The trouble with semantics

Whatever happened to feminism? Not the movement, but the word. When and why did it become so uncomfortable to self-define as a ‘feminist,’ – someone who believes that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

It was the unspoken question at the heart of Emma Watson’s launch of UN Women’s HeForShe campaign, which calls on men to join the conversation and advocate for gender equality.

She rightly acknowledged that both men and women can be victims of gender discrimination, stereotypes, and in many instances violence, but she avoided using the term feminism to define a movement of both men and women.

It was a well-crafted, and well-timed call for action, which appealed to a younger generation who increasingly acknowledge that gender is a “spectrum, as opposed to two sets of opposing ideals.” She notes that “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.”

The teenagers of today – the newly dubbed Generation Z – ask more questions of our culture than our economics (while not denying the intrinsic link between the two). They have grown up with violent video games, celebrity culture, and internet pornography, directly experiencing their impact on what it means to be ‘boy’, ‘girl’, ‘man’, ‘woman’ or none of the above.

In our increasingly individualistic, technologically driven society, we all face new and unique pressures. We can self-define in ways that have never previously been socially acceptable.

Watson appeals: “We should stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are. We can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle so their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

Calls for collective action such as HeForShe are now made at the individual level. Sign the petition and share. There doesn’t seem to be much activity involved in contemporary activism, merely the click of a button.

The term feminism/ist appears to have been deemed too divisive a label to inspire men to engage with HeForShe. The website makes no mention of feminism/ist – a word that might otherwise help to define a community of people in support of one goal, a campaign under a clear banner.

In her speech, Watson both embraced and discarded the term ‘feminism.’ She describes herself as a feminist, acknowledging the negative reaction that comes from such a statement, before noting that the movement for gender equality is still struggling for a “uniting word.”

If feminism won’t do, what will? Do social movements still need a powerful banner or a brand when action can be taken at a computer as opposed to in the streets? Is it better not to use such labels in order to be more inclusive? Does this weaken a movement?

I apologise for presenting so many questions and no answers, but it is important to ask what sacrifices are being made when campaigns make attempts to be more inclusive. Of course, it is hugely important for men to join the struggle for gender equality. They have as much to gain as we do. But is it okay to leave ‘feminism’ behind?

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