Emma Watson’s HeForShe Campaign is Really Cool
by Benjamin Studebaker
Writing about politics is often a depressing business. In the big picture, so much continues to go wrong–economic inequalities continue to grow, climate change continues to get ignored, and governments continue to take apart their regulatory and welfare states. Wars rage, and people die in the millions of preventable diseases. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other poisonous ideologies march on. There is so much unnecessary suffering in the world. But despite all the pessimism I often feel for the future of our societies, there was a story I ran across this past week that made me smile. Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai claims to have been inspired by Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign to call herself a feminist. This may sound like a small thing, but it has some big implications, and they’re really good.
Yousafzai won the Nobel Prize for her work trying to ensure that girls have equal access to education. This is what feminism is all about–in many societies, there are stifling gender norms that say that a woman’s place is primarily in the home and a man’s place is primarily in the workplace. If a woman wants to get an education and make an impact in the workforce, she faces barriers and social stigma. If a man wants to take a primary role as a caregiver, he faces barriers and stigma too. Feminism is about tearing down these arbitrary assumptions and preconceptions we have about how people ought to behave. Yet for years, Yousafzai did not call herself a feminist. Just last year, an interviewer asked Yousafzai if she considered herself a feminist. Yousafzai had this to say:
Well, I fight for women’s rights, and I believe everyone has equal rights as men have.
The interviewer asked the audience:
Does it sound like feminism to you? Show of hands?
Jaclyn Trop describes the response:
The isolated cheers from the 1,000-person audience, positioned in stark contrast to the applause and shouts that punctuated Yousafzai’s answer, said it all: The term “feminism” did not seem especially popular, even among this group of forward-thinkers.
Sadly, this sort of thing is all too common. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Warwick and we had a lecture on feminism, the lecturer asked our audience of politics undergraduate students if we considered ourselves feminists. A strong majority did not. This is because a small cadre of people have hijacked the conversation about feminism, framing the issue as a zero sum game in which women take things from oppressive men. There are two groups of people that contribute to this poisonous narrative–misogynists and misandrists, the haters of women and the haters of men. These people are relatively small in number, but they are very loud and they are deeply hostile to any person who attempts to frame the gender issue in a more mutually cooperative, constructive way.
We live in a society in which both women and men are seriously harmed by gender norms. Across the world, there are societies that are less likely to employ women or pay them a fair wage. There are societies that deny women equal educational opportunities or equal access to healthcare resources. There are societies where domestic violence against women is commonplace, where it is extremely difficult for a woman to get the government to respond in cases of rape or abuse. Women are expected to dress a certain way and display certain “feminine” traits–compassion, empathy, meekness, and so on. There are societies where the value of men as fathers is dismissed and trivialized. There are societies where only men can be forced to fight wars against their will. There are societies that don’t take sexual harassment and sexual violence against men seriously. Men are expected to dress a certain way and display certain “masculine” traits–sternness, strength, stoicism, and so on. All of these stem from gender norms, from the expectation that simply because a person is a woman or a man, that person must act a certain way or fulfill some social role. We all stand to benefit from weakening the hold these norms have over us. We all impose these norms on ourselves and on each other, often without even realizing what we are doing. Every time we criticize a man for being “effeminate” or a woman for being “mannish”, when we demand from ourselves or others adherence to these norms, we are contributing to a world in which people are socially constrained, where they are not free to truly be themselves.
But misogynists and misandrists don’t see gender this way. Misogynists fail to recognize the extent to which gender norms constrain women’s freedom. They see efforts to liberate women from gender norms as an attack upon them, as part of a zero sum game in which jobs and promotions either go to them or to women. Some misogynists are deeply sexually frustrated people. They attribute their sexual failures to a failure on the part of women to see value in them rather than to their own inability to treat the women in their lives as real equals. This causes them to see women as powerful, mysterious entities who deny them sexual gratification and implicitly deny them their sense of worth. In this way they come to demonize women rather than recognize them as people. Most people in the Men’s Rights Movement are misogynists, though it’s possible to care about the ways that men are disadvantaged by gender norms without being one (e.g. David Benatar).
Misandrists fail to recognize that while women’s freedom is more severely constrained by gender norms, men’s freedom is constrained too. They are also insufficiently cognizant of the reality that gender norms are something we socially learn and teach to each other via a non-deliberate process. People who impose gender norms do so not because they are deliberately or knowingly trying to oppress themselves or others, but because they have been taught to believe that these norms are good. The people who most firmly believe in gender norms limit not merely the freedom of others, but the freedom of themselves. They are locked in a cage of their own making. Because misandrists do not recognize that men are constrained and/or that men do not impose gender norms deliberately or with malicious intent, they engage in a hostile form of politics in which men are “called out”. They are named, shamed, and demonized for propagating gender norms rather than engaged with, and little or no attention is paid to the ways in which men can also be liberated from these norms. Many misandrists call themselves feminists even though they are not really committed to gender equality. They are stereotypically often associated with Tumblr, though it is certainly possible to be a feminist on Tumblr without being a “Tumblr feminist”.
When we try to have a reasonable conversation about gender with misogynists or misandrists, each one points to the other as an excuse not to engage in a constructive dialogue. For misogynists, the existence of misandrists proves that feminism is about hating men and taking things from them. For misandrists, the existence of misogynists proves that men are deliberately perpetuating oppression and that the only way to stop them is confrontation. What both these groups need to recognize is that most people are neither misogynists nor misandrists–most people are not participating in this conversation. They are turned off by it and disengaged from it. There’s a silent majority that likes the idea of gender equality, but they don’t realize that this is what feminism is about. Overwhelming majorities around the world recognize the core feminist principle of gender equality, and in most countries a majority recognizes that major changes are still needed to achieve that equality:
But if you ask these people if they consider themselves feminists or view feminism positively the story changes. In a YouGov poll of Americans, only 20% considered themselves feminists even though 82% affirmed that men and women should be social, political, and economic equals. In a Vox poll, 18% of Americans considered themselves feminists while 85% affirmed support for equality for women.
These people are not feminists because they think it involves taking a stand for one gender and against another. So they don’t get involved, weakening the cohesiveness of feminist political campaigns and making it harder to achieve the gender equality they support. Gender issues are not a straightforward power struggle between men and women to determine who oppresses and who gets oppressed. Gender issues are an opportunity for both women and men to liberate themselves and each other from ideologies that limit everyone. Perhaps this especially benefits women, but it certainly should not exclusively do so–everyone has something to gain. This should be common knowledge. When the interviewer asked the audience if Malala Yousafzai sounds like a feminist, they should have said yes with enthusiasm.
This is why Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign is so cool. Watson understands that to create an effective political movement, feminists have to reframe the debate and take it back from the loud minority of misogynists and misandrists that have come to dominate it. Unlike most political speeches, Watson’s words at the UN last year was powerful and inspiring. She makes a robust case for feminism built around solidarity and love, not confrontation and hate:
This kind of message can appeal to the silent majority and change the way a whole new generation of ordinary people thinks about gender politics. Just one year after Yousafzai felt she could not publicly identify her campaign with feminism, she said this to Watson:
It has been a tricky word. When I heard it the first time I heard some negative responses and some positive ones. I hesitated in saying am I feminist or not? Then after hearing your speech when you said ‘if not now, when?’ I decided there’s no way and there’s nothing wrong by calling yourself a feminist. So I’m a feminist and we all should be a feminist because feminism is another word for equality.
If Watson and HeForShe can succeed in showing people that feminism is about gender equality, the research shows that the sky is the limit for what can potentially be achieved. In America alone, the number of people identifying as feminist could potentially quadruple. This could be a powerful mobilization force for gender equality campaigns. Maybe it won’t work–maybe the false narrative of feminism as a zero sum game is too powerful and too influential for any awareness campaign to countervail. But today I feel optimistic. It’s a rare feeling for me these days. I hope it lasts.