To Ms. Watson on Her Birthday

I had not yet read much of the books because I missed the bandwagon when they first appeared. By the time I got around to “The Sorcerer’s Stone”, the writing felt much too young for me. A friend urged me to see “Half-Blood Prince” entirely out of context on the strength of one character.

“If nothing else, there’s Hermione.”

“Emma Watson’s character?” I didn’t know much about Ms. Watson or Hermione at the time, except of them through their combined pop culture ubiquity.

“Yeah. She’s a bibliophile, and kind of an outcast at the school because she genuinely enjoys academics and rules.”

“That sounds like something with which I might vaguely identify.”

I liked her immediately. Whatever uncertainty I had about the franchise still, I knew I liked Hermione. Reading the books and seeing the rest of the movies would be worth it for that one character.

That was ages ago now. Long before Disney announced that Ms. Watson would be portraying Belle, another bookish outcast and my childhood crush, in a live action adaptation.

Even longer before the studio announced that she was stepping in for the role of Meg March – a film that already had my full excitement because Greta Gerwig was leading a cast that included Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, and Laura Dern. I loved the March sisters. I didn’t identify as strongly with Laurie, but I imagined taking his place to be friends with them. Alcott’s world is an influence on my own to this day.

It created a sort of transference with which I believe many can identify. One may never meet an actor, musician, painter, sculptor, etc., but over time one feels they get to know them all the same. Perhaps the actor is nothing at all like the character they portray, but with each new role one finds a sense of common threads that seems to indicate who the person behind the character is.

What I mean is, I have never met Emma Watson and it’s not likely that I ever will, but she’s a kindred spirit in my life all the same. I recognise that it’s based entirely on my perception of a person through a public lens, like trying to assess the contents of a mansion through the front keyhole, but that perception matters a great deal to me all the same.

She was the one who spoke about #HeForShe so passionately before the United Nations. Feminism mattered to me, and just as Belle and the March sisters mattered to me, here was Ms. Watson taking a public stand for it. Not only was she taking a stand, but also was she taking one with all of the qualities I admire in a person. The address was one of intelligence, with all the articulation of a practised public speaker, but it was not devoid of compassion. Ms. Watson does not divorce her opinions from emotion because her opinions are on subjects that matter to us all and the emotional intelligence of that empathy is every bit as important to affecting change as the logical structure of the arguments.

Her public appearances are in abundance of patience, good-humour, and kindness. I do not know her to shy away from disagreeing with someone if they do not share opinions, but she goes about it in diplomatic, peaceful ways. It is, as I believe, not about conceding a personal position to keep the peace, but maintaining strength in those convictions, remaining open to learning from the other person, and seeking common ground.

Most people are so intent on “winning” or being clever about their responses that it loses sight of the conviction. How often have you seen a good friend go for the cheap or easy response, out of frustration, impatience, or perhaps even personal amusement? It can feel gratifying in the moment to spike the ball in discourse if an ideological opponent serves up the premise for a witty dig.

The person who can resist that and maintain the high road might seem weak to some, but in my eyes it serves as a reflection of unimpeachable moral character. Consider, it’s not only strong to resist that temptation because it will “defeat” the other person (or at least put them back on the defensive), but also it’s courageous because it risks seeming weak to allies. That level of patience and compassion in the face of all public pressure exists only in those of the highest character.

Yes, I recognise that I may be completely wrong. Ms. Watson may be just another young woman in the world, prone to all of the mistakes and missteps as the masses. It may be entirely a matter of taking a polished public persona to be her full character. I find it unlikely, as being “on” all of the time in the modern world is virtually impossible – we ought to have seen some crack in that façade.

Even if I am completely wrong, that perception gets me through so much. I do not lose my conviction, but at times my spirit feels crushed and I feel my faith in people shaken. I do not mean through my personal interactions – most of my day is professional and civil. I mean I feel down as I watch people interact with one another, online and in person. People I otherwise like will find some way to justify behaving poorly towards someone else because of a disagreement, or will do something I find disagreeable towards our world in general (minor things, such as failing to hold a door for someone behind them or putting an item back in an inappropriate place at the store).

Ms. Watson, or, for accuracy, my idea of Ms. Watson restores my faith. I find myself thinking, “So long as people exist that you hold in that sort of esteem, there is hope.” I adore her character and draw strength from watching her performances and public appearances. I feel connected through Hermione, Belle, and Meg, a sense of identification that tells me, “It is possible to survive in this world as you, James. Even if others are telling you to compromise to make life easier, there is no need. The world will be better, the people around you will be better if you can endure and stick to your principles.”

I shy away from sharing this because in my head it must sound ridiculous to others, to have such a high opinion of someone who isn’t known personally, but it’s my truth. Watching her succeed is a source of pride for me because it represents the success of even greater ideals.

So, on this her birthday, I wanted to share my adoration for Ms. Watson and offer an indirect thank you for the profound impact her efforts have had on my life. I look forward to “Little Women”, her continued work with the UN and HeForShe, and all of her other projects to which she brings passion, commitment, and strength. I would not be who I am today without her leadership.


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