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Emma Watson, On Her Acting Sabbatical, Talks About Gender Equality

Emma Watson Forest WhitakerEmma Watson Forest Whitaker
Emma Watson, with Forest Whitaker, at UN Women HeForShe event in New York.Photograph by Celeste Solman — Getty Images

In September 2014, actress Emma Watson kicked off the UN’s “HeForShe” campaign with a deeply personal and heartfelt speech about feminism. Her speech, which got a standing ovation at the UN headquarters, went viral and gave international attention to the cause.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, Watson, along with actor Forest Whitaker and UN Women’s executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, spoke about the power of art to raise consciousness and create social change. “We have to do more than see the logic in gender equality. People have to feel it in their bones,” said the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. That, she added, is what great art can do. “Social progress can inspire art—and art can inspire social progress.”

The press event, held in New York’s Public Theater, was to launch HeForShe’s Arts Week, a series of performances and cultural events focused on the UN Women’s goal of reaching gender parity by 2030. The hope is that the partnership with the arts will “foster new conversations,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Praising movies, such as Billy Elliot and Brokeback Mountain, Watson said that performing artists have the power to challenge “rigid definitions of masculinity.” The Harry Potter actress said she was inspired to take a year off from acting to devote herself to the HeForShe campaign. She called on people to become “active bystanders,” and to speak up when they see girls or women being treated unfairly.

Forest Whitaker, an Academy Award-winning actor, director, and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, added: “What we have to do as artists is recognize the images we are projecting. Women are more sexualized in films, even in G-rated movies.” Whitaker’s nonprofit, which promotes peace-keeping efforts, strives for 50-50 female participation. “We can not find peace in the world if 50% of the world is not included in the conversation,” he said.