To Reluctant Readers and Feminists, From Hermione.
What if Emma Watson does for feminism what Harry Potter did for reading?
It’s been a month since Emma Watson’s speech launching the U.N. HeForShe campaign went viral. Though Vanity Fair called it “game-changing,” the message was decidedly unrevolutionary; though it received a mostly glowing reception, the buzz has mostly subsided. So perhaps Emma Watson will simply be one star in the expanding constellation of those who identify as feminists. But it’s possible she will have a significant, if subtle, effect on feminism.
Watson is, after all, the brightest witch of our age. She is inextricably linked to her onscreen character Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” series. She is also closely linked to her millennial peers — the timing of the series was such that many of them feel like they grew up alongside Watson and her co-stars, and she is outstandingly popular on social media. It is thanks to these links that she has the potential to meaningfully engage new supporters of feminism — and it is not unlike the way the beloved series revolutionized reading.
The story of Harry Potter’s magical effects on reading is nearly as well-recited as the story of the boy wizard himself: Literature-reading among young adults had dropped by a record 20 percent over 20 years. “Harry Potter” came along, selling millions of books worldwide. Young adult readership jumped 21 percent. And now, young people read more than people over age 30.
Scholastic, the publisher of “Harry Potter,” commissioned a study finding that half of “Harry Potter” readers ages five to 17 said they did not read books for fun before they started reading the series. The trend was somewhat more pronounced among boys — 61 percent said “Harry Potter” introduced them to reading for fun.
Research on literacy and gender has shown that boys tend to read less than girls do and perceive reading as a feminine activity. “Harry Potter” deftly incorporates what often interests boys — action, escapism, humor, plus the hype of popular books and movies — and gives them both permission and motivation to enjoy reading.
This cohort of initially reluctant readers is precisely the prime audience for Watson’s message, which invites men and boys to advocate for gender equality. Those who once shunned reading may also have no interest in feminism. But Watson may convince them to give it a chance.
Just as the books managed to appeal to boys’ interests, Watson cited issues that personally affect men and boys, such as “young men suffering from mental illness [being] unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less ‘macho’” and her “father’s role as a parent being valued less by society.” She declared, “Gender equality is your issue too.”
There’s another reason they might give it a chance: They are already more open-minded. This is true generally — a 2010 Pew Research Center report revealed that millennials are more accepting than previous generations of interracial dating, immigrants, and nontraditional family arrangements.
And it’s especially true among “Harry Potter” fans: A study published this July found that reading “Harry Potter” improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups.
Harry “fights against social inequality and injustice,” the study authors write. As he interacts with characters who “suffer the consequences of prejudices and discrimination, [he] tries to understand them and to improve their situation.” In addition, Hermione is a passionate crusader for the rights of house elves (though that storyline is bypassed in the films).
The study assessed groups of children, teens and university students who had read “Harry Potter” and their attitudes toward stigmatized groups, including immigrants, homosexuals and refugees.
The authors concluded that participants had “observed the positive attitudes and behaviors of Harry Potter toward stigmatized fantastic groups, and projected them onto real stigmatized categories,” particularly when people identified more with Harry Potter and less with the villain Voldemort.
That identification works in favor of Watson’s feminist message. Fans the world over have come to positively identify with Harry, Hermione and friends. The characters’ fair treatment of house elves, Mudbloods and Muggles can prompt readers to more positively view real-life stigmatized groups, which is at the heart of the aim of feminism. (It’s worth noting that Watson’s speech didn’t mention minorities and other groups that face additional discrimination, but as one critic put it, the omission doesn’t “limit its cultural significance.”)
Though it was probably unconscious, Watson actually echoed sentiments that will resonate with “Harry Potter” fans.
First, there’s the classic injunction from Professor Dumbledore: “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
We all know how divisive the term “feminist” can be, so Watson spent nearly half the speech clarifying what feminism is not (namely, hating men) and what it is (namely, equal rights and opportunities for both men and women).
Second, recall Sirius Black’s lesson to Harry: “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
Watson called the mentors and influential people in her life “inadvertent feminists who are changing the world today” and stated that “if you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists.” Focusing on actions more than labels, Watson found another way to appeal to those who may be skeptical of feminism.
Third, we have more words of wisdom from Dumbledore. He warned: “Time is short, and unless the few of us who know the truth stand united, there is no hope for any of us.”
Watson wove throughout her speech a sweeping call for unity. “We want to end gender inequality — and to do that we need everyone to be involved.”
The HeForShe campaign certainly has its flaws: It might imply that women need to be rescued by men, or that men haven’t joined the cause simply because they haven’t been asked nicely enough, or that tweeting a feminist-friendly hashtag is enough to effect real change. In fact, the “action kit” on the HeForShe website primarily involves starting a student group or hosting an on-campus event, demanding a bureaucratic array of measurables that focus on awareness-raising rather than, you know, equality-raising.
But perhaps Watson’s awareness-raising stint as U.N. Goodwill Ambassador will lead to equality-raising. Perhaps reluctant-turned-engaged readers will also be reluctant-turned-engaged feminists, and they will join with those who have already spent years working toward equality in real, substantive ways. It may be that, much like the “Harry Potter” effect on literacy, Watson has found herself at the Gladwellian tipping point of being the right messenger with the right feminist message at the right time. Or? It may be magic.
This post is part of a 31-day series on girl power.
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