Equality, Education and Emma (Watson)

I have always had a love of reading. While new books have, at times, been something of a luxury item, depending on finances, the ability to read is something I tend to take for granted. Listening to actor Emma Watson’s recent speech to the UN reminded me that it is, in fact, a privilege.

Last week, it was announced that Watson would be playing the role of Belle in an upcoming version of Beauty and the Beast. Watson had quite the 2014, gaining praise for the speech given in her role as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador.

It seems appropriate that the actor who rose to fame playing a highly regarded, young female role model of fiction, Hermione in Harry Potter, should take up the role of another heroine to book lovers around the world. (I’ve always admired Belle’s ability to walk and read at the same time, something I’ve never quite had the coordination for.)

In her speech, Watson launched the HeForShe campaign, focused on getting men and boys involved in the move toward gender equality. This encompasses many aspects of life- from equal pay to child marriage, but the statistic that stood out for me was, “It won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education.” Without education, I would not be able to experience the joys of books and literature. As Watson, who has portrayed characters who have been influential in my own life, pointed this statistic out, it struck a chord.

Hermione and Belle aren’t the only two literary figures Watson has portrayed- she seems to have a penchant for book to movie adaptations, having also appeared in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but more importantly, in a version of that great work of literature: Ballet Shoes.

Never heard of it? Fair enough. Apart from 1975 and 2007 BBC versions, Ballet Shoes only really makes an appearance in popular culture when Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail, says its her favourite of the ‘shoe books’. In contrast, Belle has merchandise and a hipster meme.

Ballet Shoes was written by Noel Streatfield, published in 1936 and following the lives of three orphan girls adopted by the same professor, who live in London with his niece Sylvia and her nurse, Nanna. They struggle to get by when the professor disappears for years at a time and the girls earn money by acting and dancing. I’ve never really been sure how popular it was with other kids- I discovered it because my mother was given a copy as a child and I found it on the bookshelf one day.

Watson played eldest child, Pauline, in the 2007 version. Pauline was always my favourite. I identified with her- the eldest of three, small, blonde, and with a habit of getting lost in the character she was reading. In the same way, I identified with Belle’s love of reading and Hermione’s love of learning, or for that matter any of the wonderful characters I grew up with- Jo from Little Women, Darrell from Malory Towers, Lucy from The Chronicles of Narnia. Without education I would not have had the joy of learning and feeling solidarity from such books, so for me, equal access to education for girls around the world is something I would like to see. Unfortunately I do not have an easy solution to fixing this issue, but educating ourselves and encouraging young people to do so too seems like a good place to start.

To read more about this issue, you can visit the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiativethis blog offers a first hand perspective.