September 24, 2014
Emma Watson has given a speech to support the launch of UN “He for She” campaign. There has been considerable support, retweeting and endorsement of her speech and in particular the point at which she invites men to be part of the solution. Tweets like this: “Chaps out there. Sign up for @HeforShe and watch this moving speech. Thumbs up #EmmaWatson” (@evaliparova). There has also been some challenge and rejection to precisely this part of the speech. Tweets like this: “As far as I’m concerned, the liberation of women from male oppression will not be achieved by collusion” (@PlanetCath).
By the standards of much of feminist twitterati, her speech was quite tame. She calmly and quietly gave a very few examples along the lines of the most excellent “@everydaysexsim” such as being labelled bossy (age 8) for wanting to direct the play, noticing her classmates (age 15) falling away from sport as they were afraid that having muscles wasn’t feminine and sensitively noticing her male friends (ages 17 and 18) not feeling able to talk about their feelings.
Her approach was thereby as inclusive and caring as it could be. It recognized that gender norms and stereotypes harm men and boys as they do women. She did not even try to make a comparison as to who might have it worse as some of us would. She did not include statistics about males as predominantly perpetrators of violence against women and females as predominantly victims of male perpetrators as some of us would. She did try to challenge the silencing tactic that is used against feminists – that this means they are automatically man-hating. She went out of her way to support the “not all men” are violent and abusive line, indeed she went further and stressed how many fine and upstanding men and boys there were out there, as many of us would not.
This argument about the role of men in feminism has been doing the rounds for many years – it is not new. So many women do not want to be negative about their men – their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, partners. Some of the refrains in support of working with men sound reasonable and include: They are part of the problem so they have to be part of the solution. We can’t do it without them. Most men are not abusers so we should work with those who can support us. We need their support, we shouldn’t alienate them. They are hurt by gender norms too, if they could be liberated from gender stereotypes, it will help us all. We are not fighting them, they are not the enemy, we just want equality.
The arguments against highlight the fact that what feminism is doing is challenging the power and the status quo. Those who have power and benefit from it in varying degrees generally do not cede it and share it – they protect and reinforce it. So it may be the case that men may find it harder to ask for help, may not visit health care so often, may find it hard to talk about their feelings – but they also benefit from being taken seriously, being respected and having higher status, receiving higher pay, being more likely to be in positions of power on boards, in companies and organisations, in governments etc. Consequently, women have no option but to try to wrest power away from those who hold it. Asking nicely just won’t cut it. So Emma’s approach was very unchallenging you would think. Nevertheless hackers have threatened to publish naked pictures of her in retaliation.
This too is not new. Whenever a woman takes up a public voice to speak on any matter of public policy but particularly one relating to women’s rights there is a backlash. The backlash usually consists of highly gendered abuse to put you back in your place – about your looks and your body, that you should be raped, that you are too ugly to rape, that you need to be taught a lesson and he’s the man to do it. I don’t need to retrace these here, Helen Lewis has admirably done so some while back.
While it may indeed be the case that men suffer from gender straitjacketing too, some of us would argue that we are entitled to demand our rights without apology, without reference to how this affects men, without sorting out all the men’s problems too. The anti-racism movement did not focus its energies on reassuring, including and prioritizing the needs of the white powers nor did it ask for their permission and guidance in how to overthrow them!
That is not to say there is no role for men, just not the role they are used to of leadership and power. Men are very welcome to say that they support us and to consult with us to see in what way they can be most useful to the cause and we will tell them.
We are likely to say stop being violent and abusive if you are and if you are not, then please challenge other men to discourage them from such behaviour as Karen Ingala Smith points out. We are particularly likely to say don’t try and take over our movement, don’t try and lead it, don’t try and distract us and others into talking about you, and certainly don’t presume to try to tell us we’re doing it wrong!