Last week, Emma Watson, one of the most beloved celebrities on the Internet and a Women’s Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, got up on stage at the UN headquarters and said that she identified as a feminist. In a beautiful and inspiring speech, she laid out the challenges that face women as well as men as a result of the gender divide. She addressed the misconception that feminism means man-hating, and she encouraged men to join the feminist movement via the HeForShe campaign, so that both genders could fight for equality together. Sounds great, right?
What should have been an uncontroversial announcement, given that this is supposed to be 2014, became one of the most debated topics over the past week. The majority of the responses to Emma’s speech were positive and supportive, which is always heartening. But her speech drew its fair share of criticism, whether in the form of polite disagreements, less-than-polite Internet comments, or outright atrocious behaviour ranging from fake nude photo threats to an actual death hoax. I had hoped that having a such a well-liked and respected celebrity embrace feminism would make other people see the movement in a more positive light, but that hasn’t been the case.
One thing I did notice in many of the negative responses is how much misinformation there is and how mistaken a lot of people’s views on the matter are. After seeing so many people get it so wrong, I felt compelled to write a post in response to some of the more recurrent criticisms and misconceptions of feminism that seem to be at the root of many of these disagreements.
“Feminism Is Anti-Men!”
One of the most common—and therefore most damaging—misinterpretations of feminism is that it is about hating men, or at the very least about stripping men of their power and giving it to women. It’s funny to me that people keep saying that even in response to the very speech in which Emma actually singles out and disputes that idea, but that’s exactly why it’s worth bringing up.
I’m not sure where the strawman idea of a man-hating “feminazi” first originated, but this caricaturish hyperbole (satirized in this funny comic) is sadly perpetuated so much that it mistakenly represents the entire movement in many people’s eyes. Similarly, the idea that feminism is about empowering women at the expense of men is ridiculous. Since when were female and male empowerment mutually exclusive?
These misconceptions are both disheartening, because they take a movement that aims to do good and cast it as something malicious, and harmful, because they are far too common and keep many people—women included—away from feminism for the wrong reasons. Even celebrities have fallen prey to these myths. While I wouldn’t vilify them for being victims of a common mistake, the fact remains that every time someone perpetuates a fallacy about feminism, especially in the case of influential celebrities, others buy into it, and it becomes more and more difficult for this inherently good movement to achieve its goals.
“Why Not Egalitarianism?”
The most often repeated response to anything related to feminism is the egalitarianism argument. “Feminism focuses on women’s issues, but men face issues too,” they would say. “Since feminism is only about helping women, it isn’t about true equality. Otherwise it would be egalitarianism.”
This response frustrates me to no end, because it is an entirely meaningless argument, based on fallacy and pedantry, that pops up everywhere and derails the entire conversation every time. I know I should be more patient—after all, misconceptions aren’t always intentional or malicious on the part of the people who believe them—but I can’t tell you how tired I am of having to read this same argument over and over again, especially this past week.
So, once and for all, let me clear this up: feminism is not anti-men nor is it anti-equality. Feminism is a branch of the equality struggle that focuses on women’s issues. It has the same end goal as egalitarianism—true equality between all people. Its focus is on equality for women, just like other movements focus on other marginalized or oppressed groups.
Egalitarianism isn’t enough because it implies that both men and women face issues in equal amounts, and that men’s issues and women’s issues are similar enough that there is a “one size fits all” solution to all gender-related problems. But that’s not the case. Women have it worse in today’s society, and most of the problems they face are very gender-specific. That’s why feminism is needed.
Look at it this way: all medicine aims to cure the body from illness and pain. But there is a specific treatment for a stomach ache, or a broken leg, or a migraine. Sure, you can give someone a painkiller, an all-encompassing treatment that dulls the pain, but you can’t fix the problem unless you have specialized medication that targets specific ailments. Some treatments are more aggressive than others based on the severity of the problem, but they all work together towards the same goal.
“Do Women Still Face Issues, Though?”
There are people who believe that equality has already been achieved in today’s society. “Feminism may have been necessary back when women couldn’t vote,” they would say, “but there’s no need for it in today’s world.” It’s easy for people who don’t experience oppression to assume it doesn’t exist and to mistake the current status quo as true equality. Thus, when confronted with a movement that aims to improve the present situation, those people would mistakenly see it as an attempt to disrupt what they perceive as equality in that movement’s favour.
Unfortunately, even in 2014, women still face issues too numerous to list. Several months ago I discussed the problem of sexism in the geek and comic book world, from lack of representation and excessive objectification in media to outright abuse in the real and professional world. Less than a month ago, “CelebGate” demonstrated the culture of victim-blaming, and “GamerGate” resulted in violent threats against a woman just because she criticized some sexist video game tropes. If you’re still not convinced, watch this brilliant Daily Show clip and let the talented Jessica Williams demonstrate yet another of the many ways in which women have it worse.
In fact, it’s worth noting, as Emma did in her speech, that some of the problems that plague women also have a secondary damaging effect on men. Young boys are bullied if they like pink, or if they prefer to watch Powerpuff Girls over Digimon (I’m showing my age here). Men are put down for being sensitive or exhibiting any traits that are deemed effeminate. On the surface, these could be mistaken as purely men’s rights issues, but the main reason men are discouraged from anything “feminine” is because society doesn’t like that which is feminine (you don’t have to take my word for it, just watch this excellent video). Note that conversely, nobody condemns a woman when she acts in a masculine way—in fact, they often praise her. But a woman is likely to be criticized even when she conforms to those predefined feminine traits, to the point that “I’m not like other girls” has become such a common thing for young women to say that it’s now basically shorthand for wanting to be accepted.
Yes, feminism still has a place in the world—in fact, it’s desperately needed. And no amount of myths, fallacies, or misguided arguments can change that reality. All they do is derail a much-needed conversation and slow down any real positive progress. So kudos to Emma Watson for using her influence to do some real good, and to the celebrities who have declared their support. With her open invitation for men to join the movement, hopefully many others will follow suit. I support HeForShe, and I encourage you to do the same.