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HeForShe: Emma Watson's empty promise that when women's problems are solved, men will be free too

Emma Watson made an empty promise to young men that if only they do as men have always been expected to do—sacrifice and serve—they will eventually be liberated, writes Karen Straughan.

Karen Straughan

AS THE ABORTION debate heats up and it seems like the mass media can hardly go a day without publishing an article decrying the problems facing women in modern society, feminism in Ireland is coming under more scrutiny than it ever has before.

There are many questions that can be asked, and should be asked, about feminism in Ireland today, questions about its origins, its goals, what it really stands for and the direction it’s taking. With vocal feminists on both sides of the abortion line, clarity is something in short supply when it’s needed more than ever.

Rather than asking these questions sotto voce with furtive glances over the shoulder, Irish feminism needs to join international feminism under the spotlight of public interest, especially given its extraordinary and unelected influence at high levels of the Irish government.

Emma Watson backlash

And there are few figures who could be considered more international than Emma Watson, an actress beloved by many for her role in the popular Harry Potter movies, especially among Irish women.

Actress Emma Watson, UN Women’s current Goodwill Ambassador, made headlines last week when she divulged that the backlash against her “HeforShe” campaign had her so depressed and despondent that she could barely get out of bed.

Interestingly enough, most of the backlash she describes as leaving her so discouraged as to be bedridden came from feminists themselves, who largely criticised her for being a privileged, wealthy, white, dabbling elitist, exploiting her substantial platform to presume to speak on behalf of women whose lives and struggles she could never truly understand.

Finding relatable spokespeople

As a daughter of working class parents, the former wife of a working class man, who raised three children and two stepchildren while living well under the poverty line and burying one of them along the way… I have to admit that I don’t disagree with that sentiment.

The dilemma advocacy organisations like UN Women face is in finding spokespeople who are both relatable and recognisable, when the reality is that you can have the one or the other.

More interesting, however, to me anyway, was the absence of any mention in the mainstream press of the male backlash against Watson’s campaign, a backlash in which I eagerly took part.

If HeforShe was divorced from the daily reality of 90% of ordinary women, who are more concerned with the business of surviving, than with whether the wealthiest women on earth get paid less than the wealthiest men, it existed in another universe entirely from the one inhabited by the vast majority of men.

Divorced from men’s reality

Imagine, if you will, a queen arrayed in an outfit that costs the average annual salary of the average working class schlub, an outfit she’ll wear only once because it would be gauche to wear it twice, pretending to speak for the experiences and struggles of the common woman. Ridiculous.

Now imagine this queen appealing to a group of people who are underrepresented in nearly every single metric of social wellbeing and success, from having a fixed address to being employed to finishing school, to pledge their efforts towards preventing girls from being called “bossy” and speaking up for young women in sports.

Imagine her telling these young men that once all women and girls are liberated from the shackles of gendered oppression, their lives will magically improve too. Just by osmosis, or something.

That appeal ventures beyond the ridiculous, beyond the sublime

It is emotional abuse on an epic scale. It is an empty promise to young men that if only they do as men have always been expected to do—sacrifice and serve—they will eventually be liberated from the constraints of male sacrifice and service. Sure, it looks a lot like old-fashioned chivalry, but please be assured, it’s not. It’s HeforShe. It’s feminism.

Men pledging to stand up for women and girls, to protect them from harm, difficulty and exploitation, that’s equality, don’t you know. HeforShe. It’s a completely novel idea. Never been tried before. It might not work, but we’re willing to run with it.

But don’t expect a cookie or a pat on the head, lads. You don’t deserve a “thank you” for being a decent human being, after all. A good deed is its own reward, no matter what it costs you. And don’t forget to check your male privilege.

Feminism promises but doesn’t deliver

It’s little wonder that Ms Watson has expressed no real interest in addressing any of these concerns, even though she leveraged the dire state of men in the western world as bait to recruit them as foot soldiers in her mission. How could she possibly answer for it?

Years ago, someone on a message board called me the woman feminism promised and never delivered. Every day, and with every effort I make, those words remind me of the incredible responsibility I have taken on.

Women do not lack for Lancelots, Arthurs or Quixotes. They have an endless pool of candidates prepared to tilt on their behalf. And what do men have?

Emma Watson’s promise that one day, when all of women’s problems have been solved and all women have been liberated from hardship, men will be free to be “vulnerable and human too.”

Karen Straughan is owner of the YouTube channel GirlWritesWhat, co-founder of Honey Badger Radio, gender counter-theorist, and a men’s rights advocate.

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