With apologies to the United States Marines, Emma Watson is looking for a few good men.
That was the upshot of a speech Watson, the Harry Potter actress (and United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador) gave at the UN on Saturday. In her widely and deservedly praised remarks, she recounted her introduction to sexism — being branded “bossy” as a child, being sexualized by the media as a teenager, watching female friends give up sports they loved for fear of being judged too masculine.
It was experiences like these, she explained, that made her decide she was a feminist. But feminism, Watson has come to realize, has an image problem. The more she’s spoken about it, she said, “the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man hating. If there is one thing I know for certain it is that this has to stop.”
Watson was there to announce a UN initiative called HeForShe, which hopes to encourage male involvement in the fight for women’s rights. In her speech, she noted that feminism has become a taboo word among some women because of its perceived antipathy toward men. But far from hating men, she said, feminism needs men. “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited, or feels welcome to participate in the conversation? Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.”
She was right in more ways than one. There is the obvious, of course: Men should support feminism out of concern for the girls and women in their lives. But the less obvious fact is that men should support feminism out of concern for themselves.
It was the genius of Watson’s speech that she recognized this often-overlooked fact, many of us don’t. Many of us think of freedom as a boon we grant — or fail to grant — some marginalized group, not comprehending that oppression requires oppressors.
In other words, any system of subjugation ties the subjugated to the subjugator in ways that are unhealthy for both. This is not to say their experiences are equal. If forced to choose, you would obviously much rather be master than slave. Yet, though a master enjoys more liberties, he is not without his own burdens, including the burden of keeping a worried, nonstop vigil on his chattel, regulating their lives, denying their humanity, selling his own flesh and constantly justifying himself to himself in the commission of a monstrous crime.
While that’s not nearly as heavy a psychological weight as being owned, it is a weight, nevertheless.
Similarly, though sexism gives men higher pay, greater opportunities and more options, it also diminishes their importance as parents and lessens society’s concern for them as crime victims (when did you last see a CNN bulletin on the search for a missing man?). It also encourages men under stress to embrace a manly stoicism that keeps them from seeking needed help, so that they die manly deaths instead from avoidable strokes, heart attacks and suicides.
“Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either,” said Watson.
Her words come at an interesting time. In the developing world, groups like Boko Haram are enforcing the subjugation of women with appalling brutality. In the U.S., conservatives now tell us the most pressing issue of gender equality is the “feminization” of the American male.
Atrocity on the one end, absurdity on the other and between them, Emma Watson offering an opportunity to reset the dialogue between and about the genders. So one hopes she finds more than a few good men.
In helping women to be free, they might just become free themselves.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at email@example.com.
Photo: UN Women via Flickr
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