It was an imperfect speech.
When Emma Watson spoke at the U.N. headquarters a couple of weeks ago in New York City, she announced the launch of HeForShe Campaign, an initiative that “formally” invited men to work for equality of the sexes. It fell short of being revolutionary, game-changing, or, for me, enlightening, and the Internet has then taken the opportunity to disqualify Watson as the “right” person to have been assigned this role by the U.N. But should this discredit Watson from publicly declaring herself a feminist? I don’t think so.
A white, cisgendered, upper-middle class, celebrity is going to speak to the world about oppression? What does she know about struggle? These are among the set of thoughts that are circulating in critique of Watson.
There is no denying her privileged experience. This is well reflected in her failure to acknowledge intersectionalities of feminism during her presentation to some of the most elite leaders of the world. Ms. Watson also recognized her position of privilege during her speech, questioning whether she really qualified to take on such a role. She is well aware of where she stands, and although this does not excuse the weak points of her speech, she did not attempt to present herself as someone who has been the most severely affected by gender inequality. To criticize her on this basis is, therefore, unfair because it is something that she made clear.
But what about the things she didn’t say? Here is the problem.
Let’s start with the name of the campaign. There’s a he; there’s a she. It grasps solely onto the idea of the binary genders, excluding many folks from the LGBTQ community. This is problematic since she not only said this initiative will invite “both halves” of the world to work together, but also because it now leaves another social issue, the LGBTQ rights movement, in an uncomfortable place to merge with the one at hand, feminism. HeForShe is not as inclusive as it was marketed by Watson, unfortunately.
She also mentions how this campaign will invite men into the feminist movement, implying that, historically, men have been excluded and not welcome to be a part of it. Now, the general (very, very general) idea of this is good. It asserts that social issues should not only be the headaches of those directly affected. This is similar to how immigrant rights groups argue that immigration reform is not just a Latino problem, abortion is not just a women problem, and low wages are not only a fast-food worker battle.
However, these arguments are not on the basis that the invitation has not been extended to the unaffected groups like Watson is presenting for HeForShe. Activists push for the non-affected groups to join the battle because, typically, they will remain apathetic and unmoved by the topic, not because there is an unwelcoming atmosphere to join the movement. The victim does not have a responsibility or obligation to gently let the aggressor know they are wrong or be mindful of the aggressor’s feelings. Regrettably, Watson’s language expresses too much undeserved sensitivity to what our poor, poor men must feel like being left out of the feminist movement. Don’t ask for permission, Watson. Demand change.
While I am a fan of Watson, and a dedicated enough fan that I deemed this disclaimer necessary, this is one opportunity that was not taken advantage of appropriately. There was no clear call to action and how the “he” part of this will stop oppressing the “she,” and it was not aggressive enough to intimidate the enemy. However, it would be wrong rule Watson as a disqualified player based on this one weak use of rhetoric.
HeForShe has all the good intentions. Now, all it needs to some good readjustments and attitude.