#HeForShe: why you don’t need to be female to be a feminist

Holly Willis 24 September 2014

Last weekend, U.N. Women’s Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson delivered a moving speech at the U.N. Headquarters in New York to launch a new campaign, HeForShe. Described as a ‘solidarity movement’, HeForShe aims to reach out to men and boys across the world with a crucial yet often-forgotten message: you don’t have to be female to be a feminist.

In a world where feminism tends to conjure up images of fierce, bra-burning women in pursuit of female superiority, HeForShe strips away the myths from the truth. It reiterates that feminism is concerned solely with the equality of the sexes, and nothing more. It invites men to join in and to become feminists themselves. The basic idea is, as Watson says, ‘uncomplicated’.

And men do need feminism far more than we often realise. Even in a place as progressive as the UK, masculinity is still a prized possession for many. Someone who is scared or unsure will most likely be told to ‘man up’, perhaps even to ‘grow a pair’. Throwing or hitting 'like a girl' is an insult, whilst doing something courageous ‘takes balls’. With every one of these ill-considered comments, we regress. It is no wonder that, as Watson points out, suicide is one of the highest killers of men around the world.

These figures of speech are evidence of a culture that has not yet gone far enough. We need to continue to push for gender equality until it becomes instinctive, until masculinity is no longer synonymous with bravery and being a woman is not equated with hysteria and weakness. Feeling sad, confused and alone is not a gender issue; it is an inevitable part of being a person. Of course we may not always want to talk about it. We should, however, be given the choice.

When I watched a video of Watson’s speech for the first time, the idea seemed simple to me too. I was instantly inspired to write about the campaign, but I was also hesitant. I had heard concerns expressed about feminism overkill, that people would get bored if it kept being shoved down their throats. It is easy to criticise feminism; the ‘Women Against Feminism’ movement is example enough. Many people are privileged enough never to have known gender discrimination. They do not know what it is like to be treated as an object, or to have to repress their feelings with a façade of strength. But worryingly, as Watson addresses in her speech, there is not one country in the world that has fully achieved equality amongst the sexes. Engaging tentatively with feminism, afraid of appearing headstrong or irritating, isn’t going to make this better.

For feminism to succeed, we need to take care that we do not unwittingly perpetuate archaic and unfair stereotypes. Even reconsidering certain turns of phrase can make a huge difference, particularly to the way that future generations will perceive gender. And if you find feminism annoying, I recommend investigating HeForShe. The real definition of the term ‘feminism’ needs to be reconsidered by men and women alike, and this campaign is an excellent reminder. It is not attempting to patronise men, nor is it implying that women need men to stand up for them. It is simply sending a message that gender equality is an issue with which we are all invited to engage. And if it can be achieved, then both genders will benefit. It really is that uncomplicated.