Emma Watson: Men Have an Empathy Gap When It Comes to Watching Women on Film

Men aren’t used to caring about women’s stories, says the actress.

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The degree to which women are underserviced in film has finally been getting the attention it deserves in recent years, but, as Emma Watson knows, the plight is nothing new. Men are used to seeing themselves as the protagonists of the biggest and most popular movies.

When that mold is challenged, resistance inevitably mounts, as recent history has shown with the backlash that the female-fronted remake of Ghostbusters faced, months before a shot of the film was ever seen. And that’s not to mention the often sexist coverage of Ghostbusters that followed the film once it came out or the line of complaints that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story encountered for featuring a female lead after Star Wars: The Force Awakens had already done the same.

Watson, however, has nailed this phenomenon, and her explanation for it is surprisingly simple: She thinks men are bad at receiving female-led movies because they aren’t used to watching movies that aren’t about men. As Watson told Marie Claire Australia, “It’s something they’re not used to, and they don’t like that … Anything that deviates from the norm is difficult to accept. I think if you’ve been used to watching characters that look like, sound like, think like you, and then you see someone [unexpected] up on the screen, you go, ‘Well, that’s a girl, she doesn’t look like me. I want it to look like me so that I can project myself onto the character.'”

Women, however, have had a lifetime of experience at seeing themselves in the stories of people who don’t look like them.

“We see whoever is on screen and recognize the human qualities in the man that we relate to, and there’s not such a gap. But for some reason, there’s some kind of barrier there where [men] are like, ‘I don’t want to relate to a girl.’ I think it is inherently part of the problem,” Watson said. And she’s not alone in that line of thought. It’s a basic tenet of human development that storytelling is key to promoting empathy, because it forces you to inhabit perspectives other than your own.

Women have had a lot more practice with this than me. If a new generation of boys is raised on entertainment that features female leads, Watson’s live-action Beauty and the Beast remake (one Watson made sure had Gloria Steinem’s seal of approval), for instance, instead of content prioritized for boys’ pleasure, hopefully, a new norm will follow.

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