The rhetoric of gender equality; Emma Watson and other public discourse

As you have no doubt read, seen and heard, UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, recently delivered a speech for the launch of a new campaign, entitled  “HeForShe”.


The speech garnered criticism for several reasons. It framed the solution to gender inequality in terms that many found patriarchal. It extended what many felt was a naive and unnecessary invitation to men, inviting them to participate in the movement for gender equality. Critics also argue that Ms. Watson centred the issue on the benefits men can garner from equality, undermining the moral right and the true value of equality.


This post represents a considered view not only on Ms. Watson’s speech but also the general rhetoric surrounding the issue of gender inequality and feminism. Please note that this opinion is nuanced and as such I urge you to read it in its entirety.



Problematic Phrases

Rephrasing the problem of gender inequality in the terms of patriarchy, which is the social system of primarily male dominance that is responsible for the cultural mindset that passively or actively supports unequal treatment of women including their objectification and victimization, is not the solution.


We see this use of patriarchal language in President Obama’s response to a prominent domestic violence case, which used several problematic phrases,


“Hitting a woman is not something a real man does..”


Attempting to update or redefine the term “real men” only serves to maintain the fiction that there is one way to be a man. By definition, the term “real men” requires there to be men who are less than real. This reinforces rigid gender roles and more specifically, it promotes socially approved scripts that ultimately encourage homophobia and transphobia, that fuel peer pressure and that breed insecurity.


Speaking on the same subject, a White House representative issued another phrase which in this context, becomes somewhat problematic:


“The President is the father of two daughters.”


Though intended to be reassuring, this statement implies that a personal, vested interested is required in order to truly care about violence against women. For me, it was reminiscent of the phrase “someone’s daughter” as often used to discourage mistreatment of women.


“Someone’s daughter” belongs to a group of similar phrases, such as “Someone’s wife or girlfriend” or “What if that were your sister?” and so on. These phrases all attempt to re-humanise women to the hearer, by reminding them of a woman’s social connections and her significance to others. The worrying implication however, is that women are not fully fledged human beings in their own right. Their humanity is granted by association, often by association to male figures.


Women should not need to be contextualized. Humanity is not bestowed by virtue of belonging to a larger social or familial group. Equality is not deserved by association. The reason it is wrong to demean or assault a woman is not her association with some other human being, male or otherwise.


There is a similar statement in Ms. Watson’s speech,

“I want men to take up this mantle, so their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice…”


Whether intended to mean that men should strive for equality because of their “vested interests” or to mean that Ms. Watson’s wish that men to join the movement is caused by her own desire for women to be free from prejudice, this statement defines women by their roles in relation to men. It prompts empathy, but in a diluted form, encouraging men to think of women in relation to themselves.



“Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.”


In connection with this statement, Ms. Watson makes the case for male participation in the movement based on the benefits that gender equality holds for them as men.


Certainly, the best advocates of equality are not those who seek personal gain but are instead driven by a sense of justice. That applies to all of us, not just men. We ought to strive for equality for those from whom we differ, as much as those with whom we share obvious commonalities. That sense of justice is the force behind truly inclusive, intersectional feminism.


In addition, this rhetoric places the emphasis on male-centred issues, when we know that the vast majority of gender inequality is to the detriment of women.That is not to say that there is no room within feminism to discuss areas of inequality that affect men, such as unmarried fathers’ rights, to give an example. Rather, it is to say that our conversations should reflect the work that has to be done, most of which involves primarily female-centred issues.


However, there is a common misconception that feminism is a synonym for misandry. Perhaps this is the reason that Ms. Watson refers to many men feeling unwelcome in the movement. This misconception is the product of misogynistic detractors, poor research and the sad but undeniable fact, that some people with misandric views do identify themselves as feminists. Given all of this, it doesn’t hurt to assure people that feminism is fundamentally about equality.


Some criticise Ms. Watson for extending an “invitation”, citing the thousands of years that the majority of men have been indifferent to or in favour of inequality and accordingly ignored the open invitation.


While this is very true, it has very little meaning to a seventeen year old boy from Lancashire, England, for instance. Surely he can only be held responsible for his own choices and certainly, for events within his own lifetime. However, upon seeing one such critic regard all men as an apparently immortal, collective consciousness, he may very well feel unwelcome. Such statements only perpetuate the misconception that feminism is rooted in reactionary misandry.


Many feminists are apprehensive to discuss any male perspective or experience. It’s an understandable fear too, since the main narrative within this community should generally be centred on the issues of those who have the least voice in wider society.


That being said, keeping the main narrative focused, does not require that we employ prejudice, deny the existence of other forms of inequality or display a lack of compassion and respect in our treatment of them. We can learn about those inequalities, we can even discuss those inequalities without losing all perspective or allowing them to eclipse other issues.


We shouldn’t allow fear to decide our discourse. We shouldn’t allow a fear that looks all too like anger, to become the public spokesperson of our community.



Considering the Speech in Context


Emma Watson is a highly influential figure, particularly to younger people. And while her UN speech uses the familiar phrases of patriarchy, it is an introduction. For the most part, it uses language and terms appropriate for an introduction, appropriate for its audience.


People engage with feminism on different levels. We rarely approach any new or unfamiliar ideology at the highest level. Introductory level conversations of feminism will make use of the familiar language and concepts of patriarchy because we must begin somewhere. We must begin with a common language and tangible, graspable concepts.


Ms. Watson’s speech speaks not to established feminists, but to the next generation of feminists and those not yet versed in feminism. Her speech encourages people to engage with this movement. From there, they can investigate, explore (find out that not everybody falls into one of the “HeForShe” titular categories) and learn that there is so much to feminism that we have yet to discover a “highest level”.


Not only does it take time to integrate feminism into our worldview, but even then, it is an unending education. Perhaps Emma Watson has more “to learn” as critics around the web have stated, but so too have all of us.


And perhaps, when viewed in context, her speech, which has moved its intended audience and started them on what we can only hope will be a lifelong endeavour to learn and engage, is not quite so naive as some have suggested.


Higher-level or in-group rhetoric on any ideology only appeals to those who are already familiar with its concepts, its terminology and so on. This speech, appeals to those who possess its sentiment, its sense of justice.


Furthermore, it brings a more positive representation of feminism into the public awareness, counteracting those misconceptions and lazily trotted-out stereotypes.


Yes, we should discuss the issue of patriarchal solutions to a patriarchal problem. But it’s not necessary to personally attack Ms. Watson, as some have done. The same is true of any high-profile figure who attempts to challenge stereotypes, spark interest in feminism or represent this multi-faceted movement in one neat bundle to an uninitiated audience. There will be errors, their feminism will differ from our own and so on. We ought to take a balanced view of these contributions, consider them in context, assess the positive and negative effects, not just the aspects we consider to be in error. In this case, one positive effect may have been to engage a previously disengaged audience, many of them younger people and men of all ages.


Personally, I welcome the next generation of feminists. I do so knowing they will hold different opinions, accepting that they will have different perspectives and personal experiences. But knowing too, that the learning process is ongoing for all of us – yes, their views will evolve as they engage more with feminism, but feminism will evolve too, in part because of their input. I welcome the next generation of feminists, knowing that we all share a common starting point, our sense of justice.

Postscript & Update

Some readers have heard of Iceland’s announcement regarding a UN-supported male-only gender equality conference on women’s rights and violence against women. While this Jackson Katz style approach can be beneficial in educational settings, excluding women from important dialogues between empowered leaders regarding gender equality and discussing women’s rights without women, strikes me as counter-productive, as I’m sure it does many others. Some newspapers have represented Ms. Watson’s speech and this announcement almost as cause and effect. While they share a use of patriarchal models of male protection and one has certainly popularised the notion of male-involvement in this issue, I feel quite strongly that it’s only appropriate to hold the conference organisers responsible for their own choices, their interpretation and over-stepping of that involvement and from the information currently available, what appears to be their major oversight of an inherent flaw.

Update: Following criticism, the conference organisers have decided to include women, full story here.


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