Open Letter to Emma Watson: Your UN address was not a ‘game-changer’

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Dear Emma Watson,

We watched your UN speech with great interest, but we’re afraid that you fell short of your lofty ambitions… or rather, your ambitions weren’t particularly lofty to begin with.

Don’t get us wrong; we congratulate you for using your platform to progress a worthwhile movement that struggles to shake off a lot of negative baggage.

It may seem obvious to us and many other feminists that feminism is not “synonymous with man-hating”, but it really isn’t obvious to many other people.

However, we did not think your speech was a “game-changer” (thanks, Vanity Fair!)

In fact, we felt like the game really wasn’t getting anywhere, and despite wanting to give you a Get Out of Jail Free Card, honestly we think you should pass Go without collecting your dues and try again.

We’re so incredibly frustrated by this missed opportunity.

If anyone could have spoken up for feminism, it’s you. Instead, you defended a watered-down version of feminism on our behalf that will, sadly, never realise transformation.

This is the first campaign of its kind at the UN: we want to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for gender equality.

The problem with making any gender equality campaign dependent on the actions of men is that you’re appealing to the very group of people who have a vested interest in upholding the status quo.

The terminology of HeForShe is “protectionist” and “plays into traditional gender roles” that make women’s progress dependent on men’s willingness to allow them that progress.

Women are, once again, the object of male actions rather than the proponents of change.

If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.

And please don’t even get us started on the problematic gender binary that you repeatedly re-emphasise.

By continuously referring to women in relation to men, you make the success of the former dependent on the approval of the latter. Your attempts to unify also exclude those who don’t fit within your neat and tidy binary.

Radical feminism in itself doesn’t even acknowledge gender roles. You glorify the existence of gender divisions while at the same time criticising gender stereotypes.

For the record, feminism by definition is: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”

This is technically true, but you don’t develop it any further. You espoused an “oversimplified, outdated version of gender discourse” that wouldn’t have been out of place during the first wave of feminism… over a century ago.

This oversimplification is a direct consequence of your appeasement of the masses, your attempts to make feminism a trendy, palatable commodity, complete with a catchy hashtag.

For feminists like us, who have struggled to break down the very institutions that systematically oppress women, your reduction of feminism to the willingness of men to be equal to women is not only frustrating, but counter-intuitive.

It’s not enough for men to realise that equality needs to be recognised.

We have to reconsider the very social conditioning that we’ve been subject to: the institutional, structural barriers to women progressing. We know you picked this definition because you were writing for a male audience.

You were hesitant about confronting men about the role they play (even inadvertently) in the perpetuation of the patriarchy but that’s what we need to do! We need to challenge our own complicity in the perpetuation of the status quo.

Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.

Although this may not have been your intention, your speech, before anything else, pandered to men’s discomfort with feminism, and their existential insecurity around feminists who they perceive as “too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men, and unattractive”.

Men classify feminists in these narrow categories because they feel threatened. This is a controlling mechanism to keep women in their place: they can have a voice, but not too much of a voice.

What’s wrong with strong or aggressive women? Strong and aggressive women fought for the very platform that you now have the privilege of occupying.

You haven’t stopped to think why it is that men feel threatened by the word ‘feminism’. You’re more focused on the discomfort of men but feminists don’t care about making men uncomfortable.

The word is uncomfortable because feminists are directly confronting their oppressors. By gently easing men into the feminist space, you are once again making women’s actions dependent on men’s sensibilities, becoming complicit in the very oppression that you seek to dismantle.

And if you still hate the word—it is not the word that is important but the idea and the ambition behind it… We are struggling for a uniting word but the good news is we have a uniting movement.

You acknowledge that we “are struggling with a uniting word”. But your malaise with the word is peripheral to the actual issue. Feminism is a connotative word, loaded with history, heritage and complexity.

It’s a problematic word because it’s a reflection of problematic realities that hinder empowerment.

Feminism carries a lot of baggage, but that baggage was projected onto it by the very gender obstacles that compel women to stay in their place and that have developed a set of oppressive norms.

You declared passionately: “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” The answer is, with difficulty, but that’s the way it needs to be done.

Though we agree that men need a space to voice their concerns, women should define the limits of the feminist space. Participation in the conversation is important because it is supportive, but there shouldn’t be an expectation that men can fully appreciate or validate the female experience.

You’re trying to move feminism into more neutral territory, but the point isn’t to make it more neutral, but to make people comfortable with this lack of neutrality. Only then can we deconstruct contextualised gender roles and the part we play in upholding them.

I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho”—in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20-49 years of age; eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

It’s not through appeasing males that we achieve inclusivity within the feminist dialogue.

Recognising the female struggle doesn’t belittle the male struggle; it isn’t a competing process. However, the male struggle isn’t normalised, internalised or as pervasive, while the female struggle is deeply entrenched and widely accepted as a given reality.

You argue that “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.” Why not turn this on its head?

Why not recognise the role that feminism plays in dismantling the patriarchy, freeing men from their own oppression inadvertently? You’ve reframed feminism into a passive and antagonistic territory that needs men to reinvigorate and control it.

The biggest problem with all this is that celebrity culture creates certain discourses with its language which entrench themselves in people’s minds, reversing the work done by feminists everywhere.

You feared being too vocal, so you set the bar too low: a paltry standard of celebrity feminism.

You broke down a powerful movement into something basic and almost patronising, rather than recognising how feminism relates to “a complex, reflexive, and discursive system of power structures with the ability to both oppress and liberate”.

There’s no doubt that you will have other platforms to speak up for feminism.

Fear of causing offence should not play a part in shaping feminism to the rest of the world. Represent feminism in all its glory rather than washing it out until it becomes meaningless.

Malvika Jaganmohan and Kamiliya Akkouche

Malvika is a third year undergraduate Law student, currently on an exchange year at Sciences Po Paris's Middle East-Mediterranean Campus in Menton. She has previously been the Events and Opportunities Editor for the Leicester Wave, Publicity Officer for the LSESU Literature Society and Literary Editor for The Clare Market Review. When she's not trawling through the LSESU Feminist Society Facebook group, she can usually be found reading trashy novels, enthusiastically harmonising with her fellow Houghtones or (most likely) napping. Kamiliya Akkouche is a third year student majoring in International Development at the University of Ottawa, currently studying at Sciences Po Paris’s Middle East-Mediterranean Campus in Menton. She has continuously been engaged in various dimensions of the political sphere from leftist organising to formalised political campaigning, with gender being an ever constant presence in shaping policy. Most recently, she contributed to the running of a historic People's Social Forum in Canada, served as a research analyst for the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and worked on various initiatives related to the integration of refugees and immigrants. While she's usually calling people out on their privilege, she also spends some time playing the piano, obsessing over the Cuban human development experiment and discussing Russian 20th century art.

18 Comment

  1. i disagree with it. The entire article makes me dislike the writer because although i support the movement, it reminds me too much of people who impose their beliefs. It makes even a supporter of gender equality uncomfortable. Emma Watson was a voice that made me feel comfortable to listen to because she was respectful. Emma pretty much said “I see things your way, now try to see it my way.” where as the extremist who wrote this would rather see emma say, “This is the way things should be and your problems don’t matter.” That naturally triggers a defensive reaction and it’s the reason why people like the author should not be the face of the movement.

    • “makes me dislike the writer” Oh no! Sure she wrote it for your approval and friendship too 🙁 If only she could have made you “feel comfortable” Making people feel comfortable, the best catalyst for social change.

    • Thanks for your comment, Henry! We’d like to offer some ideas in response.

      “Emma Watson was a voice that made me feel comfortable to listen to because she was respectful.” This was part of our problem with the speech. Why should feminism be about making men comfortable? Why should feminism be about redressing itself into a bare, skeletal afterthought? Because by prioritising men’s discomfort, the root obstacles feminism tries to battle DO become an afterthought.

      We don’t believe we were disrespectful to men at any point in this article. What we wrote are pretty well-accepted realities: men have been historically privileged over women; the female voice has been systematically squashed; women do face institutional barriers that men don’t. That’s not disrespectful to men, but asking them to recognise their own limitations when it comes to addressing the female struggle.

      You said our article “triggers a defensive reaction”, but have you thought to ask why? Why do you feel uncomfortable being told these things? We think it’s because of fear of men’s defensive reaction that Emma Watson watered down a lot of her speech. But have you considered that rather than the feminist movement trying to make men feel more comfortable, men should stop being so defensive?

      We want to encourage more self-reflection and self-awareness by men rather than making them feel better about the status quo. You need to be uncomfortable because that discomfort leads to reflection. This reflection goes towards overturning the pinnacle of patriarchal internalising/conditioning processes. Only then can men say they are actively participating, supporting and forwarding the feminist movement.

  2. The problem with affecting change is that change can legitimately only come from the elites, from those already in power. That’s why Martin Luther King had to pander to the white apathetic middle class, because they had the political clout to affect change. I also take exception to the way this article attempts to frame feminism as solely a woman’s issue. That is simply not true and quite honestly I have never heard this opinion espoused by any self-identified feminist before. Feminism is about the advancement of women and the eventual equalling of the gender opportunity divide. If you have a push only from the side of the disadvantaged than you in fact have an ineffective political movement. That is why male support is so crucial to the feminist cause. While I concur that the speech was not perfect, I believe there is no perfect way to address this issue. This stems from the complexity of all power structure relationships. Men are inevitably a major factor in the advancement of modern feminism. Further more I felt that in fact it was this article that over simplified the feminist movement by dismissing a feminism that takes a different form than yours. Feminism takes many shapes, just like the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. By presenting only one form as correct ( specifically the form you identify with ) you alienate a whole sector of potential supporters by saying they are not real feminists. And by excluding males from the equation you are effectively perpetuating the problem by maintaining the traditional divide. Why is there form of feminism any less valuable than yours?

    • I agree with Christine to an extent: this critique seems to ignore the multiple feminisms that exist. You
      say “If anyone could have spoken up for feminism, it’s you.” At least Emma Watson correctly questioned the UN’s reasons to choose her to represent the interests of women world-wide. This, I thought was the strongest part of her speech. Her references to personal experiences, such as teenage friends worrying about being “too muscly,” has negligible pertinence in comparison to the weighty issues of FGM and domestic abuse. And Emma Watson, a white, middle class woman with a net worth of $60 million represents the feminism of the 1%. If anyone could have spoken up for feminism, Emma Watson would be the LAST.

      • You raise a really interesting point, John! We wanted to address the rather calculated selection of Emma Watson as the figurehead of this campaign by the UN, but we were running out of space! One of the articles we cited in this article tackles the issue very well: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/emma-watson-not-right-woman-job-20149245235239187.html

        There’s an interesting tension between wanting to use ‘celebrity advocacy’ to progress a movement and denouncing celebrities for being advocates for anything because they are the 1%. This is where we’re going to go easy on Emma Watson. The feminist movement isn’t intended to be exclusive. Every woman’s experience of sexism is equally valid. FGM and domestic violence are the more obviously shocking and urgent issues to address, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of some of the issues that Emma Watson raises: adhering to societal gender roles, or media sexualisation of the female body.

        Obviously, intersectionality needs to be at the forefront of the feminist movement, but she had 10 minutes to make an impact and there’s only so much that she could have said (though she could have said a heck of a lot more than she did). She acknowledged her own privilege and like you, we respect her for that. We don’t necessarily think any woman “isn’t qualified” to speak on behalf of feminism (see Malvika’s previous blog-post on policing women’s ‘feminist credentials’). But if a celebrity does choose to take on this mantle, they have to be extremely responsible and careful with their words, because as we wrote in our article, celebrity culture is deeply entrenched in the minds of the people. A lot more thought should have gone into this speech.

        • Yes Watson has every right to voice her feminist values – she is “qualified” and has ‘feminist credentials’ to express her own opinions and direct change for those who also share her own experiences.
          However, no, she does not have the right to impose her feminism on the rest of the world, even less, considering her celebrity status and her potential to spread the message of a minority, Perdita. Because the UN is an international organization, she is representing “global feminism” of which there is, of course, no such thing. And it is incredibly dangerous to presume otherwise.

          For you – Malvika, kamiliya, and Perdita – her feminism is fine – you have been educated in “the West” and it is more than likely that her interests will reflect your own, regardless of how “outdated” her version of feminism is. She says “I am from Britain,” and then continues as if she knows exactly what kind of antidote to prescribe the rest of the world. Neo-colonialism in one of its most toxic guises: benevolence.

          Watson: “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Actually – it would be substantially more than just men who would not identify with her feminism.

          You: “with difficulty, but that’s the way it needs to be done.”

          Yes, of course the power-holders (men) should be challenged by feminist discourses, however your response to Emma Watson’s question could just as easily be read as:

          “It’s going to be difficult to force the interests of elite Western women onto the whole world, tell people who live in entirely different cultural, behavioural systems that their interests don’t matter any more, they have to pretend to have the same concerns as one of the richest women on the planet, plus, somewhere in the gloomy background, an “international” organization monopolized by the nuclear club of its five permanent member states,… “but that’s the way it needs to be done.” I totally agree: blind universalism of naturalized Euro-American thinking isn’t ethnocentric or imperialist, its just the way things have to be.

          The issue for me, is not Emma Watson, well-meaning, intelligent, and courageous individual that she is (- I would be interested to know how Malvika and Kamila have “struggled to break down the very institutions that systematically oppress women” in a way that puts them on par with addressing a speech to the entire world on behalf of the UN.) Instead, my concern is who is behind this, to whom this eager, well-intentioned puppet belongs.

          At times, your article just sounds bitter that she had this opportunity and not you.

      • You do have a very good point John. However, Feminism is still about all women and if Emma Watson, a person who is in a position to be listened to, wants to publicly support the movement I’m not going to complain. But yes, there should be a far more balanced representation of Feminist advocates.

        • Feminism is about all women, but all women are not a homogenous category. As for Emma Watson’s ability to publically support HeforShe – please see my comment above.

    • Thanks for commenting, Christine! We had absolutely no intention of framing feminism as solely a women’s issue. What we disliked about Emma Watson’s speech is the way she constructed men’s involvement in the movement. Men should have a supportive role in the feminist movement. Feminism is the one space where women’s voice is privileged over men’s, a safe space where they aren’t drowned out. The problem with appealing so heavily to men, and making the success of the movement dependent on their willingness to allow women gender equality, is that there is the risk of men dominating this safe space. We’d draw your attention to this for instance: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/heforshe-campaign-iceland-to-follow-up-emma-watson-speech-with-un-womens-rights-conference–for-men-only-9764227.html

      How on earth can you discuss an oppressed class without that very oppressed class being the dominant participant in the discussion!? Rather than Emma Watson challenging men’s role (and this isn’t threatening or man-hating, it’s just necessary), she makes it seem like men are doing us a favour by allowing us equal opportunities. Men’s role needs to be encouraging and unobtrusive, because they have to recognise, as we said in the article, that they will never have a full appreciation of the female experience. We have no intention of “excluding them from the equation”, but their involvement needs to be far more nuanced than what Emma Watson seems to be suggesting. If you visit the #HeForShe campaign website itself, there is no guidance at all about how men are supposed to be involved. All you have to do is click ‘I agree’ to a campaign commitment to ‘take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls’. The campaign also encourages tweeting and instagramming the hashtag. What does that even achieve beyond a gratifying number of likes on Facebook? If men want to take action, they need to check their privilege; they need to listen to women rather than drowning them out; they have to recognise the advantages they have; they have to overcome millennia of social conditioning; start questioning the way they think; stop telling women not to overreact when they’re upset. Real action takes a hell of a lot more effort.

      In relation to dismissing Emma Watson’s form of feminism, we aren’t dismissing it at all. We never once said she’s not a ‘real’ feminist. We think it’s tragic that we have to return to 19th century suffrage rhetoric to an audience made up of the world’s political elite. We think it’s a shame that she constructed an extremely basic speech (and it was undeniably basic) when the feminist movement itself has progressed so much since Wollstonecraft and Pankhurst. I think everyone can agree that women and men need to be economically, politically and socially equal. But surely she could have added something, anything, to that? It’s a shame that we should still be banging on about something that should be obvious to everyone. You could argue that we need to attract the attention of people who may not have a lot of knowledge about gender discourse. But that’s not really good enough. When we talk about racism, for instance, we don’t begin a dialogue that’s decades out of date. We don’t disagree with “her form of feminism”, because she didn’t really say anything at all to disagree with – it was entirely archaic and didn’t progress the movement at all. That’s why we don’t think it was a ‘game-changer’.

    • There are glaring historical inaccuracies in your post- MLK did not pander to the white middle classes- his legacy has been purposefully misappropriated and watered down to suit white supremacist needs that justify the retention of power in the hands of white people. For reference: http://www.salon.com/2014/01/20/how_we_get_dr_king_wrong_we%E2%80%99ve_deliberately_dismembered_him_michael_eric_dyson_tells_salon/)

      More importantly, the idea that “change can legitimately only come from the elites” is a bizarre assertion, given the effectiveness of civil rights era campaigns and protests more recently in the Middle East. Grassroots protest, solidarity and resistance is incredibly important and to undermine that is to undermine democracy; when we unite against the kyriarchy, we become effective in challenging it. Change becomes easier to affect when you have the power of the elites on your side, sure, but it doesn’t make it impossible. Should we compromise principles in favour of ease? I would like to hear your response on that, because personally I don’t think we should.

      Of course feminism takes many forms, but the author of this post isn’t obligated to portray them: this is an opinion piece. The author has suggested that she wants to see a broader kind of feminism represented in Watson’s speech, not simply a liberal perspective that panders (and I assume you accept that indeed it does pander, seeing as you suggested that’s what MLK did?).

  3. […] Open Letter to Emma Watson: Your UN address was not a ‘game-changer’ […]

  4. I think who ever wrote this article may have missed the point a bit. Yes, of course getting men to sympathies with feminism isn’t “enough” to entirely reconstitute society’s male dominated norms. But men are 50% of the world, as are women. Do you really think you can only have half the population (the oppressed, currently less powerful half might i add) to overthrow a system that has been dominant for years?
    Emma Watson WAS pandering to the men, but because she realized it was necessary. You might have a Utopian ideal where women join together and rise up to throw out the patriarchs, but that ain’t realistic. I want men to support women in their campaign for equal rights. While I don’t see the rights of men as the highest desired standard, it seems a pretty good standard from where I’m sitting. I’d like to get to equality before I criticize how it’s not enough. You may think Watson’s speech was full of Simplistic ideas, but that was because it wasn’t aimed at seasoned female feminists. It was a call for all genders to stand together and support each other.
    Moreover, hellz yeah we need to change the socialization of children into beliefs in gender norms/ roles and how gender supposedly is a key factor in power, income, career, harassment and everything else. But you can’t change that without the (at least) acceptance of equality as a concept by fathers, bothers, uncles, cousins, teachers and men children come into contact with everyday.
    If you are too busy getting caught up in the technicalities while there are women around the world without voting rights, abortion rights, welfare rights, working rights etc who would probably reeeeeally appreciate the support of men, then to be honest I think we need to talk about priorities.

  5. We can point fingers and imagine what could have been said instead for ages. However, ignoring that her speech has mobilised even a fraction of the population is myopic. The link (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/29/boys-letter-emma-watson-speech_n_5899728.html ) addresses a 15 year old male’s letter who might not know Wollstonecraft and Pankhurst but surely gets the message and was triggered by this speech. Watson used her platform as a first step to introduce her views on feminism, and reach out to men. We should applaud her for that and yes, she might have started from the basics, but change needs to start somewhere. Instead of assuming a superior stance, we should instead be hoping that it is merely a stepping stone for bigger and better things for the feminist movement. I am sorry you guys felt she was “washing down” the movement- let’s keep our fingers crossed you do a better job when you show up at the UN. Oh wait.

  6. The fact that men comment under this brilliant article and say how the language of the author makes them uncomfortable and they prefer Emma Watson’s tone shows how problematic the situation really is. As men, we have no right to tell women how to be feminists. If they make us uncomfortable, it is because we need to be made uncomfortable! Frminism, like other liberation movements, tries to challenge the patriarchy. As men, we benefit from the patriarchy! If we feel confortable with feminism, I think there is something wrong with it! Women do not need men’s approval when it comes to their tactics and it is frustraiting to see how after this speech, many seem to think gender equality has to start with men taking action.

    There is, however, one point tgat I believe hasn’t been mentioned in the article. The speech was adressed at the UN. It supposedly sought to engage the world rather than the Western white feminists but it failed dramatically. The problems and issues raised in the speech were only applicable to Western countries. Women’s problems in other parts of the world seem to be less important even though there are many more women living in the developing world, facing much bigger barriers than their male counterparts feeling uncomfortable with feminism!

  7. […] Open Letter to Emma Watson: Your UN address was not a ‘game-changer’ […]

  8. I kind of agree with you, But as HENRY CUI said you are being disrespectful as well. ya i know i’ve read your comment. I am a man and today’s world i’ not very proud being a man. With all Due respect, your article somehow triggers defense mechanism because you are trying to blame every single man and that’s not fair.

    BUT MY QUESTION WHY DO WE HAVE TO CLASSIFY HUMAN BEINGS AS MEN AND WOMEN>????
    LETS CLASSIFY AS GOOD AND BAD PEOPLE.

  9. Please i want you to conduct a survey in India.
    Women are not considered equal here as well and that’s sad.
    but what will amaze you is some women are taking undue advantage of these movements about gender inequality and they just win just because they play their card being a woman. Now tell me is it right??
    and regarding henry cui you need men support, You are blaming us because of our ancestors

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