Emma Watson’s recent speech on feminism for the UN’s new HeForShe campaign has caused a lot of hype. Regardless of whether or not the speech is worthy of the attention, it has sparked conversation about the nature and inclusion of feminism, highlighting the schisms of opinion and political disposition that riddle the feminist community. While I don’t think that Watson’s speech is perfect, I do think it is important to reflect upon the fact that she raises points of entry into the conversation about gender equity and attempts to make feminism more open forum. If we want to continue to advocate for gender equality and make demonstrable changes in the way we think about and treat gender, we have to be willing to participate in productive conversations and advocacy strategies, rather than criticizing and tearing down the very people we should be cooperating with.
As defined by the UN Women website, “HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other of humanity, for the entirety of humanity.” HeForShe enlists the help of men, calling for the participation of men in initiatives to end violence and discrimination based on gender. Popular understandings of gender often equate gender with women, even though gender, as defined by the World Health Organization, “refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women,” meaning that issues of gender equity relate to both men and women. The inclusion of men in gender-based activism is hardly a new concept. As Colvin et al. state, “Efforts to involve men on gender issues first emerged in the context of campaigns against domestic violence in the US. These early men’s movements sought to include men in gender-based social movements both as an expression of their solidarity with women and the human rights abuses women suffered and as an expression of concern about the effects of patriarchal social relations and gender-based violence on the lives of men themselves. Since then, support has been growing in national and international policy and activist circles for the importance of including men in the struggle for gender equality” (2009:19). HeForShe aims to expand upon these efforts.
Yet Watson’s speech for the UN had more to do with dispelling stereotypes and establishing an emotional pathos to the HeForShe campaign. Watson addresses the problematic belief that feminism is “man-hating,” a very real and toxic perception of feminism’s aims and goals. While it is frustrating to hear the note of apology in Watson’s voice as she explains that feminism, broadly defined, essentially means, “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes” (2014), progress in gender equity needs to occur through social transformation, and that social transformation can only occur once people start to think differently about what it means to be a feminist. As we have seen in countries around the world, progressive legislative policies regarding gender equity and empowerment mean nothing unless they are also socially and culturally supported. There are huge portions of the world’s population who are not conversant in feminist theory, who have not been trained to identify and problematize patriarchal institutions and privilege, nor have they been asked to question gender-based assumptions about the formation of their identities as male. While some of us have been trained in feminist discourse and a human rights based legal framework, we must also find ways to make the topic of gender accessible to those who have not had the opportunities or exposure we have.
The main point of contention for critics of Watson’s speech has been her “formal invitation” to men to get involved in gender equality. “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Watson asks, but it’s a question that seems to suggest that men need an invitation to feel comfortable within a feminist space. As Mia McKenzie writes, “Women have been trying to get men to care about oppression of women since…always. Men have never been overwhelmingly interested in fighting that fight, because it requires them giving up power and all evidence suggests that’s not their super-fave thing” (2014). McKenzie goes on to note that Watson’s discussion of problematic gender stereotypes for men obscures or ignores the ways in which men have historically benefitted from patriarchal institutions and structural privilege. Mychal Denzel Smith, in response to McKenzie’s piece, elaborates, “There’s no progress to be had if in order to get men engaged they are allowed to remain ensconced in their privilege. That defeats the purpose. The necessary work of feminist movement will challenge men to understand their complicity and require them to complete very difficult tasks. That’s what revolution is” (2014). Indeed, as sociologist John Boland explains of patriarchy, the “’system rest[s] upon a relationship in which the dominant or superordinate has made the dominated or subordinate ‘an instrument of the dominant’s will and refuses to recognize the subordinate’s independent subjectivity’” (Moffett 2006:137), meaning that patriarchy has insulated itself from criticism or change by refusing to acknowledge or attend to the ways in which men benefit from unequal systems of power.
Male privilege is an issue that needs to be confronted and addressed when discussing gender equality. But, unfortunately, conversations with men about institutionalized patriarchy and privilege are uncomfortable and difficult to guide in a productive, positive way. As Cathy Young points out, “Men must, indeed, ‘feel welcome to participate in the conversation’ about gender issues. But very few will do so if that ‘conversation’ amounts to being told to ‘shut up and listen’ while women talk about the horrible things men do to women, and being labeled a misogynist for daring to point out that bad things happen to men too and that women are not always innocent victims in gender conflicts” (2014). There are many individuals around the world who believe women’s rights to be diametrically opposed to “men’s rights.” These people may perceive efforts to eliminate structural obstacles for women in the workspace and larger public sphere as attacks on men’s rights, rather than the institution of male privilege. During my work at University of Cape Town’s Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit, I read numerous reports and first-hand accounts of men who felt that women’s rights were hurting and subjugating men, rather than equalizing the playing field (Abrahams et al. 1999; Colvin et al. 2009; International Center for Research on Women 2012). Similarly, while working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji, I spoke with many women who believed that all humans should be treated equally, but that men would have to “lose rights” for women to gain them. Rights are seen as competitive, rather than equality as a situation that is mutually beneficial for men and women.
This discourse on loss versus gain for men and women has evolved from the ways in which privilege and oppression have been historically and systematically framed as naturalized positions within patriarchal forms of power and governance. But unless men are willing to come to the table to begin the uncomfortable, difficult process of unpacking their privilege, change will never occur. Yes, it is disappointing that the crux of the issue of gender inequality isn’t talked about overtly, but we have to learn to pick our battles. Involving men in gender-based activism and awareness is an important part of international best practices to enact and enforce change (WHO 2010). Men, admittedly, still hold the power in many parts of the world and recruiting male allies is one of the most sustainable and effective ways of bringing about progress. If we truly want to eliminate violence and discrimination against women, ensure that women have access to adequate health care resources and education, provide women with the power to make decisions about their own bodies, and generate a work environment that values female employees, we need to find a discourse that includes men without alienating them, one that finds synergistic issues that men and women can both agree upon. Movements don’t occur all at once. You need to lay the foundation and building blocks before any groundswell or transformation is going to occur. According to Stephen M. Marks in “Common Strategies for Health and Human Rights: From Theory to Practice,” any strategy for change needs partners and points of entry for a common strategy, which HeForShe accomplishes. Similarly, strategies need to be attuned to the political realities of a situation: “we need to adjust our strategy for mobilizing partners around health and human rights issues to give it both a reformist and transformative orientation. It should be reformist insofar as it seeks to operate within the system, within the current power structures […] But there are numerous participants who are willing to go further, to develop a transformative strategy that challenges the prevailing power structures and attitudes, that pursues the pedagogies of liberation and hope” (1997:402-403).This process can be frustratingly slow and tedious, but they ultimately build more momentum and provide a secure space in which to construct a paradigm shift.
I would suggest that this is why Watson used the rhetoric that she did. In an attempt to cut through geographic, political, economic, racial and sexual dimensions, she focused on the ways in which gender inequality and gender stereotypes negatively affect men. Yes, I agree with Mia McKenzie when she says, “Telling men that they should care about gender inequality because of how much it hurts them, centralizes men and their well-being in a movement built by women for our survival in a world that degrades and dehumanizes us daily” (2014). But I do think that it generates points of solidarity. If men believe that current gender stereotypes benefit them, maybe it is a useful argumentative strategy to identify the ways in which men are equally hurt and imperiled by cultural notions of masculinity. It provides an opportunity for men to speak about the ways that they may feel imprisoned by ideals of manliness, emotionally stymied by a society that raises them to be strong and stoic. While the topic once again gives precedence to the male voice and male experience, I would argue that it also a valuable conversation to have, as it gets the male population to think about and problematize gender without feeling attacked. It creates a sense of vulnerability to the fact that gender does matter for both male and females. It is an important step towards larger discussions about privilege without cutting off the conversation before it even happens.
If we, as feminists, want to create a sustainable movement, we have to think strategically about how we talk about issues of gender equity and tactically galvanize action. Critical analysis of Watson’s speech is important, but if the common goal remains equality, then we need to focus our efforts on supporting initiatives that share similar ideologies and concerns. I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t continue to push for more progressive, inclusive discourses on race and sexuality, transfeminism and abelism as McKenzie (2014) calls attention to. But feminism will never gain domestic or international traction if the women who could and should collaborate criticize and continue to foment internal feminist divisions. We can use these conversations as teaching points; how can we learn to be better feminists? How can we learn from each other’s definitions and approaches to feminism? We’re not going to get everything right all the time, but that is practically impossible. The fact of the matter is that we need female allies as much as we need male allies; we can acknowledge difference while still working together for women’s rights.
I wish that we lived in a world where men were happy and willing to divest themselves of their privilege and work on behalf of women to achieve gender equity. But we have to be realistic about the kinds of transformation we hope to enact. Watson’s speech is hospitable to men because sometimes we have to take the high road. After a legacy of oppression and dispossession, feminists can be the bigger women and strategically guide the conversation about gender equity. I am calling for pragmatism, and since I’ve seen far too many abused women suffer from the political, economic, emotional and physical effects of gender inequality, I think it’s important to be realistic about how we can tangibly transform the world around us.
Abrahams, Naeemah et al. (1999). “’I Do Not Believe in Democracy in the Home’: Men’s Relationship With and Abuse of Women.” CERSA (Women’s Health Medical Research Council).
Colvin, Christopher J. et al. (2009). “’It Looks Like Men Are Competing With Rights Nowadays’: Men’s Perception of Gender Transformation in South Africa.” Sonke Gender Justice Network.
“Gender, Women and Health.” World Health Organization (WHO). http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/
HeForShe (2014). UN Women. http://www.heforshe.org/
International Center for Research on Women (2012). “Strengthening Research and Action on Gender-Based Violence in Africa.” Gender-Based Violence Protection Network & South African Medical Research Council.
Marks, Stephen P. (1997). “Common Strategies for Health and Human Rights: From Theory to Practice.” Health and Human Rights Vol. 2, No. 3, 2nd International Conference on Health and Human Rights. pp. 95-104.
McKenzie, Mia (2014). “Why I’m Not Really Here for Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech At the U.N.” Black Girl Dangerous. http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/09/im-really-emma-watsons-feminism-speech-u-n/
Smith, Mychal Denzel (2014). “Feminism Shouldn’t Make Men Comfortable.” Feministing. http://feministing.com/2014/09/26/feminism-shouldnt-make-men-comfortable/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter
Watson, Emma (2014). “Gender Equality is Your Issue Too.” UN Women. http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/9/emma-watson-gender-equality-is-your-issue-too
World Health Organization (2010). “Preventing Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Against Women: Taking Action and Generating Evidence.” http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2010/9789241564007_eng.pdf
Young, Cathy (2014). “Sorry, Emma Watson, But HeForShe is Rotten For Men.” Time. http://time.com/3432838/emma-watson-feminism-men-women/