If you’ve frequented the Internet in the last week or so, it’s likely that you’ve been caught up in the frenzy surrounding the feminist cry heard round the world, a.k.a. British actress Emma Watson’s 11-minute United Nations address on gender inequality. The speech was a springboard for her campaign HeForShe, developed with the United Nations subset U.N. Women, to advance the cause of gender equality, particularly and quite problematically (more on that later) through the recruitment of men in the feminist movement. That was September 20th. Today, the reverberations of her salute to the feminist cause are inescapable by Internet or word of mouth. A simple Google search on the term feminism returns an endless list of blogs, think pieces, and articles published on national news outlets hailing Emma Watson as the new force in the fight for gender equality in the 21st century, even going so far as to affectionately dub her a “game-changer” to the feminist movement. Considering all the hype surrounding it, I began watching the speech expecting to be floored by its sheer radicalism, and finished feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. Many identities and faces, the faces of feminism, remained submerged in virtual obscurity while Emma Watson, in her crisp white blazer and pristinely polished hair, is anointed the new crowning glory of the feminist movement.
I was expecting to hear a battle cry calling people far and wide to break down sexist walls—but five minutes in I realized I was listening to just another lesson in basic white feminism.
The tenets of basic white feminism reflected in Emma Watson’s approach to solving gender inequality:
Emma’s vision for the HeforShe campaign is to “mobilize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change.” Her mission is to bring more males into the feminist movement, which she goes about by reassuring men that a) feminism is not man-hating and b) gender inequality affects men too. Concerning the first device she uses to appeal to men, she says that feminism is anti-man, which is accurate, but then iimplies that men have avoided or rejected feminism in large part because they have been made to feel unwelcome. “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feels welcome to participate in the conversation?” she asks. I believe men have thus far been absent from the feminist movement because of the threat that gender equality poses to male privilege, but according to Emma, they were just waiting for a “formal invitation” to show enough decency to realize that the oppression of women is grossly inhumane. You mean all we had to do was ask?
I can applaud her for appealing to men to pledge their support to a feminist cause, especially by emphasizing how the traditional “masculinity” held in place by patriarchal norms can be damaging to men. However, Emma takes her assertion that feminism is pro-male too far by suggesting that men are the primary beneficiaries of gender equality.
While discussing the gendered stereotypes imposed on men as one of the problems feminism seeks to address, Emma says, “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.” The very notion of patriarchy suggests that men hold power and women are largely excluded from it. Women have more to gain from gender equality since male privilege allows men the political, social, and economic power and authority that is not accessible to women; therefore one of the primary end goals of feminism is to advance women to a level of equality to men. And although gender stereotypes are mutually harmful to men and women, men benefit from being placed at the more favorable end of this particular binary. Men who exercise power and authority are often seen as assured, confident and in control, whereas women are viewed as bossy, arrogant, and angry. As women transcend traditional roles and claim their place in spaces traditionally reserved for males, men will be inclined to adjust the way in which they perceive power and control.
It Reinforces a Gender Binary
This is ironic, considering the fact that Emma herself states that it’s time we “perceive gender on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals.” The fact that she supports the freedom of a self-determined gender expression sounds inclusive. The title of her campaign does not. HeforShe suggests the support of the very limiting gender binary that she seems to reject, as if to say, “All individuals who claim the pronoun ‘he’ please step forward and support all individuals who claim the pronoun ‘she.’ Everyone else remain in the peanut gallery please!” Inadvertently, she is continuing the process of invisibilization of individuals with marginalized and non-conforming gender identities. Not only does she forgo any mention of the issues facing individuals with minority sexual identities and/or sexual orientations, but she also leaves the Trans community on the floorboards of the feminist platform instead of on the front line. In the end, she is congratulated for reinforcing a fact suggested in an Arts.Mic response to the controversial #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag that feminism is for white, wealthy, heterosexual, cisgender women, and, oh, now white, wealthy, heterosexual, cisgender men too!
It Excludes Women of Color
Noticeably absent from Emma’s speech is any mention of the multitude of problems imposed on women of color due in large part to the institutionalized racism held in place by the intersecting barriers of white supremacy and patriarchy. In fact, intersectionality never comes up at all. As a black feminist, I often find myself facing a feminist identity crisis, in which I have become so disheartened and exhausted by the lack of priority paid to the issues facing minority women on the feminist agenda (one of which being the fact that black women are paid 64 cents for every dollar a man earns and Latina women paid a staggeringly low 54 cents) that I think about removing myself from the feminist movement altogether. As a black feminist, I am tired of having to say I am a black feminist because, in my opinion, mainstream—a.k.a white—feminism fails to recognize that the issues facing white men and women are distinct from those facing men and women of color.
How can I, as a black women, think about being equal to men when I am not even equal to other women? As Brittany Cooper notes in her article on black feminism for Salon, black feminism is more concerned with justice than equality. That means seeking justice for decades of disenfranchisement, the prison-industrial complex that incarcerates a disproportionate number of black men and women, the unequal distribution of state and federal resources to schools, housing, and healthcare, among other unjust policies. It’s not enough to throw around intersectionality as a buzzword, a courtesy not even paid to minority women in Emma’s speech, without bringing the socioeconomic issues triggered by the combination of race and gender into national attention. The problem goes much deeper than Emma’s speech because the lack of intersectional analysis reflects the mainstream white feminist movement as a whole. The U.N. subcommittee made the conscious choice to ask a white woman to be their goodwill ambassador—how would the perspective of this speech change if a trans woman of color, like activist Laverne Cox, delivered it? By making women of color invisible, Emma is maintaining the lack of inclusion, relegating women of color to a proverbial limbo that causes people to question whether we are really part of the feminist movement or not. We are.
After a critical analysis, I find many progressive elements to Emma’s speech, the first being the audacity it took to make the speech in the first place. She is one of few high-profile, female public figures to openly advocate for and identify with feminism. Emma attempts to deconstruct the fatal misunderstanding that feminist movement is fundamentally anti-man, and makes it clear that the responsibility of replacing patriarchy with a truly democratic system of social, economic, and political equality falls on everyone’s shoulders. But I can’t reasonably suggest that Emma is genuine in her assertion that to end gender inequality “we need everyone involved,” simply because she does not mention everyone who is actually involved. What’s disappointing is that, for individuals of minority sexual, gender, and/or racial identities, this was a missed opportunity to have our issues and uniquely valid oppressions brought to a greater visibility and exposure. Asks Emma, “If not me, who?” In a movement that is increasingly including multiple representations and identities, there are still not enough Janet Mocks and Laverne Coxs leading the fight against oppression. At the same time, there are far too many Emma Watsons who do nothing to fight for the issues of the universally oppressed, mainly by not recognizing these people and their challenges.
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