This past week, the HeForShe campaign released videos of conversation between founder Emma Watson and Broadway phenomenon Lin-Manuel Miranda. It includes a clip of Watson beatboxing while Miranda freestyles about gender equality. Watson is charmingly nervous as she prepared to perform, interrupting to ask Miranda: “Are you a feminist?” (He is, “absolutely.”) When Watson finally manages to lay down a beat, Miranda spits, quite simplistically: “How can we not be equal, we're like half. Like women are half of the people on Earth.”
The video came to my attention after a friend humorously tweeted, “Emma Watson beatboxing makes me not want to be a feminist.” Though the sentiment seemed extreme, it vocalized what many women feel about Watson’s HeForShe campaign. What I’m wondering—and what my friend was expressing in her post—is whether HeForShe truly benefits feminism today.
Watson launched the campaign in a 2014 speech for the United Nations. It’s meant “to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for gender equality.” Her point was that the fight for gender equality leaves out half of the world’s population: “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Watson’s male supporters have joined the conversation by tweeting, posting photos to Instagram, wearing pins in solidarity with the campaign, and by participating in viral videos like Miranda’s.
However, I find aspects of Watson’s speech alarming. She says, “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.” Watson certainly makes good points about men being affected by gendered issues. But my issue stems from the simplistic idea that they must simply “stop controlling” for us to reach this common ground. The influence of patriarchal ideas that lead them “to control” is much more nuanced than what Watson presents.
HeforShe does little to actually address the actual roadblocks facing gender equality. As delightful as it is to watch Watson and Miranda interact—teasing each other in the name of feminism—in my eyes, the video simplifies a truly thorny battle against systematic injustices. I understand how powerful celebrity endorsements can be, but it’s too easy to simply “pledge support.” What’s difficult is putting in the effort to dismantle centuries-old, gendered prejudices, and I’m not sure HeforShe is doing that work.
I recognize the argument that any press for gender equality is good publicity. Some women believe that even basic awareness is important in getting the message out to the public, so that belief in feminism becomes common sense. I understand Watson’s campaign is meant to remove the stigma of it by making it a more universal term. But my idea of it, is a commitment and dedication to changing unjust systems, and I see HeForShe as advocating more for the label “feminist” than for the meaning behind it.
Further, I question why the official gender equality organization of the United Nations literally puts men first, as in “He”ForShe. Watson’s beatboxing video is undeniably fun to watch, but I wonder why the freestyle about gender equality must come from a man—even one I like and respect as much as Miranda. There are plenty of women just as qualified to do what he did and more. I’m reminded in particular of Miranda’s co-star Renee Elise Goldsberry, who freestyled some incredibly feminist bars for BET’s Hip Hop Awards Cypher.
What I truly feel is this: I don’t care to “galvanize” men and boys. I believe our society does quite enough. I would much rather excite the female-identifying population that has historically been given less attention. I don’t need my feminism validated or co-signed by any man, be it Miranda, Harry Styles, Jared Leto, or any other number of celebrity endorsers.
I’m glad that there are men willing to speak up about believing in “the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” But as the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Watson should prioritize the voice of women over men when it comes to gender disparity, and the hard work those women have been doing to change our world. Female-identifying people are still fighting for room in heavily male-dominated spaces: Let the UN’s gender campaign be a place where our voices come first.