I love hashtags. I really do. I love the way they let me connect with people on Twitter that I might not otherwise reach, the way they let me make snarky asides, and most of all, the way they provide a platform for activists to connect and organize both locally and globally.
So when, a few weeks ago, the #HeForShe hashtag began showing up in my Twitter feed, I was immediately curious.
Unless you’ve been completely avoiding the internet, you know that Emma Watson gave a speech to the UN two weeks ago to launch the #HeForShe campaign, calling upon men to take up the flag of feminism and become active participants in a feminist movement. You can read a full transcript of her speech here.
At first, it seemed kinda cool. But as the speech went on, the more I found myself falling (as I do) into the role of feminist killjoy.
So here are some of my thoughts. Keep in mind, if you liked the speech, if you think the campaign is a great idea, I’m not criticizing you personally. And I still love Emma Watson (#sorrynotsorry). But I do think there are some pretty serious issues surrounding her speech that we need to consider.
As always, I’m starting with the good – and I do think there was a lot of good in Watson’s speech.
First and foremost, she presents feminism and identifying as a feminist as a positive, logical choice. Too often it’s common to see women either distance themselves from the term, or to identify as feminist but then quickly disclaim that they are not “THAT kind of feminist”.
Watson avoids that route, simply stating that she does see herself as a feminist and that this kind of association of feminism with man-hating “has to stop”. She manages to express her frustration at other women not identifying as feminists without being condescending towards those women, but focuses on the societal stigma around the word.
One of the key points of Watson’s speech involves one of the aspects of feminism that is often ignored, particularly by anti-feminists who just want to complain about female supremacists: that patriarchy hurts everybody, and that feminism’s aim is to dismantle those systems whose rigid expectations for behavior limit and hurt everyone in a society.
Furthermore, I was impressed that Watson used the word “privilege” in speaking about her own life. This word can be kind of loaded these days, as social justice activists are often referred to, derogatorily, as “privilege-checkers”. While Watson focuses more on aspects of her privilege that relate to her gender, and doesn’t refer to her class or race, it’s still encouraging to have her openly apply the word to herself in a conversation about feminism.
I also thought it was kind of cool that Watson positioned gender as “a spectrum”, not “two sets of opposing ideals”. From the context of the quote it seems like she probably meant that gender roles and gendered behavior exist on a spectrum, but the language at least hints at the idea that gender itself exists on a spectrum, and that the idea of a gender binary is limiting and harmful.
The grammar. THE GRAMMAR. Guys, “for” is a preposition. “She” is in the nominative case. Geesh.
As the speech went on, and Watson began to line up ways in which this particular campaign is necessary in the world today, I felt that she did an injustice to the generations of women who came before her in the feminist movement by completely ignoring or erasing all of their efforts.
At one point during her speech, Watson mentioned a speech that Hilary Clinton gave in Beijing in 1997. Watson goes on to note that “But what stood out for me the most was that less than 30% of the audience were male. How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?”
I had to go back and rewind the video several times to make sure that what I was hearing was correct; Watson thinks that the reason men aren’t involved in “women’s issues” is because they weren’t invited or don’t feel welcome? That men resisted women’s voting because nobody asked them to support it, not because giving women power would dilute the disproportional power that men held in government? That men in positions of power don’t push for gender equality in high-level corporate roles because it’s never occurred to women to ask, not because such a push would destroy the illusion of meritocracy that so many of them cling to so dearly?
I have a hard time believing that the reason that men haven’t been jumping up to fight for women’s rights is that we never thought to say “Oh hey, dudes, would you mind helping us out with this rape thing?”.
Putting men in the forefront in the way that this campaign does just keeps the focus on men as saviors, men as actors, and men as the ones with the power, and keeps women in the role of the passive victim needing to be saved. It completely ignores and erases the centuries of work done by women in their attempts to achieve equality and justice. And it implies that supporting equal rights for all people is something special, not something that should be seen as expected.
Finally, Watson commits one of my women’s issues pet peeves when she says: “I want men to take up this mantle so that their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice”. Phrasing things in this way keeps the focus, again, on men and their needs as central to this movement, and is inherently counterproductive.
The aspect of the speech that I found most disappointing follows from a complaint that I have about modern popular feminism in general. In trying to make feminism palatable to everyone, Watson sanitizes it.
For instance, I have to admit that I almost closed the video when Watson said, “We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are. And that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.”
Now, I’m not denying that gender stereotypes are harmful to men too. And one of the many benefits of feminism is that when we liberate women from harmful stereotypes, the stereotypes that hold back their male counterparts will inevitably recede.
However, we’re talking about the fact that a full half of the population of any country in the world experiences less representation in government, business, and media. Half of the population is paid less because of its gender. Half of the population is disproportionally affected by poverty. Half of the population is in danger of experiencing female genital mutilation. Half of the population lives with a constant fear, however subtle, of rape, violence, or death from the other half.
I’m going to argue that those issues deserve more attention and urgent action than helping men feel okay about having feelings.
I’m not trying to play the Oppression Olympics here – the examples that Watson cites about her male friends’ mental health problems, her own experiences being sexualized as a young teen, and her female friends’ quitting sports are all completely valid, and all contribute to the complex mosaic of gender inequality.
However, if, as her speech suggests, the main reason that men should get involved in feminism is so that they themselves can feel free to be sensitive, and that their female relatives can feel free to be strong, then I am thoroughly disappointed.
So what do you think? Was her speech inspiring or only so-so? Did I miss any points you thought were important?