A Feminist Fairy Tale: how Emma Watson puts the ‘act’ in activism


From her debut role on screen as the cherished character Hermione Granger from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Emma Watson has become a household name, with her earnings soon making her the industry’s most highly paid actress. Ever since the film series came to an emotional conclusion, she has used her platform to advance a more globally oriented brand of feminism. 

‘Emma Watson has become a household name’

In fact, many have claimed that Emma Watson in recent years has received more plaudits for her role as an activist than as an actress. Not only was she appointed a UN Women Goodwill ambassador and HeForShe spokesperson but she has given numerous speeches across the globe, including countries such as Bangladesh and Uruguay, highlighting the importance of women’s political participation and education for young girls. Her strong and passionate identity from her activism work has not gone unnoticed in popular media, leading to her featuring on the TIME 100 list of the world’s most influential people in 2015. 

She has since returned to the big screen, enchanting audiences of all ages with her portrayal of the beloved Princess Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. What is interesting to note is the number of parallels between her activism work and her reimagining of this popular character – highly regarded already as one of Disney’s strongest examples of a feminist figure. 

In an interview published for Vanity Fair, Emma Watson describes how in her mind “Belle is absolutely a Disney princess, but she’s not a passive character — she’s in charge of her own destiny.” Thus her activism is to some extent mirrored in the film through her love of literature, her skills as an inventor assisting her father and developing her own “modern washing machine,” and her role in promoting female literacy to young girls in the film. With Belle’s father Maurice describing her as “ahead of her time,” this character has become a powerful feminist symbol and an embodiment of Watson’s own involvement in the movement, striving for gender equality. Unlike many who deemed the original adaptation as containing a passive storyline, Watson continued to reassure modern audiences that her adaptation of the Disney Princess is a lot more “strong-willed” showing defiance to the expected moulds of society.

‘[Belle] has become a powerful feminist symbol and an embodiment of Watson’s own involvement in the movement’

However, if we take into account her other popular role as Hermione Granger – also a world-renown book nerd that many millions of children (and adults) were drawn to for her compassion and intellect- we can see a few similarities between Watson’s reel life and her real life. 

In the original series, Hermione Granger is celebrated for defiance of certain literary tropes of the era, surrounding the stereotypical roles girls would play in the masculine titular character’s story. Rather than just taking on the role of the sidekick to the ever so great Harry Potter, Hermione’s skills and passion for knowledge make her an equal to, or in some cases more advanced than, our main protagonist. She excels in all her classes despite her muggle-born status (which becomes symbolic of deeper systemic issues) and on numerous occasions helps save the lives of the other two members of the trio; Ron and Hermione. Let’s face it, without her they’d be hopeless. Her virtues become just an important part of Harry’s survival as his own attributes. Thus, her character became many readers’ first introduction to elements of feminism and breaking gender stereotypes in an oppressive setting.

‘[Hermione] became many readers’ first introduction to elements of feminism’

And Watson’s own portrayal of the character captures this perfectly. In view of the fact that the series’ many screenplay writer Steve Cloves own admission that Hermione was his favourite character, the films put particular emphasis on Hermione’s contribution to the Trio, often keeping calling out other characters for their immaturity and being quick in finding logical solutions to challenges faced. She fights her own battles and doesn’t rely on the males to save her. However, despite how grounded she is in humanity, Watson’s heartfelt performance adds humanity to her character. We see her through many emotional traumas from heartbreak, bullying and of course, fantastical evil forces.

In fact, by considering the fact that these two characters, in particular, are both adored by so many people, it demonstrates how influential Watson is proving a powerful and progressive voice for female characters in the film industry. And with The Women’s March in Washington littered with references to Hermione Granger, her inspiration doesn’t seem to be fading any time soon. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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