HeforShe: Has it all been said before?

Last week, amidst the social media frenzy following Watson’s speech to the UN, a friend of mine exercised his opinion by writing the following Facebook status:

“I find it ironic that the only reason I watched Emma Watson’s speech was because I couldn’t believe that such an iconic and beautiful actress could be capable of caring about feminism on an intellectual level.”

Rowland D1

Image courtesy of Simon Luethi, ©2014, some rights reserved.

This encompasses every aspect of gender stereotyping that feminist campaigners worldwide are desperately trying to eradicate, but it does open up an interesting debate. How far can the contemporary criticism seen on social media of the HeforShe content and spokesperson be considered fair? Is it not indeed ironic that a feminist speech made to the UN, greeted with such warmth and praise by the majority of the audience, has prompted such anti-feminist sentiments across the board? In introducing the world to the HeforShe campaign, Watson placed herself under international scrutiny in order to ‘formally’[1] invite men to join the campaign for equal gender rights, yet her existence in the campaign altogether has prompted criticism. Social media, the platform on which HeforShe intends to be so successful, has also been used to disparage Watson’s appearance as too feminine, her delivery of the speech too weak and her experience of gender inequality too little to empathise with sufferers worldwide. This is a classic example of the misinterpretation of Watson’s involvement with the campaign and a lack of comprehension for the message HeforShe is trying, so desperately, to ingrain in our collective mentality.

Fighting anti-feminist sentiment is a global battle, whether you are affected directly, indirectly or not at all by the issues raised. But undeniably, the movements evolution from first wave feminism during the 19th and early 20th century, through it’s second, third, stand point feminist and post-feminist waves, have had the effect of estranging a generation of potential feminist thinkers through its progressive ideals of equality and its often negative connotations. Watson herself points out in her speech that the word ‘feminist’ is synonymous to some with images of man-hating, with many women choosing ‘not to identify as feminists’ for exactly this reason.[2] Yet when we regard such blatant gender discrimination displayed throughout the world, we are horrified. From glass ceiling thinking in the developed world to forms of female genital mutilation seen affecting over 125 million girls in  developing countries such as Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti,[3] most would consider this a problem which needs to be resolved, but would hesitate to declare themselves feminist in the process. It is this potential exclusion from feminism theory which the HeforShe campaign is attempting to conquer, emphasising the importance of both sexes understanding and thus combatting anti-feminist sentiment. How, then, can the campaign have encountered disapproval from feminists and anti-feminists alike?

An important aspect to remember when talking about feminist thought is that there are multiple strands of contradictory feminist rationale. Gender equality and an end to gender based discrimination or violence is, of course, desired by all those who claim the title ‘feminist.’ But from that point on, the definition becomes rather ambiguous. For example, while those who follow third wave feminism typically celebrate gender empowerment and challenge female heterosexuality, others, such as the post-feminist movement contradict this with the notion they have already achieved overarching feminist goals within society. Is it any wonder then, that the speech and campaign has received such mixed reviews?

Despite its emphasis on the inclusivity of feminist thinking, the campaign has also been criticised for its lack of originality and its relative inaction when tackling gender stereotyping first hand – a reproach which does appear to have an element of truth. Feminist thought has never discounted the importance of both male and female contributors to the cause, indeed organisations for male pro-feminists (such as Meninist, The Mankind Project and MenEngage) have existed for years, the Mankind Project for example, since 1985. So Watson’s speech wasn’t exactly the first invitation to men to join the feminist movement, despite its allusions to such.

Critiques of the campaign have also questioned how much an online button for men to click and confirm their support for the campaign, will really make the global difference expected by the group. According to their Facebook page, over 185, 000 men have pledged to support HeforShe, which after a month of going live, is considered by many to be a slow start. In its defence of its seemingly inactive stance towards combatting gender inequality first hand; HeforShe does give a ‘Gender Equality Action Plan’ on its website, which encourages groups or individuals to take a stand against inequality by appointing local representatives, launching events and campaigning within their local area. Yet it could still be argued that in the realms of feminist thought this really is nothing new. Countless groups, including Feminist Majority Foundation, Feminists for Life and UK Feminista all provide detailed and rather similar action plans online for combatting gender inequality, leading us to the conclusion that in this instance, perhaps it really has all been done before.

What then, one must ask, is original about the campaign? The only answer then appears to be Emma Watson. Having a young, successful, professional woman, whose salary is rumoured to surpass that of her male counterparts, has propelled this otherwise ordinary campaign into the limelight to rest among other such noble causes as ‘It’s On Us’ the latest American pledge to end sexual assault at university campuses. In this respect the campaign seems to be not so much about conquering gender stereotypes with decisive global action, but simply to re-brand feminist thinking in a more accessible way to those who may have been estranged from the concept through lack of comprehension of its true meaning. But this has been done before. Elle’s campaign of inviting advertising companies to ‘rebrand’ feminism last year with a series of explicatory posters of feminist thought was one of many campaigns which have attempted to create a better name for feminism.

Watson’s speech on HeforShe cannot be said to be unique in its content, nor can it claim to be solving first-hand the problems it addressed to the UN. But it wasn’t ever supposed to. This campaign has been criticised for its relative inaction, but the fact that it has risen so steeply into the public consciousness shows that it has in fact, achieved its goal of international recognition. Yet in doing so, it has taken a successful young woman’s professional achievements and disparaged them because of her association with a campaign which highlights the importance of a global response to discrimination, stands for equal opportunity and rights for both sexes and for an end to gender based discrimination and violence.

Now that’s ironic.

[1] http://sociology.about.com/od/Current-Events-in-Sociological-Context/fl/Full-Transcript-of-Emma-Watsons-Speech-on-Gender-Equality-at-the-UN.htm

[2] http://sociology.about.com/od/Current-Events-in-Sociological-Context/fl/Full-Transcript-of-Emma-Watsons-Speech-on-Gender-Equality-at-the-UN.htm

[3] http://www.unicef.org/protection/files/00-FMGC_infographiclow-res.pdf