Is HeForShe the solution to combating sexism?

Yesterday, last year, Emma Watson spoke at the UN on gender equality and what we can do to achieve that (because there’s still inequality among the sexes). In order to achieve gender equality, she launched a movement called HeForShe. When I first heard about this, I looked up the transcript of her speech (and the video) and was quite impressed. Apparently, others are too:

She speaks so beautifully and powerfully with so much emotion. I couldn’t think of anyone better to stand up and give such a speech.

–Emily (Alwaysopinionatedgirl) from the Feministas

Then there’s also Vanity Fair, who hailed Emma Watson’s speech as a game changer, because this is probably the first campaign that seeks to include males to end inequalities imposed on females. In summary, Watson argues that gender equality will never be accomplished if it’s mostly the women who are fighting for it–women and men have to work together. This will end the “girls vs. boys” mindset; rather, it should be girls and boys vs. patriarchy–HeForShe.

Having a celebrity go up there and talk about gender equality is a great thing. Whether this HeForShe is just to get publicity or not is something that people aren’t sure about. My mom told me that at her age, she could tell whether they really mean it or not, and she wasn’t impressed by Watson. I am not certain if Watson is just really trying to become more famous. But even if she is trying to do that, it will and has made more people start seriously worrying about gender inequality.

However, my mom’s statement (the not impressed part) made me go and reread Watson’s speech. I started questioning Vanity Fair’s and the Feministas’ hailings. Is HeForShe the ultimate solution to combating sexism? Is it actually what it’s all cracked up to be?

For one thing, I definitely saw flaws in the speech. I realized that Watson was presenting her speech as a white, heterosexual (straight), middle-upper class woman. If you look at the history of feminism, you’ll see that the ones speaking up are mostly those women. In the past, feminism was criticized by women of color, LGBT women, and working class women as a movement only confined to white heterosexual middle class women. I am not saying that the white heterosexual middle-class women should stop talking. I agree with Emma Watson’s statement that if we have to combat gender equality, we need everyone’s support. Sexism impacts people differently based on their race, sexual orientation, and class, because those things are all intertwined with sexism. Therefore, a black bisexual working-class woman will experience sexism differently from someone like Emma Watson. An Asian woman will experience sexism differently from a white woman. For example, the patriarchy favors white men. A lot of white men who happen to be sexists may seek an Asian woman as a wife because there is the stereotype that Asian women are more traditionally and ideally feminine (quieter, sweeter, prettier, submissive) and intelligent, but they still submit to men. This is not necessarily true for all Asian women–just look at the Philippines, where there’s way more gender equality. Still, I’ve experienced the stamp of the Asian female stereotype, which reinforces benevolent prejudice: it is seemingly positive, but is actually patronizing and makes a person feel like his/her identity is not valued if it differs from the stereotype.

A black woman may experience more hostile prejudice. Their intelligence is perceived to be lower, and they can get called “ghetto” and “ho”. The stereotypical black woman is more “slutty” (she sleeps with too many men), angrier, and less feminine.

I noticed that Emma Watson didn’t talk about this kind of racism at all, nor did she expand on benevolent and hostile prejudice. Analysis of racism, classism, homophobia, and ambivalent prejudice was absent from her speech, and so was religion. She only described her experiences, which are that of a nonreligious white heterosexual middle class woman. Why didn’t she describe the experiences girls in countries like Malala’s country face (except for the passing reference to rural African girls, but that was only a mention)? The head of HeForShe is actually Elizabeth Nyamayaro, an woman who grew up in Africa, not Watson, so I think she should have gone further into detail about the experiences girls in Africa face. Why didn’t she expand on the fact that sexism is not an independent form of prejudice? Why didn’t she address the fact that religion may stand in the way of achieving HeForShe’s goals? At one point she says that she thinks it is right to make decisions about her body, and if you read enough books about feminism, you’ll notice that this statement is usually code for the right to abortion, which a lot of religions oppose. What about the girls who do find their identity in religion, the thousands of girls? If there are a lot of religious girls, we can’t afford to ignore religion, or to dismiss religion as patriarchal ideology, because religion may fulfill other needs for identity, meaning of life, and purpose.

If we need to include everyone, and if you’re addressing the UN–United Nations, and if this campaign is meant to be global, we must not just present our own experiences, but try our best to acknowledge the experiences of other races, classes, sexual orientations, and religions. I noticed that HeForShe defines itself as a “solidarity movement for gender equality”. This seems to be a little bit of a paraphrase of the liberal feminist idea that we are sisters—or siblings–in oppression. I say “sistah” a lot to people, but as I said above, we are not all affected by oppression in the same way, and ultimately feminism is divided into different branches. Feminists have different perspectives. How can HeForShe be a solidarity movement if it does not analyze the arguments between feminists of different perspectives, like the radical feminists vs the liberal feminists?

So in order for HeForShe to achieve total gender equality, it should understand, in addition to acknowledging other forms of oppression, that the feminist movement is not solidarity. There are the pro-life and pro-choice; there are the radical, liberal, socialist, eco, and cultural feminists; there are the women-of-color feminists, and so on. They all have different ideas about how gender inequality started; they all have different approaches to solving the problem of inequality. The divisions in feminism have resulted because women all over the world have such vastly different experiences, which HeForShe must take into account. I also saw in HeForShe’s action kit (on its website) that most of the methods used to obtain gender equality concern only politics and the government and schools. If we wish for total equality, politics and the government will only work to some extent. We must challenge the underlying structures and the social relations between people, which will not work with just government.

Furthermore, it seems like HeForShe’s top-priority goal is to get 500,000 men to sign a paper or post a selfie of themselves with a HeForShe sign on social media. I am kinda thinking that this is just step one, but even if it is, shouldn’t it be much more than that? Signing a paper and selfies can often become empty promises. I suggest that HeForShe show to the public the whole timetable, consisting of goals which will not have the potential to become empty promises. It can still have a paper to sign and encourage HeForShe selfie-posting, but those need to be accompanied by goals which can be more–uh, fulfilled, if you know what I mean. One of those goals could be something around: start teaching and reinforcing more gender equality in elementary/primary schools (but present it in a way that will not be so deep that it will upset kids). I noticed that kids get hold of stereotypes quite quickly. While their minds are easier to mold, we should use that opportunity to teach them about gender equality.

So is HeForShe the ultimate solution to combating sexism? It’s a good start, but it’s not there yet. I think the ultimate solution is comprised of many different sub-solutions, which will tie in with a common goal. From what I see, HeForShe only applies one kind of solution. That said, I am not saying we should leave HeForShe. Let’s bring to attention and discuss these flaws and work to make HeForShe better.


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