Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Why Emma Watson's feminism speech worries me

As a preamble to this piece, I would just like to say that I think “He For She” is a great idea for a campaign and I would encourage everyone to give their wholehearted support. I have already signed up – apparently I am “man number 59,043” to do so.

OK, let's begin this story in the dark and murky days of 2009. I was just starting at university, and like most freshmen, I was getting overexcited about new intellectual ideas that I was being exposed to.

“But WHY”, moaned 19-year-old John plaintively, like a pathetic, mewling toddler, “WHY is everyone so concerned about women's rights, when gender inequality affects men too!?

“I have to go to formal events in HORRIBLE BLACK CLOTHES, whereas women get to wear beautiful dresses in every colour of the rainbow,” continued this awful version of myself, literally believing that this was in any way a valid point. “Also, I don't really fit in when other people expect me to drink beer and talk about football. It's UNBEARABLE.”

I won't link you to the piece I wrote for Gender Agenda along these lines. To this day I can't figure out why more people didn't hate me after I wrote this. Instead, let's fast forward to early September 2014, and I am sitting in a pub in Clapham. The guy sitting opposite me reminds me of my younger self. He's interrupted a conversation about harassment in the workplace by saying men also have problems. He thinks he's being rational and academic about things. The internet is also full of people who remind me of my younger self. It is a constant prod in the face that keeps me feeling nice and guilty. But I can sympathise, right? So I try persuading this guy with arguments that I think might have worked on me, back in the day.

“So imagine tomorrow, for some reason, the entire world is split into two groups. Half of all people are given one million pounds for no reason. The other half have everything they own taken away and are forced to live on the streets. And the people in each half are selected entirely at random.” It's a heavy-handed analogy, but at this stage in the conversation, I'm desperate.

“So you are one of the lucky millionaires, and you're at a party with a group of friends, half of whom are also millionaires, and the other half have lost it all. And the conversation turns to the horrible plight faced by the losers – they can't afford basic food or shelter, they live in unsanitary conditions, all kinds of things. And everybody is chatting about this and saying how awful it is. And then, you, who by pure dumb chance happen to be sitting pretty, suddenly blurt out 'yeah, but the millionaires also have problems – no one ever talks about that!'

“Would you agree with me that such a statement would be callous?”

“Yes,” says the guy I'm talking to.

“Right, because you've derailed the conversation, as a member of the privileged group, and made it all about you. Even though your situation is objectively not comparable. Callous.”

“But you don't have to be part of the privileged group,” he says. “You could choose not to participate in any of the bad things that group does.”

“No, because whether you wanted it or not, you still enjoy all the benefits of being a millionaire, or in the case of real life, being a man. Not enduring daily sexual harassment, not having a one in three chance of being domestically abused, higher pay for the same work...”

“How do you know men don't get harassed? I mean, if they did, they wouldn't tell anyone, would they?” persists the incorrigible man.

“That's not even an argument I'm going to engage with.”

“All I'm saying is that men have problems too. And people really don't talk about them. Men are committing suicide in record numbers. It's a massive problem.”

Of course, the man I was talking to in Clapham was not Emma Watson. But I think he would have been very sympathetic to what she had to say to the UN on Saturday.

Watson said that feminism is too often perceived as man-hating. She said that really, feminism is just a belief in gender equality. She extended a formal invitation to men to join her in this belief. She said that men are imprisoned by gender stereotypes. She said her father's role as a parent is undervalued by society. She said not enough men were invited to Hilary Clinton's speech about women(!?).

She said:
In the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 to 49, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and heart disease.

In my mind, I suddenly saw the waxen face of the Clapham man, as he completely failed to reconcile my arguments with his world view. Suicide is the biggest killer of men. The Biggest. Killer. Of. Men.

OK. Suicide, in any context, is awful. It is a major problem for society in the UK and many other countries. It should be taken very seriously. Of course it should. But it doesn't have anything to do with gender. The primary risk factors include mental health problems, alcoholism and poverty. Currently, four times as many women attempt suicide in the Western world than men. Even if more men attempted suicide, and it is true that 75% of successful suicides are men, it wouldn't remotely suggest that there are systemic problems that affect men every step of their lives that are even close to as bad as those faced by women.

Of course, suicide isn't the issue here – it's just what caught my attention in Watson's speech. The real issue is this: Why was a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador talking about men's issues?

We've heard the arguments a million times. Ending gender inequality means making things better for men and women. We can't make progress on women's issues until we get men on board. Some wise guy comes up with this stuff everywhere you look. And you can't argue with it, because it's self-evidently true. These kind of statements are so obvious and bland that they form a kind of background noise in most discussions. Did anyone at the UN really think that pre-Watson feminism had no interest in men? Let's explain things one more time:

There are few feminists, least of all me, who don't want men to be free of gender stereotypes. There are even fewer who don't want men to be on board with the feminist project. But the thing is, feminism has long ago learned not to think about things as men and women. That's because it's clear that the problem doesn't lie with individuals doing the right or wrong thing. The problem lies at a more fundamental social level, one that necessarily implicates everybody. Just as you can't choose to be privileged or not – if you look like a guy, you'll get the befits of being one – so you can't just choose to be part of the solution rather than the problem. That's why feminists look at trends in culture and video games. That's why we care about religion and politics and advertising. That's why we DON'T really care if some specific men (or women) are put off by the strength of our message.

So I ask again, why was the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador talking about men's issues? Why is she using that massive platform for a campaign to help people suffering to a much lesser degree than women, who are the people her job was created to help. It's not that I mind about the campaign itself, which as I've said, I support, and which will clearly do a lot of good in the world. It's that I'm not really sure that UN Women is the place to launch it. UN Women, especially if it's getting celebrities to promote it, should be leading the global conversation about women's issues. And it absolutely should not – like the Clapham man – be derailing this conversation by focusing it on something far less important and far less relevant. Doing so marginalises the much greater problems faced by the women UN Women is supposed to stand for, and suggests that these problems are of a comparable seriousness to men's.

Personally, I find this implication callous to say the least.