Sellers: HeForShe Needs Work

by Emily Sellers | 10/5/14 4:28pm

Though I appreciate the star power Emma Watson lends to the feminist movement, the HeForShe speech delivered to the United Nations on Sept. 20 disappointed me and made me uncomfortable.

“How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” In that moment, Watson lost me. As a feminist, I do not consider it my responsibility to make an equality movement palatable to those in power, just as I do not believe that it is a person of color’s responsibility to “invite” a white person to join the fight against racism. Equality movements should not have to formally ask others to participate ideologically in a theory that is self-evidently beneficial and just. It is one thing for Watson to address the false connotations associated with the term “feminism,” but it is entirely another to suggest that feminism must be made acceptable to institutional power. This also implies, as Mia McKenzie suggests in her article “Why I’m Not Really Here for Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech at the U.N.,” that the reason men have not been receptive has more to do with feminists not asking, rather than the fact that upholding patriarchal society bestows incredible amounts of privilege upon those non-participating men.

Furthermore, the very name is startlingly outmoded. The HeForShe website headline posits that the goal is “a solidarity movement for gender equality,” which seems almost comically off-point. How can HeForShe claim to form a cohesive, inclusive movement regarding gender, when the entire spectrum of those who do not identify along the gender binary are ignored? Those who are gender nonconforming deserve a feminist movement that not only “invites” them to the party, but also does not actively contribute to the very problem they, and many cisgender feminists, are attempting to solve. By reinforcing the gender binary in its brand name, HeForShe implicitly excludes an often overlooked swath of people who are harmed by sexist practices and gender stereotypes. Whether this exclusion was intentional or not, 2014 is not the time for a feminist movement — or, for that matter, a young person professing to be engaged in gender issues — to be ignorant of gender fluidity, non-conformity and trans* individuals.

If feminism really is about the “political, economic and social equality of the sexes,” as Watson says, then we, as feminists, must not overlook those in our community who need equality and recognition — regardless of identification and biological sex. Watson was absolutely correct when she asserted that gender stereotypes hurt everyone, but she failed to acknowledge the harm caused by the gender binary itself, which is a dichotomous bias that profoundly skews our vision of the world. In my view, feminism is about dismantling institutions and attitudes that place limits on how one should act based on physical appearance. You cannot use the language that HeForShe advertises if that is what you are trying to break down. As Audre Lord said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

These issues are especially germane to college and, specifically, Dartmouth life. As Prodhi Manisha ’17 recently wrote (“TTLG: Frat Enough or Nah?” Oct. 3, 2014), gendered institutions like Greek houses not only usually exclude gender-nonperfoming individuals (let alone gender-nonconformists like Manisha), they uphold “antiquated gender stereotypes” — a problem with which HeForShe claims to be concerned. I find it incredibly difficult to understand why a modern feminist movement would employ binary-based language that reinforces the very problem feminism attempts to solve.

One of the most accurate critiques of modern-day feminism is not that people think we are man-haters, but that the movement is largely exclusive. It benefits mainly white, upper-class, cisgender straight women. HeForShe, with its unfortunate cognomen and its poster-star Emma Watson — the perfect face of white, upperclass, straight and cis privilege — fails to address important aspects of feminism’s exclusivity problem. Following up on a boyhood Hermione crush may convince some of HeForShe’s target audience to feel included in the movement, but that does not mean HeForShe should alienate those whom the movement could and should serve.