It would be safe to say my post on Emma Watson and HeForShe generated some pretty strong reactions.
We’re no strangers to strong disagreements here at HetPat, and I assume that most of what I write will lead to angry reactions from one quarter or other. And while I’m never shy of arguing my position in the comments boxes, I do honestly pay attention to thoughtful criticism and I give especially careful consideration to disagreement from people whose opinions and views I usually share and value. That was the case this week.
Probably the most common criticism of the post was that it amounted to an extended #whatabouttehmenz screed and I wanted to give that point some serious attention.
I acknowledge, accept and agree that feminists should have as much space as they want and need to discuss the needs and lives of women, identify problems and formulate solutions or plans of action. Some problems are gender-specific and require gender-specific analysis. Where women are discussing their own lives and situations it is inappropriate for men to march into the space and attempt to divert the conversation onto their issues instead. The same applies, obviously, when men are discussing their own issues.
As something of an aside, I think it is true that there is still far too little space in mainstream media and culture for men to have those kinds of conversations, especially when they place men in roles of which patriarchal masculinity disapproves – as vulnerable, as helpless, as victims. So I understand the frustration of men who care deeply about issues such as male victims of sexual or domestic violence, and find themselves marginalised or excluded from coverage of the issues. The solution to that problem is for us to work harder (and better) to carve open our own spaces in the mainstream, not to march in and co-opt women’s spaces or threads.
I also see that in practice, those who do play the ‘what about the menz?’ card sometimes have little apparent interest in solving men’s problems and appear more interested in undermining efforts to address the issue as it affects women.
I get all that.
That said, there remain numerous male-specific gender issues that cause immense hardship, suffering and injustice around the world. They are immensely harmful to individual men, but also to the women and children in their lives and to wider efforts to build a society that is more just, fair, humane and free. (By the way, if you disagree with those sentences, you might as well leave now as we have no common ground to work with).
Men’s and women’s lives are intertwined. It is entirely true that demolishing oppressive gender roles and social structures for women has many benefits for men. I hold that the reverse is also true freeing men from restrictive and proscriptive gender norms and the manacles of hegemonic masculinity will have enormous benefits for women.
So as well as needing space for women to address women’s issues, and spaces for men to address men’s issues, we need to somehow create arenas where those agendas can be reconciled and coordinated, where the liberation of both men and women from gendered constraints can dovetail and synchronise. The notion that we can radically reform our gendered society without the active and coordinated efforts of both men and women seems to me fanciful.
When I heard Emma Watson’s speech last weekend, I was given the impression that what we were being offered, finally, was that space. What she was describing, as I heard it, was the inseparability of men’s and women’s gender issues. My objection to the HeForShe campaign pledge was that after that the small print derogated wildly from the sales pitch.
My critics were correct. I was quite consciously saying ‘But what about the men?’
I maintain that under these specific circumstances, that was justified. I think if someone launches a campaign which proudly proclaims that it is (in large part) about the men, in which most of the examples offered of gendered injustice and harmful consequences relate to men, which generated global headlines that focused on the benefits to men, then it transpires that the campaign explicitly excludes a pledge to take action to address those issues, “But what about the men?” is a perfectly legitimate response.
I realise that many people disagree with my analysis for one reason or another. That is fine, I have no wish to start that debate all over again. However I would like to ask readers, and especially my ‘friendly detractors’ a question. It is not a rhetorical gimmick, I genuinely would be interested in your answers.
When is it acceptable to ask “what about the men?” If your answer is ‘never’ or ‘never in the same space as women’s issues are being discussed’ then how do we ever hope to reconcile women’s and men’s efforts to reinvent our distressingly gendered world. How do we achieve that dovetailing of agendas that I mentioned above? Is that desirable or even possible?
My own gender politics are very largely predicated on exactly such a convergence. I’m really interested to know if I am a lone voice on that.
Over to you.