In what Vanity Fair hailed as a “game-changing” speech, actress Emma Watson, appointed a U.N. women goodwill ambassador in July, addressed the U.N. in New York on Sept. 21 to launch a campaign called HeForShe. HeForShe extends a “formal invitation” for male involvement in eliminating gender inequality and sexism. This “formal invitation” worries me as it brings up complications of allyship and false equivalency.
I agree with a lot of Watson’s speech. She spoke honestly about her experiences with sexism as a child and as a young adult, from being called bossy at age 8 to being sexualized by the media at age 14. She eloquently defined feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Watson believes in the theory of the “political, economic and social equality of the sexes,” similar to the Beyoncé-approved soundbite sampled from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists.”
Women should be feminists. Men should be feminists. Nonbinary and gender nonconforming people should be feminists. And it’s not just about saying you’re a feminist and believing in the “agenda”: Feminism is a political movement that requires visibility in the media, political action and social change. So, while I’m uncomfortable with the HeForShe campaign because of its focus on men’s issues within feminism, I am grateful that its popularity on Twitter and Facebook has called attention to feminist issues.
I also appreciated that Watson spoke about a gender spectrum, however briefly, calling attention to the fact that the gender binary is an outdated and incorrect social construct. “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals,” she said. For this one brief sentence, men and women were not placed into two boxes of masculine and feminine, almost leading me to think she would mention nonbinary individuals or trans people.
Then, around six minutes into her address, Watson made a statement that made me feel uncomfortable: “Men — I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.” After that sentence, I quickly grew uneasy about the aims of the HeForShe movement.
I have two main problems with Watson’s speech. The first is that it brings up problems with allyship and men’s role in feminism. In a joke that’s been making the rounds on the internet, imagine what your reaction would be to the following slogans: “White For POC,” “Cis For Trans” and “Abled For Disabled.”
It’s unsettling. Conversations about inequalities and axes of power should not be centered on the oppressive group. The “feminism helps men too” and “gender inequality harms boys” mantras equate the feminism movement with the mindset of “I, a man, should only care about this because it directly affects me.”
More damaging quotes surface toward the end of Watson’s speech. “I want men to take up this mantle,” she said, “so their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too.” This approach becomes dangerous, shifting the narrative away from the question of why women shouldn’t be systematically abused every day. When the answer to this question is, “She shouldn’t be abused, raped or discriminated against because she’s my sister/mother/daughter,” the approach becomes deeply problematic.
The reason a person should not be abused or treated unjustly is simple: They are a person, so they should be treated fairly. It does no good to approach feminism by saying things like “I wouldn’t want this to happen to my mother,” as this approach holds that a woman’s only claim to safety and justice is defined by her relationship to men. The message this response conveys, in other words, is that “if this abuse isn’t happening to my daughter, it’s happening to some other girl.” That other girl doesn’t deserve the injustice, either.
My second issue with Watson’s U.N. address is that it creates a false equivalence between men’s issues and women’s issues. I, as a feminist, obviously do care about men. Men are awesome. Unfortunately, there are many harmful notions about masculinity, especially for young adult males, where strong masculinity is the ideal and being called feminine is seen as the ultimate insult. But I think it’s also true that there is a substantial difference between men’s struggles with gender roles and masculinity and the constant degradation and abuse women face every day in every country and culture.
Watson’s speech has been highly praised by the media and has resulted in a slew of male celebrities posting photos with the hashtag #HeForShe. A lot of mainstream feminist blogs and activists, too, have given Watson their stamp of approval. This attention, though, highlights the difficulties and disagreements within the feminist movement as a whole. Oftentimes, in today’s mainstream feminist discourse, we place too much emphasis on a feminism that easily caters to the white, cis, straight female. Feminism needs a lot of things, including more intersectionality, more queer voices, more marginalized voices and more discussion about gender politics and the harmful and inaccurate masculine-feminine binary.
Watson is on the right track. Her ideas are valid, and issues with masculinity and male power aren’t talked about as often as, for example, violence against women is. However, the HeForShe campaign is not the way to go about changing the discourse because it brings in flawed notions of allyship, encourages male control of feminist discourse, and falsely equates men’s and women’s issues. Feminism needs more discussion about issues of masculinity, and it does need more male allies, but HeForShe is the wrong way to achieve these goals.