by Mia McKenzie
Actor Emma Watson, of Harry Potter movie fame, is a new Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women and she spoke at the UN on Saturday to launch the HeForShe campaign, which aims to mobilize men to end gender inequality somehow (the campaign doesn’t seem to call men to any particular action of any sort). The campaign wants men to make gender equality their issue, too, and Ms. Watson extended “a formal invitation” to men to do so.
Some of the mainstream (white) feminist interwebs are all abuzz because, according to said mainstream (white) feminist interwebs, it was all kinds of awesome and really, really next-level or something. Yes, some of it was very good. Ms. Watson talked about how she came into feminism herself, after experiences such as being sexualized by the media at age 14. For the first few minutes, the speech is awesome.
Then, around the 6 minute mark, it gets…less good.
I’d call myself a fan of Emma Watson. I like her. I always have. I’m a Harry Potter fan (despite its issues with gender inequality), and I’ve liked her a lot in other stuff, too. I still like her. I also know that she means well in her feminist work, and that her intentions at the UN were great. Cool. Excellent. None of that is the issue here.
The issue is that the message Ms. Watson delivered is problematic in many ways.
In her speech to the UN, Ms. Watson said:
How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.
Here, she seems to suggest that the reason men aren’t involved in the fight for gender equality is that women simply haven’t invited them and, in fact, have been unwelcoming. Women haven’t given men a formal invitation, so they haven’t joined in. It’s not because, you know, men benefit HUGELY (socially, economically, politically, etc. infinity) from gender inequality and therefore have much less incentive to support its dismantling. It’s not because of the prevalence of misogyny the entire world over. It’s just that no one’s asked. OMG, why didn’t any of us think to ask?!
This is an absurd thing to suggest. 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. Share a link about gender equality? Sure! Count me in! Give up real power in real ways? Nope, not really.
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Ms. Watson went on to say:
I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefit of equality, either.
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.
This message is flawed and unfortunate, as well. 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. This is problematic for the same reason telling white people that they should end racism because racism “holds us all back as a society, so eradicating it will help you, too,” is problematic.
Firstly, because even if that’s true, it does nothing to create solidarity. I have never met a white person who decided to take on anti-racism work because of the negative effects of racism on white people. Literally, never. And I don’t think I’ve ever met a man who genuinely supports feminist ideals because of the ways they benefit men first. If I did know people like this, I wouldn’t like them. I’d question why the often brutal oppression of people of color and women and especially women of color wasn’t enough to get them interested, but having an epiphany about the ways men and/or white people are kinda also hurt by these constructs because “something something society and also men should be able to cry, too” made them jump right on board.
Secondly, because it ignores just how much men do benefit from gender inequality. (They really do, Emma!)
Allow me to offer you just a couple statistics from this side of the pond:
1 out of every 5 American women has reported experiencing rape in her lifetime. For American men, it’s 1 in 71.
White (cis-gender) American women earn 78% of what their white male counterparts earn. Black (cis-gender) American women earn 89% of what their Black male counterparts earn and 64% of what their white male counterparts earn. Latina (cis-gender) women earn 89% of what their Latino male counterparts earn and 53% of what their white male counterparts earn.
Only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women.
Of course, the gender pay gap exists everywhere in the world, including the UK. And so does rape.
Saying that men don’t have the benefit of equality creates a false narrative that we’re all hurt in the same ways and at the same degrees by the evils of gender inequality, and that no one’s really benefiting, and that’s simply not true. Emma Watson being sexualized by the media at 14 years old isn’t the same as her male friends not being so comfortable expressing their feelings. It’s a false equivalency. The ways that gender inequality is bad for men and boys are very, very different from the ways it’s bad for women and girls. Namely, it oppresses and abuses women and girls in nearly every facet of life.
Thirdly, the people with the most privilege are constantly being centralized this way in conversations about oppression and it needs to stop. This is why “marriage equality” is the mainstream LGBTQ rights issue, rather than homeless queer youth or struggling elders, rather than invisibilization and erasure of queer and trans people of color. The face of the “marriage equality” movement is mostly white, male and well-off. The people with the most privilege are centered in the discussion, while the people who are the most oppressed are an afterthought, at best. De-centralizing women in conversations about gender inequality isn’t good.
Ms. Watson also said:
I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice…
The underlying message here is that women deserve equity and equality because of our relationships to men. Continuing to re-enforce the idea that men should respect women and fight for women’s equality because mother/sister/daughter/whatever perpetuates the idea that women don’t already deserve those things based solely on our status as human beings. It encourages men to think of women always and only in relation to themselves, as if our pseudo-humanity is only an after-thought of men’s real humanity. The truth is that women are whole, complete people, regardless of our status in the lives of men. This is what men should hear, over and over again. This is what everyone should hear, every day.
I think one thing Ms. Watson was kinda sorta but not really getting at was the idea that femininity, whether expressed by women or men (or genderqueer people, I guess, but who knows because they don’t exist in this UN speech or the “HeForShe” campaign), is what gets the short end of the stick in the world. Femininity is seen as weakness and is hated and abused. That’s valid and very, very important, but she didn’t say any of that, doesn’t appear to have a solid analysis of that yet, and it’s a reach to suggest that’s what will come across to most people who listen to her speech.
So, can we please stop trying to make Emma Watson the new feminist icon of the universe? She’s not there yet. She’s still learning, I think, just like Beyoncé, who, by the way, rarely even gets the benefit of the doubt from white feminists, let alone hailed as feminist queen of all things, when her feminist expressions are less than perfect. (Imagine if Beyoncé got up at the UN and gave a speech that centered men in the fight for gender equality. The white mainstream feminist skies would rain down hellfire upon us all. Well, some of us, anyway.)
I hope that as Emma Watson continues to grow into her feminism she’ll chuck these unfortunate approaches. But, frankly, it’ll take a lot more than that for me to see her as the “game-changing” feminist she’s being called. Where’s her analysis of racial justice and its necessity in ending gender inequality? What does she know about misogynoir? Does she understand that wealthy white women like her are often oppressors of women of color and/or poor women in the world? Where’s her understanding of transfeminism? Can she explain to the UN, or anyone else, why violence against trans women needs to be centered in our work against misogyny? Does she know and can she articulate that ableism is woven into not only gender inequality, but every form of oppression that exists? And, importantly, does she understand that as a white woman she is granted access and taken seriously by mainstream feminism in ways that a woman of color wouldn’t be and why, then, it’s necessary for her to step aside and make room for women of color to be heard if gender inequality is ever to be eradicated? Because any real “game-changing” feminist needs to.
I personally think it would be pretty cool if the woman who used to be the girl who played Hermione turned out to be a kick-ass, game-changing feminist. For me, that requires a real kick-ass, game-changing analysis and approach. Ms. Watson doesn’t have one yet.
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Mia McKenzie is an award-winning writer, a speaker, and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous. Bring her to speak at your college or community event.