Emma Watson’s feminism speech

Emma Watson made a speech at the UN yesterday, launching an initiative called HeForShe. You can see the video here, and get a transcript here.

The aim of HeForShe, as Watson states, is

to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change.

Emma Watson being rather famous, this whole thing is a huge deal, and people are talking about it, including some who expect that I’ll have an opinion about it. Which of course I do, and it’s not entirely positive. But not entirely negative, either.

Since my tendency is to write 5,000-word articles that take days to produce, I’m just going to skip all that for now and do something short (a mere 2,500 words!) while the news is fresh. Forgive me for being off-the-cuff and unresearched.

The speech

Watson begins by painting a picture where feminism has become unpopular or under threat, having taken on unpleasant connotations.

the more I have talked to about feminism the more I’ve realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man- hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.

Her language here is a little concerning: “This has to stop”? Why? Because the struggle is too important to allow self-described feminists to be called out for misandric (man-hating) attitudes when they express them?

And who is going to make this stop? Presumably it will be peer pressure—the gentlest but still highly unpleasant form of social coercion—that prevents us from raising the uncomfortable possibility that some feminism is misandric. Be polite to feminism, or be a pariah? In some circles one must already make this choice.

If it weren’t ever true that feminists hated men or that feminism is a misandric or gynocentric (woman-focused) ideology, it might be more understandable to put things this way.

But there isn’t just one kind of feminism, or just one kind of feminist. There are Emma Watsons, who are willing to express compassion for men and their problems, as she does later, and then there are others whose tendency is to demonize men, or who simply aren’t interested in thinking about their problems. And that’s sort of fine, because those versions of feminism are exclusively focused on women’s issues and interests, sometimes at the expense of men.

And neither has a monopoly on the word.

This isn’t meant to be an attack on Watson, or a rebuttal of her speech. She’s a celebrity making a speech (let’s say she wrote it) to grab media attention for a cause, and she’s done a good job. Perhaps she has a more nuanced understanding of what feminism is than she lets on. But on an intellectual level, giving the impression that there is only one feminism, and that it is universally not misandric, makes you appear naive.

For the record – Feminism by definition is: “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”.

I’m not sure where this definition came from, but the Oxford Dictionary of English on my Apple computer says feminism is: “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”

This “advocacy of women’s rights” admits the possibility of feminism being a far more chauvinistic movement than Watson would put forward.

“Chauvinism” isn’t a word I’ve used much in the past, but I picked it up from an article on Return of Kings that I otherwise don’t much agree with (Jeremy Jacobs, An Alternate Theory of White Knights).

Jacobs divides people into three classes:

  1. Chauvinists who advocate for the interests and prestige of their own group at the expense of other groups.
  2. Diplomats can see that most groups have some element of a fair claim for whatever they’re after, and try to create a situation in which everyone has a place and is accorded respect.
  3. Sellouts betray the interests of the group others would place them, and by extension their own interests, because they see benefit in appeasing a powerful group of chauvinists. (The article calls these “Uncle Toms”.)

Though I don’t think it’s Watson’s intention to do this, in one view, HeForShe is encouraging men to become sellouts to bolster the cause of female chauvinists, which make up some proportion of feminists more generally.

I started questioning gender-based assumptions a long time ago. When at 8 I was confused at being called ‘bossy’ because I wanted to direct the plays we would put on for our parents – but the boys were not.

And if this is the case, it was an injustice and Watson is right to be upset.

However, plenty of people don’t like to be bossed around. And unfortunately, there’s a corresponding population that likes to boss others around, who revel in exercising dominance over others, and create extremely painful experiences for others as a result. When we are feeling strong, we will do well to put these tyrants down.

It’s possible that Watson was being bossy. Not necessarily probable, but possible. Boys can be bossy too. Bossy people are a pain in the ass, and being a girl doesn’t get you off the hook for it.

There’s more discussion below of how feminism is popular in institutions because it is an apparently radical ideology that the powerful can espouse without threat to themselves.

It’s okay to be bossy? That’s great for the bosses.

When at 14 I started to be sexualized by certain elements of the press.

It’s not unusual to be sexualized at fourteen. Perhaps not by the press, but at fourteen you’ve probably gone through puberty. You’re sexualized. Though the society you’re in will play a big part in how that’s expressed, it’s not society that sexualized you in the first place: it’s your biology.

When at 15 my girlfriends started dropping out of their beloved sports teams because they didn’t want to appear ‘muscly’. When at 18 my male friends were unable to express their feelings.

Okay, this sucks. But it’s not a universal experience. Whether you view being muscly or feely as bad things depends a lot on your social circle and the values you got from your parents. Feminism probably has a role here in challenging the more restrictive attitudes that we see in some groups.

my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Women are choosing not to identify as feminist. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.

Watson here creates the false image of a feminism under siege. If women are actively choosing not to identify as feminist, it’s because feminism’s rise in popularity, combined with the “you’re either with us or you’re a despicable human being” rhetoric of many female feminists and their male allies, forces people to take sides.

Many women, like many men, don’t like what they see in some contemporary feminisms, and want to dissociate themselves from the word. They often do themselves credit by that.

I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision making that affect my life.

Of the things that Watson claims are right, this one is rather strange. She lives in one of the world’s most durable, well-functioning democracies. If she wants to participate in policymaking, she can, provided that she enters the appropriate institutions and possibly that enough people vote for her. There is little cause for complaint.

If the complaint is on behalf of women who do not have the right to participate in policymaking and other forms of political life, point taken. But women are not merely kept from public life by specific exclusion. There are over half a billion women excluded from political life and free access to truthful information by the existence of a single-party dictatorship in China. Often gender isn’t the only basis of oppression. Feminism often says little about this: broader humanist, democratic, and revolutionary ideologies can.

I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights. No country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality. These rights I consider to be human rights but I am one of the lucky ones. My life is a sheer privilege because my parents didn’t love me less because I was born a daughter.

In the Anglosphere, if you disrespect a woman because she’s a woman, or love a daughter less than a son by dint of her sex, we don’t even have to call you a misogynist—we call you an asshole. Is this a victory for feminism?

Watson’s equation of women’s rights with human rights is the strongest point in her speech. But it does raise the question—if the rights are human rights, why is the movement gender-specific? What about that half-billion or so Chinese women without the vote? Oh, and what of the half-billion Chinese men that go with them?

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.

Watson starts to oscillate quickly between commendable and highly questionable at this point in the speech. Gender equality is absolutely men’s and women’s issue alike. I’d argue it’s our moral obligation to ensure that all people get to enjoy their full complement of human rights. To do so is self-interested for most men as it is for most women, because these rights are our rights.

Let’s leave alone the sticky question of what rights actually are, for the moment, and whether they exist. If rights exist, they are human rights, and we should enjoy them equally.

Where Watson veers into “highly questionable” is in the equation of traditional gender roles with oppression, mental illness and the causes of suicide, and then with the movement to portraying feminism as the appropriate vehicle for men’s liberation from their own gender oppression. The next quote is big, because it’s so central to the speech as a whole

I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence as a child as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen a young man suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make him less of a man – in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men … I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong…. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead two opposing sets of ideals. If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we just are – we can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom.

I find myself incredibly confused by the thoughts that seem necessary to lead us into this analysis. Women are under threat—from men?—so we need feminism. But men are under threat, too, so they need feminism.

What’s happening in this section is that Watson presents a feminist critique of gender roles and stereotypes as the answer to men’s gender and other problems. For a more extensive look at those problems, I recommend Warren Farrell’s book The Myth of Male Power.

I used to call myself an anarchist. I’m not so sure about that now—there may be merit in government limited in the right ways and devoted to the correct tasks. But one of the great strengths of the anarchist tradition is that it sees the sources of oppression in something very general: hierarchy. Both men and women are oppressed, in this view, not by either men or women, but in relations of dominance and submission more generally, by institutions of authority such as the state and workplace, and by disparities in wealth.

Some feminists seem to want more women to get rich and into positions of power—but say nothing about how this will often simply means that poor and powerless women and men alike will remain slaves under new masters. “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss … Pray we don’t get fooled again.” (video)

In one view, feminism is a chauvinist movement designed to further the interests of women and women alone. While Watson makes some gestures towards universalizing it, she maintains its female focus. So is Watson’s feminism a human rights movement, or is it female chauvinism looking for male sellouts as allies?

The name “HeForShe” seems to tell it all. In a certain sense, it’s perfectly reasonable for He to be for She. One for all, and all for one, right? That’s humanism, and it’s altruism. But if He is for She, and She is not correspondingly for He, that’s chauvinism. Does this movement suggest a world where women serve their own interests, while men serve women’s interests, too?

There are undoubtedly places where women are regularly and systematically subjected to systematic legal and economic discrimination, as well as a range of other serious and often brutal treatments. The contemporary West is not one of them. Amid talk of “rape culture”, there is little recognition that men are more likely to be victims of violent crime than women (see item 4), and also that crime victimization is higher among the young and the colored. There is little talk of how income inequality between the sexes, which is often a manufactured grievance, being not a matter of equal pay for equal work, but of different work patterns and job choices among women, pales in significance when looked at alongside the matter of income and wealth inequality in general, which affects men and women alike. In 2007, the top 1% of Americans took 20.9% of the nation’s income (note 85). “Leaning in” isn’t about breaking that down: it’s about taking a slice for yourself.

A suggestion with a hint of conspiracy: feminism and related identity political movements have garnered so much support from government and institutions because they allow us the illusion of participating in radical social change in a way that is completely safe for those who own the world. A particular kind of feminism poses no threat to the plutocrats and autocrats who are the masters when most of us are slaves.

The idea of HeForShe, and of a particular kind of feminism, is that female problems are more urgent than male ones, not only for women, but for men too. I see little reason to believe that is the case. If She is for She, then let He be for He—or let it really be one for all and all for one.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.