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Emma Watson: Star failing to be ‘normal’ in a fantasy world

A year after filming wrapped on the final instalment of Harry Potter, the actress Helen McCrory, who played the dark witch Narcissa Malfoy, said that “so often when you meet child actors they’re weird, they’re freaks. No, I mean it,” she added for emphasis. “They’re really odd people.”

Her co-star Emma Watson, the precocious daughter of two divorced lawyers, was nine when she was famously picked from a line-up in her school gym to audition for the role of Hermione Granger. If Watson was strange then, her life in the 20 years since has arguably been stranger still. An English graduate from Brown University. A United Nations goodwill ambassador fighting for gender equality. An activist and model who happens to have banked tens of millions of pounds in her day job as a Hollywood actress, Watson seems an earnest believer in the ability to use her fame for good. Her 2014 HeForShe campaign with the UN reportedly inspired Malala Yousafzai to identify as a feminist. Environmental activism and the launch of the online book club Our Shared Shelf followed, alongside a smattering of relatively unmemorable film roles despite her working with Sofia Coppola (2013’s The Bling Ring) and Darren Aronofsky in (2014’s Noah); Watson dropped out of Emma Stone’s Oscar-winning role in La La Land to play Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming adaptation of Little Women, also starring Meryl Streep and Laura Dern, might hope to change that, but like the career model carved out by Angelina Jolie before her, it seems Watson’s impact goes far beyond her film choices. Despite considering herself pretty normal, by describing herself as “self-partnered” last week, Watson was berated for “being one of the most annoying people around” (Daily Mail), “woke and wanky” (the Times) and “the death of female liberation” (New Statesman).

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It’s a lot to lay at the door of one young woman, but she nonetheless hit a public nerve. By apparently looking to reinvent an identity hitherto explained by the drably last-century concept of being, say, “happily single”, Watson said that “self-partnering” was a state that she had reached on the precipice of turning 30.

Feeling laden with anxiety for not having a baby, making a home or acquiring a husband – lifestyle ideals imposed on her, as she puts it, by “a bloody influx of subliminal messaging” – she said it took her “a long time” but that she was now happy and more at ease with her single self. In therapy-speak, this would translate to “reframing negative thinking to gain a kinder relationship to herself”. In Piers Morgan-speak, this was grunted out as “can’t get a bloke”.

The forthcoming film of Little Women

Watson, left, in the forthcoming film of Little Women. Photograph: Columbia Pictures/Allstar

For a woman who has grown up chased by the British paparazzi, and been frequently prodded by male chatshow hosts about her relationships, it’s no surprise that she has tried to keep them under wraps. “I remember on my 18th birthday I came out of my birthday party and photographers lay down on the pavement and took photographs up my skirt,” Watson once said at an event for HeForShe. The pictures were then published on the front of the British tabloids the next morning. “If they had published the photographs 24 hours earlier they would have been illegal, but because I had just turned 18 they were legal.”

Watson is dating, though, as she also told Vogue. The point that she had tried to make, albeit clumsily, was that she was equally happy not to; just as Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t invent the term “conscious uncoupling” to describe her divorce, neither has Watson coined self-partnering – both were established in the language of pop psychology gurus, books and woo-woo Instagram accounts.

The path from child star to relatable, functioning adult is not particularly well-worn but while Watson has eschewed the drama of drink, drugs, bankruptcy and public collapse the film industry has historically gifted its young talent, it’s unsurprising that she still frequently shows herself up to be very much a product of her industry: indelibly sensitive and prone to navel-gazing. “It’s so bizarre and otherworldly, what happened to me,” she told Vogue, reflecting on her post-Potter fame. Watson has spoken at length of her two decades being subsumed by the mania of celebrity and the anxiety and vertigo-inducing disconnect that money, fame and adulation have given her. It’s not a new narrative for the very rich and very famous, but it has often made her a target for cruelty, rather than sympathy. “There [are] a number of different ways, I think, I have found to come through this and to feel, to a certain degree – I’ll let other people be the judge! – feel sane and feel normal,” she said. “And I’m the most proud of that because sometimes I look at it all and I go: ‘I was lucky to come out of the other side of that’.” Everyone, she added in the cheesy vernacular of self-help, “is on their learning journey”.

Over the summer Watson helped launch an advice line for women experiencing sexual harassment in British workplaces and has been at the forefront of championing the Time’s Up campaign; at the 2018 Oscars she demonstrated her commitment to the cause by wearing a temporary tattoo that read TIMES UP [sic], prompting her to tweet: “Fake tattoo proofreading position available. Experience with apostrophes a must.”

Emma Watson in Uruguay in 2014.

Watson in Uruguay in 2014 as a UN goodwill ambassador for gender equality. Photograph: Xinhua News Agency/Rex

But while Watson has tried to make her case for remaining normal in an abnormal environment, the odds still go against her. The grand self-importance of her early twenties, when her public feminist awakening led to preaching in her interviews, was one phase. Being made acutely aware of the privilege her life afforded her even without the wealth and celebrity she accumulated was another. After meeting Reni Eddo-Lodge, the author of Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Watson was wide-eyed with guilt. Last year she wrote an impassioned letter to her book club hosted on Good Reads, addressing criticism that she was simply “a white feminist”.

“It would have been more useful to spend the time asking myself questions like: ‘What are the ways I have benefited from being white? In what ways do I support and uphold a system that is structurally racist? How do my race, class and gender affect my perspective?’” she wrote. “There seemed to be many types of feminists and feminism. But instead of seeing these differences as divisive, I could have asked whether defining them was actually empowering and bringing about better understanding. But I didn’t know to ask these questions.”

In reality, Watson can’t expect to project the everyday normality she is after, no matter how often she talks about being sad, anxious or still working it out. Better, then, to try to learn and do better, which seems a more natural way to relate to the millions of fans who look up to her.

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