On Saturday, the actor Emma Watson addressed the UN to launch the HeForShe campaign, an initiative to involve men in the fight for female equality, in essence to be feminists.
“Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.”
She also said:
“I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho”—in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49; eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.”
Well said, Emma.
Is CALM’s mission linked to feminism? Yes, it is. We’ll leave aside her slight confusion of ‘feminism’with ‘gender equality’ (for me the latter being the ultimate aim of ending discrimination, the former the concentration on women’s issues in that struggle) and instead look at why men should indeed be feminists (admirable, but sadly often ineffectual, altruism aside) and an idea for how.
Watson talked about stereotypes, that men are as imprisoned in them as women, but it’s also true that men are imprisoned because of women’s stereotypes. Research at Duke University in the US demonstrated that so called ‘good’ stereotypes can reinforce negative and stereotypical attitudes, and that when we start thinking in stereotypes, about anything, then it becomes difficult to stop them taking over all our thinking.
So it’s very possible, I would wager even likely, that while we continue to see women as baby-making clothes horses, we will continue to see men as DIY uber-men made of stone. And although this male stereotype is very real, this female stereotype is utterly ubiquitous. It is a 10 metre high brick wall of cosmetic surgery adverts and Page 3. Until the underlying assumptions are tackled, until all of us (as Watson says, including men) are involved in tearing these stereotypes down, not much is going to change for anyone.
Change for men is extremely unlikely while change for women remains absent. We don’t need to do any less for men than we otherwise would, we just need to consider the bigger picture.
So, how? Well, we can look at the pay gap. We can try and do something about the fact that women make up no more than about 20% of politicians, academics, engineers (basically EVERYTHING), and that has to change. But firstly, maybe we can do something about what we say.
Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism book (Simon & Schuster UK, 2014) pointed out that attitudes spread through society, often unconsciously, because they are not challenged. When someone makes a rape joke and it isn’t at least thought about or debated, such attitudes become normalised, which leads to the entrenchment of the dehumanisation which is at the heart of all discrimination. The same applies to any environment where someone tells you off for being different, as that enforces a particular stereotype, and there’s plenty of them for men too. But by pure volume, more is said that damages women in casual conversation, from Jimmy Carr’s jokes to every newspaper that goes with a largely irrelevant picture of a pretty woman on the front page, day after day.
So, we can challenge this stuff. Hey, Match of the Day, why no women on the show EVER? Hey MSN news, don’t you think you should show pictures of both the victims of the Thailand beach murders and not just the young, female one? Yo, the Sun….I think you can see where this is heading. These things, which keep the misogynist machine in motion, hurt men too. Once stereotypes start then they don’t stop, and these are some pretty big and restrictive stereotypes that women are facing.
‘But censorship’, people will cry! ‘Don’t tell us what we can and can’t say! What are you, some kind of thought police?’ No, and here’s why.
We all censor ourselves. Every day. Some of us may think that we say the unsayable no matter how many Guardian readers are annoyed by it, and that’s what a democracy needs. But what’s really happening every time someone writes or speaks is that they make a calculation. They decide whether what they’re saying is worth the risk for the reward, and then they come up with an answer. So do I; so does everyone. There are things you’d say to a mate, or even in the office, that you wouldn’t say at an interview, or on a date. You don’t want to risk the damage it would do to your chances of getting what you want. You judge it, you make a decision, and sometimes you censor. In fact compared to what actually goes through our mind in a stream of consciousness way, we probably censor an awful lot.
But what if the calculation is wrong? We think about the risk to ourselves, but do we think about the risk to others? People who holler at women in the street think that this is harmless, but it is not. It is intimidating and it reinforces women’s stereotypical role as things to be gawped at. Rape jokes which identify with the perpetrator (as pretty much all of them do) normalise women as collective sexual objects, as public property, and not as people. Speculations about the hair and clothes of female politicians belittle them in public.
This is risk. Worse even, it’s definite harm. Our calculation is in fact way off. To say such things is not helpful, but also to let such things go unchallenged or to buy into such things is actually little-to-no better.
So, how can we be feminists? In the same way women can be feminists. By noticing the objectification, the belittling, the stereotyping of women, by asking why it happens and by removing our custom from products and brands that won’t listen and change, including free ones. One less reader is one little bit less an advertiser is interested in them.
And why should we do this? Because it will mean that men will be allowed to be what they want to be too, that they’ll be able to ask for help when they need it, that they’ll be taken seriously before it’s too late, and that lives will be saved.
Feminism needs men, absolutely. But, crucially, men need feminism too.
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