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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.