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HeForShe is admirable, but breaks no ground

HeForShe is admirable, but breaks no ground (credit: Braden Kelner/Editor-in-Chief) HeForShe is admirable, but breaks no ground (credit: Braden Kelner/Editor-in-Chief)
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If you’ve spent five minutes on social media in the last week, there is no doubt that you have heard about Emma Watson’s HeForShe UN speech. The former Harry Potter star and current UN Women Goodwill Ambassador is launching what has been called a groundbreaking feminist initiative. In Watson’s words, feminism has been for too long “synonymous with man-hating” when, she says to men, “gender equality is your issue too.” Watson would like the HeForShe campaign to extend to all men a “formal invitation” to join forces with women in fighting for equality. Watson’s speech has resonated powerfully with millions — and for good reason — but how groundbreaking was it, really?

Watson has undeniably made a positive contribution to mainstream feminism. In a society where feminism might as well be the new “f-word,” every outspoken and proud feminist celebrity is valuable to the cause. A woman like Watson, massively famous and widely adored, carries such an astronomical level of clout that feminists everywhere should be thrilled to call her one of our own.

Also, the HeForShe campaign is spot-on in challenging the misconception that feminism is purely a women’s issue. Gender equality is everyone’s issue, and Watson does a good job of recognizing and legitimizing men’s issues without downplaying those of women. The battle for gender equality is compromised when the sides are pitted against each other, she observes, so the solution must be to stop useless fighting between the sides and instead turn toward a common enemy — namely, gender-based stereotypes and policing. With her influence and her inclusivity, Watson may be able to rally many new feminists to the battlefront.

As encouraging as that is, Watson’s brand of feminism must be taken with a grain of salt. Wealthy, well-educated, cisgendered, presumably heterosexual, and white, Watson is the epitome of privilege. Her arguments are exactly the sort which have dominated feminism in the public eye since its origins; her message, while valid and well-spoken, is nothing new. Instead of traversing the same old ground, Watson would do better to use her influence to raise awareness of intersectionality in feminism and to allow the voices of queer women, trans women, and women of color to be heard.

HeForShe tries to gently coax people toward feminist thinking, but — at least at this point — it seems to lack any sort of concrete plan for action. It’s all well and good to get a hashtag trending. It’s exponentially more valuable to actually take steps toward dismantling the oppressive power structures super-glued into society. The patriarchy does hurt men. Watson is all too correct on this point, though she neglects to mention darker issues, such as the belittling of male assault victims, circumcision at birth, and favoring of the mother in child custody cases.

Nevertheless, the patriarchy is also designed to keep men in power, and has consequently — historically and presently, across the world — resulted in the violent oppression of women far and above men. Gender equality is everyone’s issue. But picture a feminist who has read sexual assault and domestic abuse statistics, heard about the epidemic of genital mutilation and honor killings, seen politicians restrict body autonomy, and after all that needs Watson’s assurance that “this will benefit men too” to buy into the cause. I hesitate to trust an ally who is indifferent to injustice until it becomes personally relevant.

It’s worth noting that despite Watson’s concentrated and admirable efforts to make feminism appeal to men, she still received a barrage of anonymous 4chan messages that threatened — emptily, it was later revealed — to leak nude photographs of her. When even thoroughly inclusive feminism draws such threats, it becomes clear that misogyny has little to do with “feminazis” and everything to do with a deeply-ingrained hatred of women.

Emma Watson is a real asset to the feminist movement. Hopefully, HeForShe will continue to inspire new feminists and encourage old ones while also integrating more practical efforts for change. Watson’s brand of feminism is neither perfect nor groundbreaking, but in the end, I’m sure even Hermione Granger would admire her as an amazing young woman.