In our 'Girl Crush' series, women with mutual admiration for one another get together for conversations that offer illuminating looks into what it's like to be a woman right now.
When we look back at this moment as a period in time when women started talking about feminism and identifying as feminists with a passion not seen for many years, some of the high watermarks in this fourth-wave resurgence will be Beyoncé's 2014 VMAs performance, Malala Yousafzai's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance and, of course, Emma Watson's stirring speech at the United Nations. Emma's moving words and her work promoting gender equality through the UN's HeForShe movement provided the first real introduction to the concept for many young women (and men). For her part, the actress says she's identified as a feminist since she was a kid, but she also credits writer, artist, intellectual, and feminist icon bell hooks, author of Feminism is for Everybody among many other key texts, with inspiring her and helping shape her understanding and beliefs through her essays, books, and videos. And as for bell she says she is equally as inspired by Emma.
bell hooks: Ms. Emma Watson, you are my latest girl crush.
Emma Watson: Aww, bell. Well, you've been my girl crush for a little while now.
hooks: Oh, yeah? How did I come to be your girl crush?
Watson: I came to you through my friend Lilah. The minute that I got the UN position, the first thing Lilah did was to send me one of your books. And then as I was doing my own research, I found the videos of you speaking at The New School. And I was like, "Who is this woman? She's so funny." I loved your attitude so much. Everything you said just seemed to be coming from such an honest place. It was a pleasure to listen to you speak. I got hooked. I started watching video after video after video after video. Then I met with Laverne Cox, and we talked about you. I had watched you in conversation with her. It was Laverne who said, "Listen, you have to meet her in person. She's wonderful." So I read your work and then we met. That's been my journey, really.
hooks: That's so funny because I came to you through your work as well, watching you as an actress in the Harry Potter movies. As a cultural critic who writes about women and representation, I was fascinated by the character of Hermione. It was both exciting and at times infuriating to watch the way the character of Hermione developed and to see this vibrant image of a girl who was just so intelligent, who is such a thinker, then to also witness that that intelligence was placed in the service of boy power. Even so, it remains an important representation for girls.
Watson: I think it is. She's important because she -- well, certainly when I was reading Harry Potter, I started reading Harry Potter when I was 8 -- I just really identified with her. I was the girl in school whose hand shot up to answer the questions. I was really eager to learn in an uncool way. In a super uncool way, actually. And then the character of Hermione gave me permission to be who I was.
hooks: Did playing Hermione inspire you to want to be more intelligent? How did the parallel growth of the character of Hermione and your own self take shape as you moved towards I'm going to college, I'm doing certain things?
Watson: It was really interesting because at first, despite the obvious similarities, I guess I was also trying to detach my sense of self from the image. It was such a delicate time -- I was 10 or 11 when the first movie came out -- I was trying to figure out what my own identity was, but I didn't really have one yet. And I watch interviews that I did when the first movie came out and I was so lost! [Laughs] I would think, "What do young girls talk about? What do they say?" "I like going shopping and I have a crush on Brad Pitt." And I had no idea who Brad Pitt really was! I hadn't seen a single movie that Brad Pitt had been in, but this just seemed like the right thing to say. It makes me sad because I see this girl trying so much to fit in. The truth was I loved school. [Laughs]
hooks: All females living in the modern culture go through this transitional phase of sort of trying on acceptable images of femininity.
Watson: At first I was really trying to say, "I'm not like Hermione. I'm into fashion and I'm much cooler than she is," and then I came to a place of acceptance. Actually, we do have a lot in common. There are obviously differences, but there are a lot of ways that I'm very similar. And I stopped fighting that!
hooks: I was often annoyed with the development of the movie character of Hermione. By the time of the last movie, she's like a suburban housewife.
Watson: [Laughs.] Well, she goes on to have a career. And she does go on to do good and interesting things.
hooks: It's interesting that in the final scenes at the train station Hermione is such a passive image.
Watson: I've not thought about that.
hooks: I was like, "why is she looking frumpy?" and I wondered whose idea is this. Is this how the smart girl progresses? She moves from being intriguing to being the boring spinster? Movies are still struggling with how to create images of smart, vibrant, powerful, and intelligent older females.
Watson: Honestly, just from a practical perspective and not from an intentional perspective, we had such a hard time figuring out how to authentically age us -- to take us from where we were -- we were all 20-year-olds, and to make us look like we're in our 30s and 40s… we had a really hard time figuring out how to do that. We really struggled.
hooks: Well, I think that's that whole question of how do we become women of power and at the same time be able to project that we are attractive, cool, desirable. I'm thinking of Amy Schumer's "Last Fuckable Day" -- have you seen that?
Watson: [Laughs] Of course.
hooks: And I've thought about how that video annoys me because in the end they seemed to be acting like it's OK, it's just another transition. When I thought, gee, if they had just taken a minute, that it's really exciting that we can move on to being our real selves. And with images to celebrate that aging allows [women] to move from object to subject that are more real to who we are in this stage of our life. It would have taken just sixty seconds, or at least two minutes, just to celebrate being real, but rather than what -- to me -- would have had the flavor of a really interesting critique, they end up being like, "it's OK now." Rather than saying, "let's proclaim the best is yet to be here, honey. Not because we can chug melted ice cream but because it's a wonderful stage in life." As an older woman, over the age of sixty, it's an interesting, exciting time. Many of those struggles that we're talking about with identity happen when we are younger. That change happens through the aging process -- you realize that you don't want to stay in this character that you were. For me, it's so much the character of talking about race and/or feminism. And yet there are just a lot more things that interest and excite me. I look at how to bring that whole self out. I'm interested in fashion, too. I'm particularly interested in fashions that are comfortable and beautiful. I have an overall obsession in my life with beauty. I'm always wanting to surround myself with the kind of beauty that uplifts you, that runs counter to some of the stereotypes of feminist women.
Watson: Yes, yes. In Feminism is for Everybody, I found a reminder of just what you were saying, "To critique sexist images without offering alternatives is an incomplete intervention. Critique in and of itself does not lead to change."
Emma Watson and bell hooks share a selfie
hooks: I was thinking about what you were saying earlier -- that I am funny. A lot of people think I am, but most people don't. [Laughs] I was telling you that when we first met. That's a pretty big stereotype about feminists, that we're not fun, that we don't have a sense of humor and that everything is so serious and politically correct. Humor is essential to working with difficult subjects: race, gender, class, sexuality. If you can't laugh at yourself and be with others in laughter, you really cannot create meaningful social change.
Watson: I agree. The more you know, sometimes it makes it harder to speak out. You want to include so much and you want to be aware of so many things. That's why I'm impressed. You know your topic so well that you're able to be free with it and you're able to make jokes and you're able to be so confident within that. I think that's what's so great about hearing you talk. You have that ability.
hooks: Then, of course, when I'm improvising, I make mistakes. Like when I was talking about the trafficking in girls and the sort of worship girls have for someone like Beyoncé, I was really talking -- not about the person Beyoncé -- but of her image as being that of a kind of a terrorist. That just blew up in my face because people took the comment out of context. I want to know how you're dealing with how your words are heard and used, Emma? For both of us, albeit in our different levels of celebrity, fame, we have to be constantly watching all the time what we are saying and how it will be received.
Watson: Yeah, I feel I have to be quite vigilant. It's made me sad at times. I feel that fear of am I'm looking at this from all of the angles, how can this be interpreted, how can it be taken out of context? But I do have a lot to learn and I should be wary. But I agree with you. I think that it's really difficult to communicate through the media and through that medium sometimes.
hooks: It's definitely challenging. I, unlike you, have not been so engaged with social media. The New School conversations catapulted me into social media in a way. It was both on one hand exciting but on the other hand you're more subject to people misinterpreting what you say. And that was something that I had to accept. In a way, especially for females, too, you have to get over any kind of attachment to perfectionism. Or to being liked by everybody all the time, or understood by everybody all the time. It's just like when the Beyoncé comment was all over everywhere, and then Janet Mock posted this video where I was dancing to "Drunk in Love," and I was criticized for being hypocritical. To me, that wasn't a contradiction, because I wasn't talking about her music. We live in a world where most people don't think in complex ways, and it's very easy for there to be miscommunications and misunderstandings. Speaking of misunderstandings, let's talk about the word feminism. When does that come into Emma Watson's life?
Watson: It's in my life every day. I find that all the time when I engage with people for whom feminism might not come into their world or their consciousness but it has come in through my UN speech, or I'll be wearing a HeForShe band or whatever else and there is such an overwhelming amount of misconception around the idea. My UN speech was received really well, but by the people that it's critiqued by, they said it's so basic. It doesn't go into the important things. I don't know if it's really understood how much misunderstanding and how little understanding there is around this word -- and around these ideas -- still for a huge amount of people.
hooks: When did you first come to use the term feminism?
Watson: When I was 9, I think, during my first-ever Harry Potter conference, I said I was a "bit of a feminist"! Ha! I think I was scared to go the full hog. I was scared I didn't understand what it meant. I obviously did, I was just so bemused by all the chatter around the idea.
hooks: Emma, you are such a perfect ambassador. You have such a global presence. When you are speaking out to a global audience, you have to start where that world is. That means, at times, starting with things that are basic. That's how I perceived your UN speech. This is a shout out to females and males all over the world. It's like when you go to a foreign country and you're trying to communicate, we often use more simple ways of saying something, of bridging that gap of language and culture. So tell me more about your campaign, HeForShe, and what you are hoping to do with your ambassador position in 2016?
Watson: In Feminism is for Everybody, you write about the ways that feminism almost got hijacked a little bit by academics and by gender studies and by only being talked about by this specific group of people. It can and should be academic, and that kind of thinking is so important, but you talk about how it has to be a mass movement to make a big difference. I don't want to preach to the choir. I want to try to talk to people who might not encounter feminism and talk to them about feminism. It's a really interesting job, and it's a really interesting line to tread. I want to engage in the topic with people who wouldn't normally.
hooks: That's how I felt when I wrote Feminism is for Everybody. I wanted to write this easy-to-read book, a simple book. I knew that there were people who would say: This isn't very theoretical, intellectual. But that wasn't its purpose for me. Its purpose was to break things down. Students would say, "When I go home, I try to tell my parents about what I'm learning in Women's Studies, but they don't seem to get it." And I thought, I'm going to write this little book that you can give to people that will be that introduction into feminist thinking.
Watson: I just started a book club.
hooks: Yes, Our Shared Shelf --
Watson: I'm reading so much and exposing myself to so many new ideas. It almost feels like the chemistry and the structure of my brain is changing so rapidly sometimes. It feels as if sometimes I'm struggling to keep up with myself. It's a really cool period of time for me. My work that I do for the UN is all very clearly outlined, but my personal views and opinions are still being defined, really. So it'll be an interesting time.
hooks: As part of your efforts for activism and for self-growth, you're taking a year away from acting. That's a big decision.
Watson: I'm taking a year away from acting to focus on two things, really. My own personal development is one. I know that you read a book a day. My own personal task is to read a book a week, and also to read a book a month as part of my book club. I'm doing a huge amount of reading and study just on my own. I almost thought about going and doing a year of gender studies, then I realized that I was learning so much by being on the ground and just speaking with people and doing my reading. That I was learning so much on my own. I actually wanted to keep on the path that I'm on. I'm reading a lot this year, and I want to do a lot of listening.
hooks: You're kind of homeschooling yourself. The good thing is that studying in a more institutionalized way -- you're not foreclosing that. You have time. And now, you can reach out to people like Gloria Steinem and bell hooks.
Watson: It's been amazing. I've been doing a lot of that. I want to listen to as many different women in the world as I can. That's something that I've been doing on my own, through the UN, the HeForShe campaign, and my work generally. This January, our HeForShe IMPACT champions are ten CEOs who for the first time will be releasing to the media what their companies look like internally. So how many CEOs are male or female, the gender wage gap. We'll be making all of these statements completely transparent, which is huge. It's never been done before. So big companies like Vodafone, Unilever and Tupperware will be standing up to the media and really acknowledging the issues within their own companies and talking about how they are planning to address these issues as HeForShe IMPACT champions. I'm very interested and excited to see how that works out. I'll also take another field trip in the next two or three months. We are organizing a HeForShe arts week, a university tour, and launching the HeForShe website. It's a lot. There's a lot to do.
hooks: Well, it certainly sounds like a lot. So as I'm hearing this, I'm wondering -- when are you going to have any downtime, any fun?
Watson: Yeah. [Laughs].
hooks: Sometimes it's hard to recruit people to forms of activism for justice and ending domination because they think that there won't be any time left for fun. Everyone needs to have a balanced life. Being balanced is crucial, because it helps us not to over-extend or to try to live up to other people's expectations in ways that leave you feeling empty. There are people who are very cynical about celebrity activism. As a consequence, it may lead celebrities to feel like they've got to do more to prove they are genuine.
Watson: When I was talking to my mom about going and doing the gender studies, she was like, "it feels like you'd be trying to prove to everyone that you're smart and trying to prove something by doing that. You're learning so much on your own at the moment and enjoying it so much. You can prove that you care about it by spending time listening and talking to as many people as you can and keep doing what you're doing." I do feel like I have to overcompensate at times.
hooks: One aspect of what you are talking about that's so great is just being open and open to learning. A lot of times we know that in the world of celebrity activism, celebrities jump into a cause, but rarely are they telling us, "I'm studying, learning, I'm taking it slow, talking to people." It's so exciting that you're doing that. You're really sincerely struggling with what is needed to create a world without patriarchal domination. Thinking about the issue of female power, if you could give females, women, one thing in this world towards this vision of female liberation and power, what would it be?
Watson: I'm on my journey with this and it might change, but I can tell you that what is really liberating and empowering me through being involved in feminism is that for me the biggest liberation has been that so much of the self-critiquing is gone. So much energy and time -- even in subtle ways -- I'm 25 now and I've certainly come a long way from where I was in my early 20s. Engaging with feminism, there is this kind of bubble now that goes off in my head where these really negative thoughts about myself hit where I'm able to combat them in a very rational and quick way. I can see it now in a way that's different. I guess if I could give women anything through feminism -- or you're asking about power -- it would just be, to be able to move away, to move through all of that. I see so many women struggling with issues of self-esteem. They know and they hear it and they read it in magazines and books all the time that self-love is really important, but it's really hard to actually do --
hooks: I was thinking that the two things that I think are so vital for women globally are self-love and literacy. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home with very narrow beliefs about gender -- initially, my eyes were opened by reading.
Watson: Those would be my exact two as well. My understanding that has allowed me to feel so much more accepting and loving of myself as a woman -- it came through reading.
hooks: Often people in the West forget that masses -- millions and millions of women and girls in the world -- don't have access to education and are not taught to read and write.
Watson: That's right.
hooks: And for me, reading and studying is one of my deepest passions in life. It's like breathing. That's what I'd like to share. I felt from the moment I met you -- in terms of how a girl crush forms, it's one of the ways our spirits resonate -- that we think and dream about similar passions, and that's exciting. In many ways, we live in very racially segregated societies. There are so many types of people, and racially we don't cross boundaries. The New School talks were exciting because mostly I was able to choose people like Laverne Cox to talk with. Then bringing Laverne to my really small town in Kentucky to inaugurate the bell hooks Institute -- that was so exciting. I feel like part of creating a world that is just and diverse is pushing against those boundaries that close us off from one another. I'm glad that I'm not closed off from you, and that we're going to have more fun conversations in the days ahead.
Watson: Yes, absolutely. I wanted to ask you -- just coming back to what are you going to do for fun -- one thing that I am going to do that I've been working on for a while is completing my yoga Level 3 for meditation teaching. I noticed that in All About Love you have a quote by Jack Kornfield, who I read when I was really getting into meditation, and I was wondering, was that in a book that you had read?
hooks: Exactly, that's just what we were saying. Sometimes I think, is there anything that I come to that I don't come to first in a book? It makes me laugh.
Photo of bell hooks by Liza Matthews
Photo of Emma Watson by Carter Bowman, styling by Sarah Slutsky, makeup by Charlotte Hayward. Emma wears a vest by Mango and a ring by Jennifer Fisher