Response to a Critique of the ‘HeForShe’ Campaign

I – along with the rest of the world – was recently captivated by Emma Watson’s moving speech on feminism at the UN, which launched the ‘HeForShe’ campaign.  First of all, Emma Watson has been my girl crush since I was in junior high, and second, I was pleased to hear her clarify the definition of feminism, as it has been misunderstood by many.  Watson states that feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”  She goes on to invite men to join the movement for gender equality, pointing out that gender stereotypes imprison men as well as women.  Finally, she ends by encouraging everyone to ask themselves, “If not me, who?  If not now, when?”  I found that ending really empowering because it implies that even though I may feel small, I can make a difference and there is no reason to wait.

Now, that video sat well with me for about a week.  I talked to others about the speech, praising Emma Watson and spreading word of the ‘HeForShe’ campaign.  I did have a prickle of discomfort when I was thinking about the name of the campaign because it seems to imply that men are stepping in and saving women, but I pushed it aside and told myself I was being nitpicky.

Then I read this critique of Emma Watson’s speech and the ‘HeForShe’ campaign, which points out some problematic things:

  • There has been little discussion of what men who sign the pledge can actually do to improve the lives of women.
  • Emma Watson acknowledges that she was privileged because her parents and mentors did not expect less of her because she was a girl, but does not acknowledge how being white, wealthy, able-bodied, or cisgender have affected her life experience.
  • The campaign reinforces the gender binary and excludes those “whose gender identities don’t fit into such tidy boxes,” the very people who are more likely to be oppressed.
  • The campaign fails to invite those whose voices need to be heard the most – the voices of non-white women, trans men, and non-binary people.
  • There has been little discussion about how HeForShe can improve the lives of women and non-binary people who experience intersectional oppressions, like racism, transphobia, and fatphobia.

The critique ends with the suggestion that Watson should have handed the microphone to Laverne Cox (transgender actress, LGBT activist) or Janet Mock (transgender woman, transgender rights activist) if she really wanted to be a “game-changer” for feminism.  After reading this critique, I felt a little defensive of Emma Watson.  I have also been in a position where I was called out for not acknowledging how my privilege shaped my life experiences.  That’s the tricky thing about privilege – it can easily slip by unnoticed when you’re the one who has it.  Also, I wondered, isn’t she managing her privilege by using it for good in standing up for women whose voices aren’t heard?  (Except that she is only standing up for certain women.)

I agree with the critique in its concerns about the exclusion of non-binary people and I’m really ashamed that I didn’t notice that when I first listened to the speech.  I need to get back into the practice of being critical of what I read and listen to.  Additionally, haven’t been able to find anything that explain what the ‘HeForShe’ campaign will actually do to end persisting inequalities.

What do you think of Emma Watson’s speech and the ‘HeForShe’ campaign?  Did you initially agree with it, or were you critical of its shortcomings?  Could Emma Watson have used her privilege in a more productive way?

5 thoughts on “Response to a Critique of the ‘HeForShe’ Campaign

  1. PSK

    I absolutely love the points she makes regarding male societal inequality. While I agree with many of the points made by the feminist movement, l don’t like the ignorance that a large portion of feminists exhibit towards men, and the negative impacts that male stereotypes have.

    In Canada, the economic situation of women making less money than their male counterparts is true, yes. But keep in mind that the suicide rate for men in Canada is over four times higher than their female counterparts. Is this due to the massive social pressures put on men throughout their lives, to be financially successful and provide for their families? This is a problem that should be addressed in the gender equality movement with just as much gusto as those of women’s rights.

    In terms of violence against women, it’s true: women suffer greatly at the hands of men, all over the world, be it by forced child marriage, female genital mutilation, and all of the other grotesque barbarisms that you could think of. And these are issues that must be dealt with. But the unfortunate byproduct of the “empowering women” campaign is that women seen committing acts of violence against men end up being seen as heroes, even in situations where the man is being genuinely harmed and/or humiliated. Thus, the major point that I feel has led to the alienation of “feminism” from the mainstream is that it strayed from it’s purported message of “peace, non-violence, and equality for all”. What I like about Emma Watson’s speech is that it takes a small step back towards that path.

    “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. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.”

    1. raquelbellefleur Post author

      Thanks for your comment! You bring up some really important points about male societal inequality. I definitely agree that it is problematic when women are cheered on for committing violence against men; violence is never okay or acceptable. Also, I think the phrase “gender equality” is starting to be favoured over feminism, which is helpful because it clarifies what feminism truly stands for.

      I appreciate the quote you chose to end with, but I am wondering how that can be done. I think we’re all quick to say that another group should have more power, but it’s harder to say that I myself should have less power. I think men can use their privilege to allow the voices of women to be heard. For example, a man who was asked a question about a given topic at a meeting might suggest that his female friend answer instead, because her voice is often marginalized. That’s what I think when I read Emma’s statement: “If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.” Do you think that is a way these changes can start to occur?

  2. kfidelack

    Thanks for posting this, Raquel! I thought it was very interesting. I was also uncomfortable with the name of the campaign. It seems to go against what Watson spoke about in her speech. It is mentioned that men are influenced by gender stereotypes and expectations, but the campaign isn’t for He. Shouldn’t it be more like “EveryoneforEveryone”? Also, some people don’t label themselves as either he or she, so that also leaves them out completely.

    1. raquelbellefleur Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Kara! “EveryoneforEveryone” is probably not as catchy as he for she, but it is a lot more accurate and it doesn’t leave anyone out. But I guess we also have to remember that whether it’s with the name of a campaign or with teaching practices, everything we do makes some things possible and some things impossible. We can never be completely anti-oppressive. It’s so difficult!


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