Emma Watson Ditches Acting To Interview Feminist Icons Bell Hooks & Gloria Steinem

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As if we weren’t already in love with Emma Watson! The British actress recently announced she will be taking a year off to focus on her advocacy work and feminist activism, capitalizing on her role with UN Women as ambassador for the He For She campaign.

While the cinematic world will miss her, we have no doubt this year-long feminist sabbatical is going to ensure whatever role she takes on next is going to be extra badass and meaningful. As for her reasoning to take time out from her Hollywood career, she spoke with feminist author and icon bell hooks in an interview for Paper Magazine, as part of their Girl Crush series, and shared why the author’s life and work has had such an impact on the decision she is now making as a young feminist.

Ever since she gave her famous speech in 2014 at the launch of He For She, Emma has been on a mission to not only discover more about feminism and how it can impact the world today, but also to inspire her millions of fans around the world to understand how they too can use their voice as a force for good.

And her interview with bell hooks is now the second in a handful of interviews she has done with other incredible women changing the world, such as Malala Yousafzai, and Gloria Steinem, who she interviewed about her new book ‘My Life On The Road’ for the How To Academy in London recently. For those who aren’t familiar with bell hooks (real name Gloria Jean Watkins), she is a feminist, social activist and author whose work focuses on the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and what she describes as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination.

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She has published over 30 books (one of the most famous being ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’) and numerous scholarly articles, appeared in documentary films, and participated in public lectures.  She has addressed race, class, and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism. In 2014 she founded the bell hooks Institute at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky.

At the beginning of the interview, Emma confesses that bell has been a girl crush of hers ever since she started her ambassadorship with the UN when a friend gave her a copy of bell’s ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’ and then watched a number of her speeches on video.

Bell talks about how she came to admire Emma from her portrayal of Hermione Granger in the ‘Harry Potter’ films, and says her character wasn’t just some pop culture figure, but an important discourse of gender roles even at an intellectual level.

“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,” explained bell.

Today Emma says she identifies with Hermione more than ever, but was afraid to admit that before. She felt pressure to succumb to the standard Hollywood ideal of young women aspiring to be sexy or admired, but in real life she is also the nerdy girl who loves to learn and always sat in the front of the class with her hand up first for every question the teacher asked.

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“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! 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!” she said.

The two women talk about how this is a common struggle for many women, not just in the entertainment world, where the balance between appearing powerful while also wanting to feel desirable can be really tough. Bell brings up Amy Schumer’s ‘Last F**kable Day’ sketch and says she has a real problem with the way the topic was presented as a normal thing for women in the film industry to transition from being young and desirable to old and “un-f**kable”.

“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,” she said. Of course, she saw the humor in putting the spotlight on such a ridiculous standard, but she does make a good point about taking it one step further to show why being an older woman is awesome.

“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,” she added.

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Her comment is consistent with bell’s message from her book where she says “To critique sexist images without offering alternatives is an incomplete intervention. Critique in and of itself does not lead to change.” Food for thought right there!

The conversation turned to modern feminism and how, with the additional spotlight of social media, the misconceptions seem to grow legs quite quickly.

“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. 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,” said bell.

For Emma, now that she is known as a feminist ambassador for a gender equality campaign, she says she can conversations every day about the subject and has realized there is an overwhelming amount of misconceptions about it. But one of the most interesting critiques she receives is that her He For She campaign launch speech was “too basic” and didn’t go into depth about the important issues the movement is fighting.

Bell says starting with the basics is the best way to introduce someone to feminism, and that someone like her is going to reach far more people than any high-brow Ivy League professor, for example.

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“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,” said bell.

Emma agreed and said having a basic framework of understanding is the best way to engage in those who don’t have any idea about it or who believe the myths.

“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,” she said. We love that her mission to talk to more people about the importance of feminism is worth her taking time out of a job that could potentially pay her millions of dollars!

The two women talk about Emma’s new book club, Our Shared Shelf, and how reading from authors like bell hooks and many others has been an informal study which she wants to continue with many others around the world.

“I’m taking a year away from acting to focus on two things, really. My own personal development is one. 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’m reading a lot this year, and I want to do a lot of listening,” she said about her personal growth.

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One of the benefits she has gained on her “study” of feminism so far is how little she cares about the superficial pressure placed on women to think their value comes from their appearance.

“The biggest liberation has been that so much of the self-critiquing is gone. So much energy and time,even in subtle ways. 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 guess if I could give women anything through feminism…it would just be, to be able 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,” she said.

Bell shares how her own upbringing in a fundamental Christian environment that placed strictures on gender roles was only broken down when she started reading and learning the power of knowledge. It’s one of the reasons there are so many girls around the world who are prevented from getting an education, in patriarchal societies where girls are not seen as equals to men.

If there is one thing to takeaway from this interview, it is that we should continue learning no matter what age we are. As for feminism, to have women who cross all generational boundaries as icons and role models is important. Seeing the work both Emma and bell are doing respectively is inspiring.

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