EMMA Watson picked a good week to make her “groundbreaking” #HeForShe speech at the United Nations. A good week in the sense it was a bad week for women and for feminism.
For a start, there was the whole Ryder Cup embarrassment. All those WAGs lining up in their finery at the introductory gala at Glasgow Hydro as if being the wife of a golfer was an achievement in itself. Most newspapers acted as if such a parade of beauties was absolutely to be expected in the 21st century, with one using the headline: “Time for the battle of the Ryder Cup birdies”. It is inconceivable that the male partners of female golfers would ever be subjected to such an indignity.
Elsewhere, in the nether regions of the internet, someone had come up with the hashtag #HowToSpotAWifeMaterial. It’s too depressing to go into the suggested qualifications for marriageability in detail, but suffice it to say, most of them revolved around a willingness to satisfy a prospective husband’s every need.
In this context, and indeed in every context, Watson’s speech was refreshing. Much of what she said – that men suffer as a result of gender stereotyping too, that many of them feel intimidated by “radical” feminism and that, if they care about equality, they should be welcomed into the fold – was not new, but it took courage for someone who makes a living in a profession where objectification is omnipresent to say it.
If you were feeling churlish, you could point out that the #HeForShe campaign was actually launched by UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka way back in March but no-one paid attention until a pretty white celebrity took centre stage. But that’s hardly Watson’s fault.
So Watson’s intervention is praiseworthy, but is it really a “game-changer”? On one level I can see why it’s been hailed as forward-thinking. There are plenty of men who want women to be treated as equals, but who may be deterred from speaking out by a fear they will be shot down as members of the patriarchy or viewed as patronising for implying women aren’t capable of fighting their own battles. I also agree that, given men continue to dominate politically and professionally, it will be difficult to achieve parity without a degree of male co-operation.
Yet I have reservations. More than 100,000 men, led by many of Watson’s celebrity pals, have signed up to #HeForShe in the wake of her speech and I don’t doubt their good intentions. But will such gestures of solidarity change anything, especially if they consist chiefly of holding up a #HeForShe placard and professing a vague support for all womankind? In fact, I would go further and say that some of the tweets smack of the same kind of narcissism that surrounded the ice bucket challenge. “Here, look at me. I’m really good. I value the women in my life.” As Chris Rock said in his infamous “black people versus n*****” sketch: “You’re supposed to, you dumb MF”.
When I see Simon Pegg writing: “Husband to a wife, father to a daughter, son to a mother. You bet I’m on board,” I don’t think, “Oh, that’s great, the battle’s won then.” I think: “Very good, but what are you actually doing about it? For instance, if the BBC asks you to appear on one of its all-male comedy panel shows, will you turn down the offer on the grounds of gender imbalance or jump at the opportunity to raise your profile?”
Moving in liberal, middle-class circles, most of the men I encounter would probably describe themselves as feminists. Bar the occasional piece of “mansplaining”, their behaviour is unimpeachable (obviously, other women have more negative experiences). But overcoming sexism is not just about behaving well on a personal level or paying lip service to the concept of equality. It’s about challenging the social structures which perpetuate discrimination, and that demands commitment.
I don’t see many men going the extra mile. What I do see – when I go on about equal pay or quotas or the workman who assumes my husband will be emulsioning the ceiling (I do all the painting in my house) – is fixedly sympathetic faces that are clearly wondering: “Is she ever going to stop talking?” That’s if there’s no actual eye-rolling or shoulder-shrugging.
One of the problems for men is that it’s difficult to appreciate the insidious sexism that infects women’s lives without experiencing it first-hand. When they look at Scottish society, they must see two (soon to be three) of its main political parties led by women and wonder what we are moaning about. They can’t get what it’s like to live in a world where you are constantly fighting assumptions about your interests and abilities and where the availability or otherwise of childcare governs almost every professional choice you ever make.
Nor are they (mostly) willing to make sacrifices to improve the situation. Gerry Hassan’s suggestion that male commentators should boycott all-male panels on political programmes fell on deaf ears. Any pre-referendum increase in female representation in the media was down to the efforts of groups like Women for Independence or Better Together Women. So yes, men of a feminist bent, feel free to come and join the fight. But don’t think spouting a handful of platitudes is going to impress us. If you truly want a more equal world, get out there and do something about it. «
• Twitter: @DaniGaravelli