Emma Watson’s UN speech sparks gender equality debate

By Jaclyn Archer, Eagle Life Editor

On Sept. 20, Emma Watson, Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women (best known for her performance as Hermione in the “Harry Potter” movies), delivered a powerful speech about the need for men and women to join together in the fight for gender equality. Some people were blown away by the speech. Others, like Mia McKenzie of “Black Girl Dangerous,” argued that it went off the rails in its effort to get men and women to join hands, offering false equivalencies on the way men and women are disadvantaged by gender inequality.

McKenzie writes in her Sept. 24 post, “Telling men that they should care about gender inequality because of how much it hurts them, centralizes men and their well-being in a movement built by women for our survival in a world that degrades and dehumanizes us daily.”

Some felt Watson didn’t go far enough.

“One of the great failures of feminism … is that it has convinced so many that caring about and fighting for the rights of men is anti-woman and a distraction from the “real” issues … I’m fed up with this nonsense. #HeForShe is being spruiked as a movement of gender of solidarity — so where’s the #SheForHe campaign?” writes Laura McAlister on her blog Catholic Cravings.

Finally, others rejected the speech entirely because it embraces a movement that ultimately pits men and women against one another. It is with these people, and their argument that feminism is inherently divisive, that I am frustrated.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of comments and articles by both men and women who say they do not want to be “feminists,” but instead support “gender equality.” Arguments often attached to this sentiment include the direct assertion that feminism is not about gender equality, but about elevating women over men, promoting a “woman as victim” narrative and painting all men as perpetrators of the patriarchy.

As a long-time lover of the “F-word,” I find these arguments frustrating and damaging to the very cause they claim to support. At worst, these arguments amount to an especially clever scare tactic aimed at undermining feminism by scaring away the moderates. At best, this is an effort to promote gender equality that throws the longest-running equality movement in western history under the bus, disavowing and deserting thousands of allies in the fight.

Before I explain my reasoning, let me establish one thing: There is not a singular feminist movement.

There are many varieties of feminism including sex-positive feminism, difference feminism, intersectional feminism and socialist feminism, just to name a few. Like most cultural movements, feminism spends quite a bit of time arguing with itself. Furthermore, feminism encompasses a wide spectrum with its own liberals, conservatives and fringes, all of whom believe they represent the “true movement.”

It makes about as much sense to accuse all feminist movements of being gender divisive as it does to accuse the mid-20th century civil rights movements of being racially divisive, or to accuse people who point out socioeconomic inequality of “class warfare.” All these movements are too big to characterize so broadly. Furthermore, such accusations reverse the causal relationship between feminism and the division of the sexes, and substitutes misandronist rhetoric for the most prominent feminist narrative.

The central narrative of “mainstream” feminism has always been one of gender-equality, with misandry representing the natural bitter undertow of the revolutionary wave, analogous to the more separatist sects of the civil rights movement such as that led by pre-hajj Malcolm X.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Kissling of EWU’s department of Women’s and Gender Studies, “the most visible or well-known feminism in the US … is the strand usually labelled liberal feminism in encyclopedias and textbooks, defined in dictionaries as the political and/or philosophical movement for social, political, and economic equality between women and men. This branch of feminism focuses on equal rights, especially through law and public policy, and their activism has brought about  policy changes in law, workplaces, health care, education, sports, media, and other areas that we’ve seen in the last 50 years.”

This political and social activism has been and continues to be necessary because the division of the sexes exists. Feminism did not invent it; it only sought to point out how the division negatively affected the more obviously disadvantaged portion of the gender spectrum. Gender exists. Men and women exist and historically speaking, men have tended to wield the majority of social, monetary and cultural influence. This is the problem feminist movements have chosen to shed light on, and I think that pointing out sexism and gender inequality is an important step in combating it. One must identify a problem before it can be addressed.

Contrary to the assertions of those who claim feminism is at odds with gender-equality, there are feminist movements which seek to point out the ways in which men are hurt by inequality. For example, the people who brought us “Miss Represenatation” are now producing “The Mask You Live In,” which addresses the way our patriarchal culture enforces an inaccurate and unhealthy vision of western manhood.

I think this is a good, healthy and necessary discussion. I also think it’s okay for people to specialize.

By “specialize” I mean choosing a group of people who struggle with a particular set of ills and make that the focus of activism. Some people want to focus on how patriarchy hurts women. This is good and necessary. Others choose to focus on how patriarchy hurts men. This is also good and necessary. Both discussions are worthy of our support and attention. Favoring one discussion is simply how one chooses to allocate their energy, not necessarily an indictment of the other discussion or indicative of a lack of interest or concern.

For my part, there are many types of inequality I care about: gender inequality, racial inequality, socioeconomic inequality, the marginalization of gender, romantic and sexual minorities (GRSMs) and the physically disabled … But for my own peace of mind, while I may support efforts to address all of these issues, I can only throw my OWN effort in so many places. So I pick my battles from day to day, cause to cause and even from moment to moment.

Some people have asked me why I do not simply choose to be a “humanist” and try to see everyone as valuable individuals. Personally, I reject the premise of this question. I am a humanist. However this does not mean I cannot also embrace specific labels, like “feminist,” which reflect where I choose to focus my energy. To suggest I cannot be both a feminist and a humanist is a false dichotomy and a distraction from the urgent and pressing issues feminism seeks to address.

I also think the notion that we should eschew all labels and “just see people as people” is somewhat unrealistic and occasionally even harmful, as it denies the inherent differences in background and experience which help shape the various and unique perspectives found within human culture.

To put it another way, you are not doing me—a woman of color—any favors by being “color blind.” Instead, you are refusing to see an important part of my identity which has shaped my experience as an American. The experiences of black Americans, while vast and varied, have some common and unique threads, forged through history by trial and triumph. Understanding these commonalities can provide insight into who I am and into a side of American culture and history that is otherwise ignored if you deny the concept of “blackness.” The same can be said for my experience as a West Indian, a resident of the Northwest, an atheist, a bisexual and yes, a woman.

When we seek to erase differences instead of understanding and celebrating them, we are also erasing history, culture and valuable perspective.

In short, recognizing the social advantage of one group over another isn’t divisive, it’s observant. Calling for members of a privileged group to advocate for a less privileged group is not guilting, it is appealing to common humanity. Instead of calling for activists to focus on the issues we want them to focus on, we should recognize the validity of the battle they have chosen to fight, whether we choose to join them in the trenches or not.