An Invitation to the Table

Emma Watson spoke at the UN General Headquarters yesterday. In her capacity as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador — a role to which she was appointed (invited?) in July — Watson was there to launch the HeForShe campaign, which describes itself as

a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other [half?] of humanity, for the entirety of humanity.

Or, in simpler (and more idiosyncratic) phrasing: we’re in this patriarchal soup together, and together we have a better chance of getting to the next level of cultural evolution.

The first half of Watson’s speech (full transcript here) talks about her own journey towards feminism, how simple a decision it felt for her to take up that naming for herself, and how distressed she is that in too many public circles “feminist” is seen as synonymous with “man-hating.” Then, as she segues into the official launch of HeForShe, she addresses the next portion of her speech directly towards the men in the audience:

Gender equality is your issue, too. To date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society. I’ve seen young men suffering from illness, unable to ask for help for fear it will make them less of a man. I’ve seen men fragile and insecure by what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.

We don’t want to talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are. When they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive, women won’t be compelled to be submissive. If men don’t need to control, women won’t have to be controlled.

Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. We should stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are. We can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle so their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human, too and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.

There is much to like in this speech. I want to say that up front, before I unpack some of my concerns. I know how hard it is to write something that concise and focused, and how it’s pretty much well-nigh impossible to capture all the nuances in an issue in this sort of forum. Quite frankly, the media machine actively works against the inclusion of nuance in a conversation — this unhappy fact is why “media relations consultants” exist. So I believe I understand why Watson’s speech hit the notes it did and why there are certain shadings and nuances that hit the cutting room floor. (There’s also a lengthier version of the speech here on the UN Women site.)

I offer these words of shade and nuance not with the expectation that these concepts should have been voiced at the UN yesterday, but instead as cautions in hopes that the HeForShe campaign can intentionally and productively propel social and cultural transformation.

To begin with, the old-guard (middle-guard?) feminist/historian in me does want to gently point out that there have been plenty of feminists acknowledging this hard truth about how patriarchal structures hurt everyone caught in their web. Just doing the quickest of searches into my memory rolodex and with Professor Google, I can offer links to Shakesville (2007), SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape; 2011), and The F Word (2012). (And that’s without putting more than a few minutes’ effort into finding sources.) So, even if the reality that patriarchy hurts men is something that doesn’t get widely acknowledged in the mainstream press, it is something that’s pretty frequently acknowledged in feminist circles.

oppressed-white-male-alertThere’s also the horrible awful way that this same hard truth has sometimes been used in as a derailing tactic in women’s or gender-diverse spaces. I’ve seen this behavior myself in plenty a blog-thread or Facebook discussion: individuals voicing how the patriarchy wounds men with a tone that is less “this wounds all of us, so let’s work together to dismantle the patriarchy” and instead carries a strong tone of masculine entitlement about it.

Seriously, the entitlement that sometimes gets shouted into these conversations is like the fellow imagines feminist spaces as these weird harem-like locations where women can tend to female-type problems only until the man shows up, whereupon we should drop everything to tend to his needs. (Actually, thinking of every “lesbian” scene in mainstream porn — most of which actually function as girl-with-girl-until-joined-by-guy — I can see some cultural locales where that particular mythology has been clearly perpetuated.)

(Do I need to tell you that link is NSFW? Visuals are completely G/PG, but the audio goes into R territory.)

So, it’s just tricky, tricky ground. How to build solidarity and compassion for all the different sorts of wounds inflicted by patriarchal structures without going into MRA territory? After all, to quote Cracked:

We understand that a lot of men’s rights activisits are fighting for legitimate causes: like parental visitation, various reproductive rights, child custody, [. . .] We know there are ligitimate issues at stake here. We actually support some of them.

What we’re talking about here is Internet Men’s Activism, where the second someone makes a comment about women’s rights, comment sections and inboxes instantly fill up with the cries of the poor downtrodden middle-class white male, mostly in the form of misspelled rants about c*nts and n-words, or off-topic bitching that misses the point so badly that we think they accidentally replied to the wrong article. Someone sees a forum thread about Reddit’s apparent child porn problem, and takes that as a chance to wave the banner of men’s rights, not in support of child porn (thankfully) but because someone had the audacity to set the blame primarily on men.

[SIDEBAR] When Cracked is calling something out (however rudely and snakily) as inappropriately misogynistic, then it’s pretty fucking misogynistic. Also, if you’re interested in more reputable sources on the topic, see also : Southern Poverty Law Center; Mic; The Drum. [/SIDEBAR]

I’ve heard rumors* that the men’s right’s movement initially started as something that was more complementary to women’s feminist spaces, creating spaces for men to explore the ways that they are suppressed and wounded by patriarchal structures. (I think of what little I know of the Men’s Spirituality movement as an example of that.) But that it very quickly got overrun by the flock of angry entitled and became the conservative corrosive retrograde force we know MRAs as today.

I’m hopeful that, with the weight of the UN behind HeForShe, a similar trajectory can be avoided. Because however tricky this ground we’re walking is, however much awakeness is required to avoid the patriarchal/ego traps of selfishness and narcissism, I do most ardently believe that wherever you fall on the gender spectrum (female, male, trans, cis, genderqueer), we are all in the patriarchal soup together, we are all being wounded by it in different ways, and we all need to work together to bring it down.

And that’s why, for all that I wanted to deepen and nuance the implications of Watson’s speech, I am very glad to see her standing up and starting a new chapter of this conversation. Despite the nervousness that she reported herself, she had the courage to take a stand.

All I know is that I care about this problem and I want to make this better. And having seen what I’ve seen and given the chance, I feel my responsibility to say something. Edmund Burke said all that is need for the forces of evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing

In my nervousness for this speech and my moment of doubt, I told myself: if not me, who? If not now, when?

If not her, if not me, if not you. Many hands, together, now.

Or as Jonathan Larson once said: no day but today.

* Too lazy to look for corroborating sources.


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4 thoughts on “An Invitation to the Table

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