In defence of Emma Watson’s UN speech

comment1Emma Watson’s address to the UN launching the new ‘HeForShe’ campaign last Saturday was a thought-provoking, heart-warming and unconventional appeal to the feminist within us all, regardless of gender. Drawing a distinction between loud and proud feminists on the one hand and inadvertent feminists on the other, Watson lamented the stigma attached to and inhibiting the movement of feminism, dismantling the tower of baggage the f-word has dragged with it into the twenty-first century and stripping it down to its simplest definition – “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”

It is precisely because the struggle for gender equality is as necessary today as ever that a careful examination of the terms we use to express our convictions is so crucial. When I first started at Trinity, I became fired-up with all the enthusiasm of a typical first-year English student discovering the feminist canon for the first time. Perceiving with new critical vigour the silent current that had up until now forcefully but insidiously oriented my thoughts, decisions and experience, despite my fresh and newborn rage, I found myself patiently explaining to my brothers, “Do you think men and women are equal? Yes? Well then you’re a feminist!” This paring down of a complex and urgent political prerogative is neither a neutralisation of its terms, nor a cowardly attempt to make it palatable to the suspicious masses, but what Watson has graciously termed ‘an invitation’. For, as she astutely observed, any attempt to effect global change that invites only half of the world’s citizens to participate is weakened from the get-go.

The struggle for gender equality must not be a battle of the sexes. Relations between men and women have unfolded in a way that has incontestably been inordinately oppressive towards women. However, aside from doing our utmost to rectify the myriad injustices that have shaped our society, through consistently remembering and recognising the damage that has been done, we have a responsibility to reflect on how we can address the issue as it stands today. Relegating the male of the species as a whole to the bottom end of the see-saw and holding their collective weight accountable for the structure of a social order we are attempting to dissolve is a counter-productive and harmful manoeuvre. Designating them as our eternal other and oppressor and punishing them for their historical privilege by dooming them to inhabit the gender roles we are striving to obliterate is a paradoxical endeavour.

Granted, sexual and domestic violence are more often perpetrated by men, but a general dismissal of all men as cohorts who are somehow automatically and irredeemably implicated in sustaining this terrifying tendency re-establishes the terms we are trying to undermine. Bundling our siblings, who are hurting as we are from the gender legacy they inherit, into one “class” of woman-beaters, sexual criminals and chauvinistic tyrants, is an explicit and wilful maintenance of the structure and hierarchy we claim to abhor.

In April of this year, Tom Meagher published a powerful article, ‘The Monster Myth.’ Written for the Irish ‘White Ribbon’ men’s movement to combat violence against women, Meagher addressed the discourse surrounding the horrific but all-too-prevalent phenomenon and the need for a mobilisation of male voices to participate in the discussion and denunciation of its occurrence. His insightful and moving piece, evoking his experience and insights after the rape and murder of his own wife Jill in 2012, calls to our attention the need for active male inclusion and involvement in what we might sometimes consider to be “feminist” issues.

Gender inequality is a festering disease from which we are all suffering, and vilifying the male sex is of no benefit whatsoever to those women who have suffered at the hands of a man. It merely perpetuates the essentialising conditions that have determined the dynamic of domination. A victim of gender inequality or violence does not need a space to foster and breed distrust or hatred for all men, but the support of a community that strives to look past and overcome the binaries that bind us all. Emma Watson’s speech is to be saluted. It’s high time we make feminism a men’s issue too.