Yesterday, a friend drew my attention to this piece by Mia McKenzie (from Black Girl Dangerous) about Emma Watson’s recent UN speech on gender equality.
I have written before about a common tendency among a small, privileged group of US academics and bloggers demonising and hounding any white woman who dares to speak on the subject of gender equality or women’s rights. Predictably it was belittled, ridiculed and demonised by many who had not even read the piece, judging by the exaggerated and inaccurate comments.
SO what are we supposed to make of Mc Kenzie’s thoughts here? On the one hand, I agree with McKenzie in terms of some of the problematic aspects of Watson’s speech such as:
Telling men that they should care about gender inequality because of how much it hurts them, centralizes men and their well-being in a movement built by women for our survival in a world that degrades and dehumanizes us daily. This is problematic for the same reason telling white people that they should end racism because racism “holds us all back as a society, so eradicating it will help you, too,” is problematic….
The underlying message here is that women deserve equity and equality because of our relationships to men. Continuing to re-enforce the idea that men should respect women and fight for women’s equality because mother/sister/daughter/whatever perpetuates the idea that women don’t already deserve those things based solely on our status as human beings. It encourages men to think of women always and only in relation to themselves, as if our pseudo-humanity is only an after-thought of men’s real humanity. The truth is that women are whole, complete people, regardless of our status in the lives of men. This is what men should hear, over and over again. This is what everyone should hear, every day.
However, McKenzie then goes on:
“I hope that as Emma Watson continues to grow into her feminism she’ll chuck these unfortunate approaches. But, frankly, it’ll take a lot more than that for me to see her as the “game-changing” feminist she’s being called. Where’s her analysis of racial justice and its necessity in ending gender inequality? What does she know about misogynoir? Does she understand that wealthy white women like her are often oppressors of women of color and/or poor women in the world? Where’s her understanding of transfeminism? Can she explain to the UN, or anyone else, why violence against trans women needs to be centered in our work against misogyny? Does she know and can she articulate that ableism is woven into not only gender inequality, but every form of oppression that exists? And, importantly, does she understand that as a white woman she is granted access and taken seriously by mainstream feminism in ways that a woman of color wouldn’t be and why, then, it’s necessary for her to step aside and make room for women of color to be heard if gender inequality is ever to be eradicated? Because any real “game-changing” feminist needs to.”
This for me is ‘problematic’, particularly in terms of its self-righteous, patronising, US-centric approach. Let’s first look at McKenzie’s claim that women of colour are not ‘taken seriously by mainstream feminism’. Is she talking about the US here or other parts of the world? She then also cites some statistics which are either problematic and biased about women and rape or which apply only to women in the USA. Considering that Watson is British, and Europe in general has some of the highest levels of gender equality on the planet, it is surprising that McKenzie fails to acknowledge or learn from that aspect in her analysis.
In addition, her claim trivialises and demeans the efforts and mainstream impact of women of colour such as Malala and Beyonce. McKenzie’s issue here appears to be that Watson (being white, rich, hetero and able-bodied) is not sufficiently qualified to speak on behalf of other women. However, I could equally argue that Beyonce cannot adequately represent me or millions of women either. How can she represent women who are very poor, lower class, physically unattractive, old, not American etc.? Yes, Watson has more privileges than the majority of us, but are people seriously suggesting that a woman must be old, fat, ugly, uneducated, poor, disabled etc. before they can authentically speak about sexism and misogyny? Isn’t it asking a bit too much of Watson or any other woman to be able to do that?
It is a valid point about white feminist privilege and women of colour being historically excluded from dialogue, representation and inclusion in discussions about women’s rights and experiences. However, to then use that point to mean that white women should be cowed into PC obeisance or silence whenever they speak on the subject, and that women of colour (no matter what their economic class, education, cultural and linguistic background) are naturally entitled to speak on behalf of women, is taking it way too far.
There is room for a variety of women’s voices in feminism, Watson’s included. I congratulate Watson for taking the brave stance of speaking out about gender inequality and for using her fame and status to encourage men to get involved in the feminist movement. While I agree with McKenzie that Watson’s comments about men are problematic, overall I still think we should be thanking her. How many mainstream A-list actresses (white or of colour) are prepared to discuss gender equality and feminism in a public context? And despite Watson’s lack of thorough, ‘game-changing’ analysis of the topic, I am confident that Watson’s speech will provide comfort, change, solace and awareness to millions more women and men than McKenzie et al. ever will. That might not be fair but that’s the reality, folks.
For those who want to see Watson’s whole speech (click below):