Emma Watson at the UN: HeForShe or HeForHe?

By Margaret Johnson

A genuine and endearing attempt to start a conversation about the term “feminism” by actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women Emma Watson went viral last week. Watson’s speech to the General Assembly marked the start of the HeForShe campaign which calls on men to be advocates for women and gender equality.

Watson gave a mainstream definition of feminism and acknowledged the negative connotation of feminism being associated with “man-hating.”  This is where Watson goes wrong.  From this moment on, her speech is no longer about women.  Her speech is about men. It’s about appealing to a male audience and catering feminism to men, not explaining the crushing weight of the patriarchal system and its debilitating effect on women.  It is no longer about why a change is needed for women.

She addresses men, saying she would like to “take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too,” implying that men have been unwelcome to participate in advocating equal rights for women.

Women have been trying to bring the issue to the attention of men for over a century and a half. Given the unequal distribution of male political leaders who have the means to actively change the treatment of women, women have sought out men to catalyze change since the discussion first began. The problem isn’t that men haven’t been invited.  The problem is that men have ignored their invitation.

Women aren’t abused, raped and objectified because men have yet to be formally invited to care about women. These problems exist because the patriarchal system derives its power from the disablement of women.

Why would a man choose to promote the equality of women if he can earn significantly more money for doing the same work, control a woman’s decision about her body based on his personal values or inflict harm on women as a means of getting what he wants? Watson doesn’t answer this question; she doesn’t even ask it.  In order to eliminate male privilege, that privilege first needs to be acknowledged—not sympathized with.

Watson further concentrates on the role of men in the problem of gender inequality, inadvertently steering the focus away from women: “I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice.”

The statement tells men they should care about women because of women’s relation to them—not because women are human beings too.  Men shouldn’t care about gender inequality because their daughters, sisters and mothers are oppressed by male privilege; men should care about gender inequality because human beings are being oppressed, and because they can do something about it.

Further sympathizing with men, Watson states, “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.”  She tells men that they should care about this issue because they will benefit from gender equality—completely ignoring that men benefit from gender inequality.

The idea behind this statement once again centralizes men’s needs and characterizes women’s rights as secondary—essentially telling women that their rights will become of equal importance eventually, but not until men feel secure enough with their own identity.

Men are still being put first, and women’s needs are once again put on the back burner.  Women should not have to wait any longer to be given what is rightfully theirs.   Saying that men must be given first priority over women is why gender inequality exists; Watson shouldn’t promote that notion, even accidentally, in a twenty-first century call to action.

It may make sense for Watson to avoid being accusatory towards the male audience she attempts to appeal to. However, it is completely unhelpful to the cause if the roles of men in facilitating gender inequality aren’t acknowledged; without acknowledging those roles, nothing can be fixed.

But perhaps the most upsetting statement Watson makes is the following: “If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.” Men do not have to control women.  Men choose to control women using societal pressure and expectations, physical violence, mental and emotional abuse, etc.

Watson completely ignores men’s autonomy in whether or not they contribute to gender inequality.  But even more so, as a woman hearing this statement, I resented the notion of having to be controlled by anyone—male or female. Women have never had to be controlled.  They should never be controlled—no person should. And though I doubt Watson meant this, her lazy rhetoric is allows for this interpretation.

While Watson is well meaning, and even admirable, in attempting to create a conversation about gender equality and redefine the term “feminism,” she falls short.  The HeForShe campaign recruits men to help women, but with the notion that helping women will benefit men.

Ultimately, Watson tells men to join the campaign because men will help themselves, not because their efforts could reduce assault, rape and premature marriage, as well as allow for greater educational and professional opportunities for women.  Given her message, the campaign might as well be called HeForHe.