Emma Watson is the new poster woman for feminism. She has garnered much support and credibility on the subject, and as a celebrity role model for many young women it is good to see the topic taking up so much social media space and gaining so much traction. Enough traction, in fact, to scare men online into threatening her; which only goes to ironically prove Lewis' Law that "the comments on any article [or in this case, speech] about feminism justify feminism". Point proving aside, this speech could have been so much more... radically feminist.
First, the terminology HeForShe - that men can be advocates for women - is protectionist; it plays into traditional gender roles that allow men to defend and look after women. Instead of men advocating for women, the campaign could have asked; "Why does gender inequality exist?", "How does the construct of masculinity perpetuate gender inequality?", and "How can men change their behaviour to make a difference?". By asking these questions, men could question themselves and each other in order to deconstruct both their individual and their collective roles in maintaining inequality. Instead, women are - as always - the focus of the issue, and men are invited to be involved by kindly helping women. Instead of focusing on so-called "women's issues" a radical campaign could refocus the premise of the issue to, "MEN - and how they oppress women".
It is particularly worrying to see the appeasement of men on a high profile stage. The "I know it's hard for you too" spiel serves to provide a cup of hot chocolate and a cosy blanket for men, so that they don't have to feel threatened. As if their existential privilege isn't enough to keep them warm at night, it is apparently important that we also softly stroke their foreheads and validate their issues as being equal to the oppression faced by women. All this, simply to encourage them to sign a pledge.
Furthermore, appeasing men plays into the #NotAllMen phenomenon, whereby men find space to insist that they exist outside of patriarchal structures to demonstrate that they're not like the "others". When a woman like Emma Watson speaks on behalf of the UN to say that men "suffer", she unfortunately adds fuel to the fire that individualises sexism and misogyny, absolving men from collectively considering the culture of oppression from which they benefit.
Sadly, asking men to advocate for women is not enough; it does not strike at the root of gender inequality, nor provide any analysis to equip men with the tools to break down ideas of masculinity that serve to oppress women, the racism that oppresses women of colour, and the class structures that subject women to poverty.
Audre Lourde wrote:
"Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You [white women] fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying..."
Think about this when you listen to Emma Watson's speech as she uses the personal as indicative of the collective experience. Being called "bossy" at boarding school, being sexualised as a leading young actress, seeing friends drop out of their "beloved sports teams", and potentially being considered unattractive... yes, unattractive!... for identifying as a feminist. Yes, these are all elements of the fabric of gender inequality; but they are the selective patchwork of the white, middle class experience. This rhetoric comprises no understanding that women like Emma Watson are the recipients of structural privilege that oppresses women who are not like her.
Thus, while she uses her micro experience as a proxy for the need for feminism on a macro scale, conversely her acknowledgement of her privilege remains at the micro scale; the love from her parents, the openness of her private school, the encouragement of her mentors. Because to use the rhetoric of privilege on a macro scale would mean talking about the violence of patriarchal system, and how it intersects with the racism of white supremacy (perpetrated by white men and women) to oppress women of colour. It would also mean talking about the class warfare of capitalism and how it pushes working class and poor women and their children into poverty.
Instead, the two main macro examples of gender inequality that must be tackled are named as child marriage and rural African girls' education. Suddenly the phrase "I am from Britain" it proudly pronounced; as if Britain is the bastion of equality, and that because Emma Watson is British, she believes she should have the same rights as men. This geographical shift - away from white Britain to black Africa - provides a psychological shift and thereby a subconscious offloading of the problem of gender inequality to "other" cultures, "other races", and "other" religions. Again, despite the prevalence of inequality around the world, and the common features it shares across different countries, cultures, races and religions, it is a #NotAllMen exercise in alleviating any sense collective responsibility. It is another cup of hot chocolate, to those men who are likely to engage with UN initiatives, to say that you are not like the "others", and you can therefore sign a pledge on a website, know you did your bit, and not delve any deeper into your own privilege.
To be clear, no one can help having privilege, and should not necessarily feel ashamed of their good fortune. However, privilege should necessitate some structural analysis, particularly if one is to take a public stage to talk about inequality. Emma Watson posed the question, "Who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN?", the answer is that only white, middle class, famous women like her and Angelina Jolie are valued and have a voice. Without deconstructing this white privilege and class privilege, alongside male privilege across the board, we cannot get to the heart of inequality.
Emma Watson got people talking about feminism. Imagine the conversations they would be having, had she used the language of radical feminism.
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