Beyond HeForShe: What it Means to Live Your “Like”

It seems like everyone is still abuzz over Emma Watson’s United Nations speech on feminism and the HeForShe campaign, which, in today’s quick-paced digital age, is impressive. While many have excitedly praised Watson for the bravery of her speech, others are not head-over-heels and have taken HeForShe to task with legitimate and in-depth critiques.

HeForShe says it aims to mobilize men (a lofty goal of a billion members by this time next year) for feminism and women’s rights in order to achieve gender equality. But neither in Watson’s speech nor on the HeForShe website is there anything that explains how they plan to do that. On the HeForShe website, you can take a pledge to stand for gender equality by clicking a button and signing up—and that’s about it. Well, you can also tweet a link to the HeForShe website and “share [the campaign] with the men in your life” via Facebook or email, but aside from that, HeForShe doesn’t take any tangible steps to address gender inequality. It even lacks a page of useful links for people who are interested in doing and learning more, but don’t know where to begin.

My concern with the HeForShe campaign is that, while well-intentioned, it amounts to little more than feel-good, progressive slacktivism that doesn’t provide real tools for people completely new to gender inequality to take their pledges out into the real world. Holding up a sign reading “#HeForShe” on Twitter or “liking” someone’s Facebook post may make a statement or show support, but those who want to achieve true gender equity must go beyond those statements.

Michael Kimmel recently wrote on the Ms. Blog that MenEngage global co-chair Gary Barker “insisted that supporting gender equality involved more than going to a website and signing up. It means more than a click, a social media post, a ‘like.’ It means acting—interrupting, intervening and challenging other men, and also supporting other men when they disrupt, intervene or challenge. To walk your talk.  To live your ‘like.’”

Barker is right. While viral and Internet-based campaigns shouldn’t be completely written off, social action campaigns cannot affect long-lasting change if people compartmentalize their support to one action on a website. As it exists now, HeForShe will not be the answer to achieving gender equality. Fighting for true gender equity (for people of all genders, not just women and men) doesn’t just mean trying to dismantle the system or being critical of how others contribute to sexism and cis-sexism. It means turning that critical eye inward, being open to it, and pushing yourself to change.

While there are numerous and diverse ways for men who identify as feminists to support and take action, there are some essential places to start for those who took the HeForShe pledge and want to know what they can do next:

1. Educate yourself on feminist history and gender inequality

The feminist movement has had a long history, which, thankfully, has been recorded so that we can learn from it. You can easily find a list of influential feminist books; pick up a title by Audre Lorde or read Feminism Is for Everybody by bell hooks. Learn about issues that affected women decades ago and still do to this day, such as being overlooked in the workplace, experiencing forced sterilization and street harassment, and facing roadblocks to making our own reproductive health choices. Check out work that doesn’t just talk about “women,” but explicitly acknowledges diversity and intersectionality: Try sites such as BlackGirlDangerous or LatinaFeminista. Read “Not Your Mom’s Trans 101.” These are just suggestions; once you start digging, you’ll find seemingly endless sources on the Internet and in libraries.

2. Recognize how some of your actions and words contribute to misogyny—and change your ways

One of the fundamental components of feminism is changing our own behavior to reflect the changes we want to see in society. There are plenty of men who identify as feminists, but have not examined how some of their actions may be sexist, because they’ve already claimed the feminist “label.” Acknowledging how you’ve played a part in interpersonal or systematic misogyny is uncomfortable, but to fight misogyny, first you have to come to terms with how much of what you consume, think, believe and take part in has been informed by it. That said, the act of acknowledging complicity is incomplete unless you actively strive to change overt and microaggresive behavior. That can mean training yourself to use the pronouns people want to be called or stopping yourself if you tend to interrupt women more than you do men. Either way, being a feminist means doing the work.

3. Speak up (especially in men-only spaces)

If a man is making a rape joke or calling a woman a “bitch,” say something. Use your privilege to tell that person that what he is saying is unacceptable and damaging. If you’re in a space made up of just men or a majority of men, speaking up can have a huge impact, especially if something misogynistic is being said and no one else is challenging it. It’s up to you to decide how much you want to say, but breaking the silence is the first step. As with anything, when misogynistic ideas go unchallenged, they persist.

4. Listen, listen, listen

When people list ways men can be feminists, this point is made just about every time—and it’s for a reason. The voices of women are socially devalued and oftentimes excluded; one goal of the feminist movement is to provide space for and to amplify women’s voices. If you’re a man who identifies as a feminist, listening, being supportive and amplifying women’s voices (for example, re-tweeting a woman’s tweet instead of repackaging her message in your own original tweet, or avoiding mansplaining at all times) so that women’s experiences can be expressed, heard and addressed is of the utmost importance.

5. Get used to being challenged

As a man new to feminism, you’re bound to get things wrong: Subconsciously undermining women, saying something triggering, grabbing the megaphone and diverting attention when there’s a woman trying to speak for herself, etc. Everyone gets something wrong; I’ve gotten things wrong. And when/if you do, other feminists are going to challenge you. The first instinct may be to get defensive, after all, you didn’t mean to reinforce misogyny, to hurt or to offend. But taking responsibility for the effects of what you say and do and not deflecting with your intent is intrinsic to being a feminist. When others challenge you, they are asking you to take responsibility for the effect of your words and actions and to look and see where you can change. Being challenged makes you a better feminist.

READ MORE: Top Ten Ways to be a Feminist in 2010

Photo courtesy of Flickr user UN Women licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Corinne Gaston is currently an editorial intern at Ms. and is working toward a B.A. in Creative Writing at USC. When not in the Ms. office, she is the Associate Opinion Editor at Neon Tommy. Follow her on Twitter @elysehamsa or go to her personal blog.