The Power Shift | by Erica Woolf

“I think it is right that socially, I am afforded the same respect as men.”

This is a quote from Emma Watson’s recent speech on feminism as part of the launch of a new UN campaign called “HeForShe.” The quote itself is not revolutionary; however, Emma was shown that not even she, self-described as one of the most privileged women in history, is afforded this respect.

Threats she received after her speech to publish naked photos of her online aimed to discredit her as a feminist, to literally strip her of her legitimacy and to objectify her to the point of irrelevancy.

Contrary to what some may argue, this form of harassment is not a new tool used to silence women. Tying a woman’s worth, and as a by-product, the worth of a person, to the sanctity of their physical body, has been used throughout history to censor the voices society considers illegitimate. While this happens beyond the realm of the female body, this particular situation speaks directly to instances of women being forced out as publicly legitimate by manipulating the concept of decency. As a recent Vox article put it simply, to “get back, get back to where you once belonged.”

Today, this concept can be found in many forms. It happens every time a woman’s commitment to feminism is questioned based on what she is wearing; it happens every time she is required to justify her sexual history to herself and to others; it happens every time the phrase “just the right amount of sexy” is uttered. In these instances, a woman’s body becomes no longer her own, and her autonomy removed, and outside judgement replaces it.

We know this, really, when we stop to think. But the outpouring of responses to the threats made against Emma seem to have forgotten this, and instead fuel the fire that is being used against women. When her “beauty and youth” are considered in an analysis of the problem, we have forgotten the root of the issue. When the individuals behind the threats used against Emma are described to “wield sexual terror as a weapon,” we give this weapon power. And when a company can harness the energy that surrounds the harassment of a young woman to their benefit, we have refused to address the magnitude and prevalence of the issue. By considering that it would be “such a shame” if these photos were to be released, something else is taking root, other than anger at the lack of consent involved.

In considering Emma’s situation, I was reminded that there exists opportunity. There is an opportunity to reflect on the value we attach to the body, and how this is different for the women and girls of the world. We can reflect on precisely why naked pictures are considered shameful, devastating and irreputable. We can consider the issues of consent and violation that surround the threats made against Emma, but we can also go much further.

In practice, there is the opportunity to remind ourselves just how silly it is that these individuals are arguing that Emma’s worth and legitimacy will somehow be negated by the fact that she has a woman’s body. We can choose to affirm our own worth and autonomy without appealing to physical characteristics. We have the ability to remove the power from the “tools” used to turn our own bodies against us. We can take two minutes to realize that the magnitude of “slut-shaming” a person endures should never have power over the message they forward as intelligent and rational humans. Simply, we can take back the power to decide what decency and respect is for ourselves.

“We can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle so that their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too, reclaim parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

The end of Emma’s speech captures an essential part of the power each of us have to free ourselves and others of the stereotypes and hostilities that are tied to gender and the body. Beyond that, it assures us all that the power for change is within our reach, and no amount of shame or disgrace can take this away.


Image curtosy of Hernan Garcia Crespo on Flickr