Are we afraid of feminism? Emma Watson, the UN and the HeForShe campaign.

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Hermione Granger was and will always be one of my favourite modern literary heroines. As a child I connected with her thirst for intellectual success (often over her male counterparts) which was seemingly unbound by gender stereotypes. She was sensitive AND strong AND a girl; the perfect role model for gender equality.

So Emma Watson’s real-life speech yesterday at the United Nations publicising the HeForShe campaign, as UN Women’s Goodwill ambassador, gave me the same twinge of excitement and joy that I felt when pre-teen Hermione punches Draco Malfoy in the face.

hermione punches draco

YOU GO HERMION-er I mean EMMA!

Watson speaks eloquently and with a sense of conviction which, as a young woman of a similar age, is inspiring. She strikes the perfect tone between self-assurance and confidence without being, as she says she has been called as a headstrong (female) child, ‘bossy’. Which as Watson tells us in her speech is a common struggle for a lot of women who talk about feminism.

When talking about ‘women’s issues’ (because gender equality, domestic violence, rape and other such social issues have become too synonymous with being female rather than gender neutral) women have to tread carefully for fear of being dismissed. This is because, as Watson puts it, “fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating.”

feminism is ugly

She goes on to say that, “Feminism has become an unpopular word…isolating, anti-men, aggressive, unattractive even.”

No sentence in her speech rang more true for me. Feminism IS an unpopular word. Feminism, sadly, is very unattractive to a lot of people, male and female. I can’t count how many times a conversation with a man has been shut down at its mention or how even amongst my closest friends I have felt I ‘can’t go there’ just to keep the peace. Or to spare myself those familiar eye-rolls or groans which often accompany the discussion of gender inequality or sexism.

For me, feminism has become synonymous with defending myself because of my beliefs. In a Pavlov’s dogs kind-of-way I have become conditioned to expect a negative reaction when voicing an opinion on gender equality or feminism. This is of course, very off-putting at times.

I am overjoyed that Watson has been able to speak openly on this powerful platform about these institutionalised and socially-ingrained issues of sexism and gender inequality. As Watson said herself of being appointed as a UN ambassador for women, “the chance to make a real difference is not an opportunity that everyone is given and is one I have no intention of taking lightly.”(1) She voices the beliefs of so many like myself who, for want of a willing audience, often feel powerless to exact change.

The HeForShe campaign advocates gender equality and neutrality. Solidarity and the unifying of efforts from both men and women, “bringing together one half of humanity in support of the other of humanity, for the entirety of humanity.”(2)

heforshe

Although I agree with the message of inviting men to the party, I don’t know whether the ‘He-FOR-She’ message could raise some issues in the opposite direction. Yes it is archaic that such issues as I have mentioned before are labelled as ‘women’s issues’ as, according to Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project, “to call gendered violence or domestic abuse a ‘women’s issue’ is to absolve perpetrators of responsibility while equally alienating and discounting male victims” (3).

But conversely labelling these problems as he ‘for’ she, asking male counterparts to condescend to repress their privilege to ‘help’ us women, ‘for’ us, could have an equally marginalising and adverse outcome. This is only a thought that I’d be interested to open up into a discussion. Overall I agree with the message that the HeForShe campaign is spreading:

“Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals.”

The unifying message is positive and strong. I believe it is a close as we have come to a truly progressive movement on gender equality and reforming or redefining the binary opposition that is male and female (or currently still; male>female) in a long time.

But just because we haven’t found a ‘uniting word’ as Watson puts it, doesn’t mean to me that we should stop using ‘feminism’. Just because for some it is a dirty word doesn’t mean that it should be unspoken. After all, (on another strange Granger/Watson doubling note, in the Harry Potter series) Hermione herself uses the name of Lord Voldemort rather than ‘you-know-who’ because, as she fiercely states, fear of a name leads to the fear of the thing itself.(4)

We must keep calling it feminism because it scares us.

Watch Watson’s speech here:

 

Visit the HeForShe website and find out more about their campaign for gender equality here.

 

(1) –Selby, Jenn. ‘Emma Watson named as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador’, The Independent Online, 08/07/2014, URL http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/emma-watson-appointed-un-women-goodwill-ambassador-9590993.html

(2) – Bates, Laura. Everyday Sexism,(Simon & Schuster: London, 2014), 70-1.

(3) – Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) film.

(4) – Taken from the HeForShe campaign homepage at http://www.heforshe.org/

Images:

Header image URL here.

Hermione punching Malfoy gif URL here.

Feminists are image URL here.

HeForShe logo URL here.

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