The Most Important Words in Emma Watson's Speech Were About Masculinity

HeForShe Challenges Men and Boys to Embrace Feminism

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Emma Watson at the launch of the HeForShe UN campaign for gender equality. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Emma Watson, British actor and Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women, said many smart, important, sociologically informed things during her speech on gender equality at the UN on September 20, 2014. Surprisingly, the most important words of Ms. Watson did not have to do with women and girls, but rather with men and boys. She said:

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. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.

Ms. Watson tips her hat to a multitude of deeply important social science research in these three short sentences. This research grows in breadth by the day, and is seen as increasingly important by the sociological community, and by feminist activists, in the fight for gender equality.

She doesn't use the word herself, but what Ms. Watson refers to here is masculinity--the collection of behaviors, practices, embodiments, ideas, and values that come to be associated with male bodies. Recently, but historically too, social scientists and writers from a range of disciplines are paying critical attention to the way commonly held beliefs about masculinity, and how best to do it or achieve it, result in serious, widespread, violent social problems.

The list of how masculinity and social problems are connected is a long, diverse, and horrifying one. It includes that which specifically targets women and girls, like sexualized and gendered violence.

Many sociologists, like Patricia Hill Collins, C.J. Pascoe, and Lisa Wade, have studied and proven the connection between the masculine ideals of power and control, and widespread physical and sexual violence against women and girls. Sociologists who study these troubling phenomena point out that these are not crimes of passion, but of power.

They are meant to elicit submission and subservience from those targeted, even in what some would consider to be their less serious forms, like street harassment and verbal abuse. (For the record, these too are very serious problems.)

In her book, Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, an instant classic among sociologists, C.J. Pascoe showed through over a year's worth of research how boys are socialized to adopt and perform a dominant, aggressive, controlling, and sexualized version of masculinity. This kind of masculinity, the idealized norm in our society, requires that boys and men control girls and women. Their status in society, and inclusion in the category "men" depends upon it. Of course there are other social forces at play as well, but the powerful socializing force of this dominant notion of masculinity is a key contributor to the widespread rates of sexual assault and violence against women and girls—and against gay, lesbian, queer, and trans people too—that plague our society.

That violence, though, is not only targeted at women, girls, and folks who do not fit within the rigid frameworks of heterosexuality and gender norms. It plagues the lives of "normal" men and boys too, as they fight and kill in defense of their masculine honor.

Studies have found that the everyday violence within inner-city communities results in rates of PTSD among youth that exceed those among combat veterans. Recently, Victor Rios, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of California-Santa Barbara, who has researched and written extensively about the connection between idealized masculinity and violence, founded a Facebook page dedicated to raising awareness about this issue. (Check out Boys and Guns: Masculinity in a Culture of Mass Shootings, to learn more about sociological research on this issue.)

Looking beyond our immediate communities, sociologists make the case that this insidious link between masculinity and violence fuels many of the wars that rage across our world, as bombs, bullets, and chemical warfare batter populations into political submission.

So too, many sociologists see ideologies of idealized masculinity present in the economic, environmental, and social violence wrought by global capitalism. Of these issues, celebrated sociologist Patricia Hill Collins would argue that these forms of domination are achieved by a form of power based not just on masculinity and the power structure of patriarchy, but how these intersect and overlap with racism, classism, xenophobia, and homophobia.

The ideal of masculinity hurts women economically too, by casting us as the weaker, less valuable counterparts to men, which serves to justify the gender pay gap. It bars us from access to higher education and jobs, by framing us as less worthy of the time and consideration of those in positions of power. It denies us rights to autonomy in our own healthcare decisions, and prohibits us from having parity in political representation. It casts us as sex objects who exist to give pleasure to men, at the expense of our own pleasure and fulfillment. By sexualizing our bodies, it casts them as tempting, dangerous, in need of control, and as having "asked for it" when we are harassed and assaulted.

While the litany of social problems that harm women and girls is both infuriating and depressing, what is encouraging is that they are discussed with more frequency and openness by the day. Seeing a problem, naming it, and raising awareness about it are crucial first steps on the road to change.

This is why Ms. Watson's words about men and boys are so important.

A global public figure with an enormous social media platform and vast media coverage, in her speech she illuminated the historically quiet ways in which idealized masculinity has harmed boys and men. Importantly, Ms. Watson tuned into the emotional and psychological consequences of this issue:

I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 to 49, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either...

...Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong...

...I want men to take up this mantle so that 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.

Brava, Ms. Watson. You simply, eloquently, and compelling illustrated why gender inequality is a problem for men and boys too, and why the fight for equality is also theirs. You named the problem, and powerfully argued why it must be addressed. We thank you for it.

Click here to learn more about the UN's HeForShe campaign for gender equality, and pledge your support to the cause.