The Problems with UN’s new campaign He for She: The UN’s campaign may reinforce the very inequality it is trying to erase
On September 20, 2014, United Nations (UN) Women kicked off its latest campaign, He for She. The campaign aims to invite support from boys and men on solving gender inequality issues and make men and boys advocates for women’s rights. To start off the campaign, Emma Watson, UN ambassador and actress, delivered a powerful speech, addressing how the fight for women’s rights excludes men and boys from advocating for gender equality because the word “feminism” is now being more associated with “man-hating” than with gender equality. She further states that gender inequality affects both men and women due to gender stereotypes and that it’s a human rights issue. She also asserts this campaign will strengthen the feminist cause by involving both women and men around the globe in advocating for gender equality.
Although Watson makes a great case that men need to have an active role in the gender inequality issue, her heavy emphasis on women’s dependence on men’s support reinforces the very gender inequality she is arguing against. Through some of the evidence she provides for her argument, she grants men the leading role in this campaign while women become secondary characters. In addition, the campaign itself does little to engage men in the conversation of gender inequality other than asking them to join the movement.
When I first went on You Tube to watch Watson’s speech, I was very excited to hear it for I never knew that Emma Watson considered herself to be feminist. After my first watching, the speech sounded great to me because it not only focused on women’s struggles of being a woman in today’s society and the disadvantages that are associated with being a women, it also highlighted the effects of gender inequality that men suffer; describing these struggles as universal and human rather than specific to either men or women. However, after watching the speech a few more times, I couldn’t help but find faults in the language she employs, the evidence she uses, and the methods she suggests for achieving the He for She goal.
For instance, when she describes men’s struggles against gender stereotypes, she notes, “We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.” The problem with this statement is that Watson seems to argue that the struggles for women’s rights will be solved upon men’s freedom from their own insecurities. I am not trying to diminish the depth of problems men suffer from being gender-stereotyped, but from the statement above it seems that men do not need women to free themselves but women do need men for this purpose. This creates an inequality where women are, once again, perceived as second to men.
Further, Watson seems to imply that women have to be nurturers of men with the statement, “If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.” This statement blames women for not accepting men as sensitive human beings and as a result gives men the power to be the aggressors. The above statement assumes that women have a choice in the matter of being submissive to men and being controlled by them when, in a largely patriarchal society, many women do not. This perception puts men and women in position to play out general stereotypical roles that become set for them where men are the strong characters and women are the meek. The implication is that, in order to break from men’s aggression and control, women have to be nurturers of men and understand their frustrations and reasoning. This notion reinforces the gender stereotype of women being the natural nurturers because they can give birth, which does not free them in the way her speech suggests.
Although the focus of the argument in Watson’s speech is on both men and women’s equal rights, the He for She campaign’s focus is on garnering enough male supporters for women’s rights. However, the strategies that the campaign has formed to complete this goal lack a detailed plan. For example, the campaign’s action plan kit consists of general guidelines for each participant to follow in his or her own country and a call to to host He for She events that publicize United Nation’s goals for this campaign. Even the goals that are detailed in the package are vague and give such general statements that they do not educate the reader on the importance of this campaign. There are no statistics and no data on the specific problems faced by women. The men are just expected to be part of the movement without being educated on women’s rights and the importance of their role in this campaign.
This is where the problem arises — most men do not know what the struggles for women’s rights are. Even more, they do not know what role to play within the feminist movement. Telling them to be advocates of women’s rights without teaching them the women’s point of view of the issues causes the men who joined the movement to be inactive which defeats the purpose of the campaign. Furthermore, the fact that the movement has shifted its focus to men supporting women’s rights, yet does not form a dialogue where both men and women’s rights issues are discussed, which was the initial goal. It seems that the campaign’s goal is not to end gender inequality by involving men in it but to accumulate as many as male supporters as possible without discussing the problems of gender inequality with them. The equivalent of facebook “likes” without action.
Men are in a position of privilege unequal to women in most countries and it is a given that gender equality cannot be reached without their cooperation. We need to work together, which is perhaps why He FOR she is a problematic buzzphrase. It implies men will be speaking for women rather than with them. Perhaps He with She might have been a better title to start. Although Emma Watson and the UN Women genuinely started this campaign to terminate the gender inequality faced by both genders, the complexity of the issues faced are not taken into account, the implementation is unclear, and the shifted focus of the campaign hinders the foundation it stands on.