repeated most often. If you use any of the aforementioned lines of attack…you are being antifeminist.
When you criticize Beyoncé’s feminism based on the clothes she wears, her level of education, the dances she does; when you say she cannot be a feminist or is less of a feminist than a woman who wears clothes differently, has been educated differently, dances differently, you are erasing her nuance and you are erasing the part of her feminism that is interlocked with her humanity. Because in case you didn’t know, fellow white feminists, the white experience of womanhood is different than the black experience of womanhood. The expectations, perceptions, context, and history of black women are not the same as the expectations, perceptions, context, and history of you as a white woman. Intersectional feminism means that women of color experience womanhood at a place where race and gender intersect. It means that the way they experience life as a woman is influenced by their race, and vise versa.
With that in mind, think about why, then, a woman of color—particularly a black woman—might find Beyoncé’s brand of feminism more relatable than Emma Watson’s. @thetrudz, arguably one of the most prolific writers and scholars on race, gender, and misogynoir of our time, wrote a beautiful piece about why Beyoncé’s album Beyoncé resonated with her as a black woman, as it spoke to issues of sexuality, the pain of Eurocentric standards of beauty, and dance. What’s more, think about the core concepts of Watson’s speech: it focused on a binary system of oppression, oppression of woman by man. Women of color are oppressed on more than one level, so a speech that doesn’t address issues of violence and harm against women of color specifically does not speak to the whole experience of a woman of color. (Are you currently thinking something along the lines of “But why can’t we all just be women and not divide ourselves along racial lines?” If you are, let me direct you here.)
None of this is a competition. This not a Feminist Death Match between Emma Watson and Beyoncé, nor should it be. In fact, that was one of the other more common responses I saw to my tweet: “But why can’t we appreciate both Beyoncé and Emma Watson? I love them both!”
Congratulations! You can! And many of us do. I even saw a tweet that said “Beyoncé for president, and Emma Watson for VP.” Who’s the “better feminist” should never be a competition: We all have different interpretations and applications of feminism. As feminists, we celebrate others’ right to identify as whatever kind of feminist they choose. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke beautifully to this (specifically as it relates to Beyoncé) in an interview at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, in which she said “Whoever says they’re feminist is bloody feminist.” Period.
According to Roxane Gay, we’re probably all “bad feminists,” and I agree. We are humans, and therefore we are creatures of context and nuance. We stumble, we contradict, we backslide, we mess up. None of that makes us antifeminist. But you know what is antifeminist? When we attack one woman’s feminism by means of credentialism and respectability politics, when we bend over backward to deny a woman who identifies herself as a feminist the right to that self-identification, in the process contradicting our own beliefs about the freedom women (all women, we claim) are entitled to when it comes to our bodies, our relationships, our clothes, our pursuits.
You don’t have to like Beyoncé’s feminism, but there are millions—literally—of women around the world who like it, love it, celebrate it, live it, and we damn sure don’t get to say that they’re wrong.
Olivia A. Cole is a poet, author, and activist.