Emma Watson's HeForShe speech prompts discussion on modern feminism

British actress Emma Watson delivered a speech to the United Nations over the weekend where she issued a call for men and women to work together to fight gender inequality. The speech prompted a discussion from the Calgary Eyeopener's Unconventional Panel.

Calgary Eyeopener's Unconventional Panel explores the issues

UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson attends the HeForShe campaign launch at the United Nations on Saturday in New York. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

British actress Emma Watson delivered a speech to the United Nations over the weekend in New York in which she issued a call for men and women to work together to fight gender inequality. 

The UN Women Goodwill Ambassador was hoping to promote the launch of a solidarity movement for gender equality called HeForShe on Saturday. The campaign focuses specifically on the role that men can play in speaking out against gender inequality.

"We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence," Watson said. "I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too — reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves."

Her speech has roused debate over the meaning of feminism in the modern age and of the challenges still faced by men and women alike in overcoming gender stereotypes and gaining equal rights. CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener hosted a debate on just that question this morning with guests Alison Karim-McSwiney, Shelley Youngblut and Kay She.

  • Listen to the full debate by clicking on the audio link or keep reading for a highlight of their key points.

What does being a feminist even mean?

In a time when more and more women are breadwinners, have university degrees and hold high-profile jobs in the public sphere, what does it even mean to be a feminist and is the movement really still relevant?

That was one of the big talking points among panellists, with all issuing a resounding "Yes."

However, the concept of feminism itself seems to be more focused on inclusivity — and not just with men.

"I think a feminist today is a humanist," said Karim-McSwiney, executive director of Calgary's International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone. "I have a new term for you — inner-sectional feminist. That's someone who is supportive of transgender, racial [equality]. It has a greater focus and it's a wider variety of feminism. It really is fighting oppression on a variety of issues."

Much of the present backlash against the term feminist — such as the Women Against Feminism and celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Katy Perry publicly distancing themselves from the term — comes from old-school notions of what past waves of the movement have been, said She. 

The law student and marketing co-ordinator for Jump on Flyaways says for some members of a younger generation, those classical images of feminism have turned the word into a dirty one.

"I think when you say feminist, you get this idea in your head of this bra-burning, man-hating, can't-wear-makeup, and for women that's hard to reconcile if you do want to wear makeup, you don't hate men," said She. "But I think the idea is alive and well, and it's something that women and men are really getting behind. The word itself is dirty but the idea and the ambition behind it is not. "

What are the problems?

While feminists in the 1960s had to fight an uphill battle to achieve change — something Karim-McSwiney says contributed to feminists' more militant approach — countries like Canada have come a long way in increasing gender equality and rights. However, there's still a lot of work left for both men and women.

"When [Watson] gets threats after this moving, passionate speech, it tells me, 'Wow,'" she said. 

"And they're certain kinds of threats," Youngblut agreed. "When it's, 'I'm going to release naked pictures of you, that's how I'm going to shut you up,' that means we've got a huge way to go."

The threats did turn out to be a marketing stunt, which appeared to be the work of a viral marketing firm calling itself

The panellists agreed that issues modern feminists want to address go beyond just having more women CEOs or politicians.

"As women enter these professional faculties, like law or medicine, we even become more acutely aware of the challenges," said She. "These professions, they're tough for both men and women. But for women in particular, when you factor in when you want to start a family, it becomes a huge obstacle to overcome."

Despite the backlash against feminism, She says we are starting to see more young men and women taking ownership of the word and shifting conversations to focus on helping women succeed.

Much of that is focusing on examining how people's perceptions of women's actions are inherently gender-based.

"If you're in a meeting and someone says, 'You're being too aggressive or assertive,' would you even ask that question if you were a man?" said Karim-McSwiney. 

"It comes down to, there's still that inequality. We're still supposed to be good-looking and we're still supposed to be providing for other people and we're supposed to be quiet. You see that in a lot of women who have power."

Where does feminism go from here?

Social media has been a big amplifier for the gender equality messages supported by both male and female advocates.

One such example has been the #Mansplaining trend, which takes aim at the phenomenon of even relatively unqualified men feeling the need to explain things to women simply because they are women.

"The thing about 'mansplaining' is that it's very real," said Youngblut. "I love the fact that younger men and younger women have gone to social media to take the piss out of it as a way of fighting back."

The recent #YesAllWomen movement provides a similar example of young people taking to social media to challenge conventional narratives around gender stereotypes and unequal experiences.

The viral social media campaign evolved after the Isla Vista killings when a young man in California went on a rampage and cited the hatred of women as a factor in his actions. 

The accusations of misogyny prompted men to argue that #NotAllMen are like that, but that quickly spawned the #YesAllWomen trend in reaction to assert while not all men are violent, all women experience sexism and misogyny on a regular basis.

Many men joined in with the #YesAllWomen trend, and that willingness among many young men and women to work together is a big part of where feminism will move in the future, said She.

"[Emma Watson's speech] conveys to women that this idea of feminism and inclusivity — it's complex. It's not black or white. It's not male or female," She said. "It keeps the conversation going and I think that's important to keep in the forefront of everybody's minds."


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