Anthony Breznican
February 22, 2017 AT 02:54 PM EST

Why do some boys have trouble accepting female heroes?

This was the question asked of Emma Watson during Entertainment Weekly‘s recent cover story interview, and the star of Harry Potter and the new Beauty and the Beast said she was wrestling with the answer just as much.

Whether it’s Rey and Jyn Erso leading the two most recent Star Wars movies, or the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, or the scarcity of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch merchandise from the Marvel films, there is a small but vocal subset of boys and young men who reflexively balk at women heroes.

RELATED: Emma Watson is Beyond Beautiful in EW Portraits

But women and girls don’t have any problem calling Batman, Han Solo, Spider-Man or Hulk their favorites. Why is it hard for guys to accept women in lead hero roles when women have been accepting guys without a problem?

Watson suggested they’ve been conditioned that way.

“It’s something that they are not used to and they don’t like that,” she said. “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 up on the screen and 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.'”

Watch the full interview with Emma Watson here, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN), or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

Conversely, the actress says female audiences have an easier time relating to characters across gender because they’re not as threatened.

“Women are great at doing that. We see whoever is on screen and we 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 don’t want to, I don’t want that,’ which I think is inherently part of the problem.”

In a culture where “man up” is a phrase meant to suggest toughness, and “stop being such a girl” is a taunt to indicate weakness, it may be no wonder insecure young men have difficulty feeling aspirational about a character that’s another gender.

“If I asked a young boy what superhero they looked up to, I feel a lot fewer would say a female one or would ever use an example of a female one, than in reverse, which is a shame because I feel like we need to live in a culture that values and respects and looks up to and idolizes women as much as men,” says Watson, an ambassador for the U.N.’s HeForShe initiative, seeking to inspire more men to be supportive of feminism. “I hope that — I think — that’s starting to slowly change, but it is something that does actively need to be addressed.”

Hermione’s heroic status

Her character Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter films is someone anybody could idolize, Watson says, but especially girls — since the Muggle-born witch faced so much dismissal and mistreatment from her Hogwarts peers. She was smart and unashamed of that, could throw a punch (ask Draco Malfoy), and remained self-confident enough to never try to be someone she wasn’t (unless she was taking polyjuice potion.)

“Hermione was that perfect example of turning on its head this initial prejudice,” Watson says. “Hermione finds a way to wield her intelligence and become really the leader in this group of two other boys. That’s kind of the role that she assumes. Harry is much more intuitive. Ron is just along for the ride. Hermione is the one with the plan. She’s in control, and I think somehow that gave other women permission to feel that they were allowed to take up space.”

Ron and Harry certainly treated her with respect.

“She’s really the glue that keeps that trio together,” Watson says. “Her role, it’s fundamental. And the boys knew it and they really treat her as if they know that.”

For more on this week’s cover story, watch EW The Show, available now here, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

More female storytellers

Better heroines can begin with more women behind the camera.

Although filmmakers such as James Cameron and Joss Whedon have done iconic work with lead female heroes, Watson said it’s more important than ever to get women in the director’s chair, telling stories from their own perspectives.

“We are not even on the scale. We are still a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny percentage [of directors,]” Watson says. “I don’t know why, because you look at people like Kathryn Bigelow and you look at Ava DuVernay and these are explosive movies that they direct.”

Women have strong presences in editing, producing, writing and other areas of the filmmaking process, but that central role of director still seems restricted by studio executives. “There’s just a blanket level of prejudice about women’s capacities in that role and just a lack of confidence,” Watson says. “You know, I’m going to give you that check for X million dollars to go and make this movie. There’s a gap there that doesn’t seem to be able to be bridged. I don’t know if it’s trust. I don’t know what it is.”

While Wonder Woman is being directed by Patty Jenkins, and Captain Marvel has reportedly narrowed its search to three female directors, Watson says some studios may simply underestimate a woman at the helm of a big-scale action-adventure film.

“There’s a genre idea of, ‘Well, this is a movie about buildings exploding and fights and superheroes, so a woman can’t direct that. This has to have a man directing it,'” Watson says. “There’s a way that things have been done for a very long time and you almost need to open up new neural pathways in people’s minds. You need to expand people’s vision. You need to get people out of comfortable habits and patterns in order to see new possibilities.”

For more from Beauty and the Beast, follow @Breznican.

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