Gender Politics: Emma Watson’s HeForShe Campaign

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Inequality harms both genders. Image by taliesin.

Emma Watson, best known as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, is now a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations, and the world is buzzing about a new campaign she introduced in a speech at the U.N. on September 20, 2014, HeForShe.

Watson’s speech encourages men to join the movement for women’s equality, a clarion call that hearkens back through feminism’s history – but is her version of the definition of feminism really old news?

The Role of Men in the Gender Equality Movement

Western nations have led the march for women’s rights. To the average American or Brit, Watson’s campaign initially seems a bit dated. The staid underwriters of the campaign, JP Morgan Chase and Barclays are reminders that the concept is not a radical one, at least in the West.

Encouraging men to support women’s rights harkens back to the first days of feminism when women in those nations held rallies to convince men to give them the right to vote. Books such as The Men’s Share?: Masculinities, Male Support and Women’s Suffrage in Britian 1890-1920 document the importance of men in the fight for the female vote.

In her speech, Watson states she wants “to galvanize as many boys and men as possible to be advocates for gender equality.”

What at first blush seems a mere invitation for males to support women’s rights, however, is broadened by Watson, who explains that men also suffer from gender inequality. Watson states she has seen her own “father’s role as a parent valued less” and “young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less ‘macho‘…”

Postmodern Feminism

Post-modern feminists such as those discussed in Feminism/Postmodernim, edited by Linda Nicholson, or Susan Heckman’s Gender and Knowledge have moved on to discussions of gender identity and epistemological arguments about ways of knowing.  The lack of equal pay or access to education for females are considered outcomes of deeper ways of thinking.

Postmodern feminism is a nebulous movement that looks at meaning, language, and so on. For example, how we construct categories – rather than automatically assuming we know what we mean when we use categories like masculine and feminine…

Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble, questions the basic premises of  traditional feminism which focuses on heterosexual masculine men who refuse to allow rights to women, presented as feminine and heterosexual.

While some of Watson’s plea to the United Nations echoed an earlier era of traditional feminism, Watson goes on to focus on “gender-based assumptions” rather than “equality” – an indication she understands that fundamental problems arise from deep-seated beliefs about gender. She notes, “it is time we all perceive gender on a spectrum.”  This understanding arises from the postmodern feminist critique of gender.

Feminism and Gender Equality: Making the Connections

Watson makes the connection between the social limitations placed upon men due to gender such as the need to “be aggressive in order to be accepted” and the effects of inequality on women, such as the plight of “the 15.5 million girls who will be married in the next 16 years as children.”  She has broadened her sights to include all of us in the discussion of gender and its impact on both men and boys as well as women and girls.

Emma Watson may be trying to shed some light on broader definitions of feminism to an international audience – not just Western countries who focus on pay equality and other less-pressing issues. Her international audience includes nations such as Saudi Arabia whose women cannot drive – and Egypt, rated the “worst for women” out of 22 Arab nations in a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Gender Limitations is Truly a Human Issue

Watson encourages the United Nations to address women’s issues such as violence and education. But she also challenges people of all nations to engage in a discussion of gender stereotypes and limitations.

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