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#HeForShe and the Spectre of Spectrums

Emma Watson and #HeForShe are still trending strongly after her speech at the UN


The essence of #HeForShe seems entirely praiseworthy. Gender equality is everyone's issue. It has to be.

I subscribe to @EverydaySexism on Twitter and am constantly shocked by the abuse that women are routinely forced to endure at the hands of men. It disgusts me and it makes me triply resolved to teach men what real manhood is - not degrading or objectifying women, but honouring them. It seems obvious to me that a woman's greatest hope of liberation and flourishing is for the men in her life to learn self-control - especially sexual self-control - and for those men to empower and bless the women in their lives. In other words it seems obvious to me that the cause of gender equality is advanced precisely where men are taught to be what men are supposed to be - sacrificial, Christ-like servants who will die for their women. Call me naive but I think a return to the Bible is a woman's best hope for equality.

For this reason I take #HeForShe to be a well-intentioned move in the right direction. Of course it's easy to be cynical about the zeitgeistiness of it all - a young, 20-something celebrity calling us to click on the latest website - but we can forgive it that. I think the goal is noble.

But then those goals become completely undermined by a couple of other commitments evident in the speech. At one point she says: "“It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals." Hang on a minute. I'm all for opposing gender stereotypes - which Watson does well in the speech - but let's not oppose the distinctness of gender itself.

Emma WatsonThe irony is that undercutting "he"-ness and "she"-ness with a single spectrum will not turn out well for the cause of women's liberation. If I am positioned on a spectrum according to my personality type, my preferences and my actions, then who will protect "an end of the spectrum" and on what basis? Spectrums get dominated - they always do - and they get dominated by the strong over the weak. Do women really want to abandon the particular protection of a given identity - one which they can proudly claim as "born that way" - and adopt a spot on a sliding scale?

As an example - you could make an argument for abolishing a men's and women's draw at Wimbledon. Why have these 'opposing ideals' - it's a spectrum after all? You could spin this as an argument for equality, couldn't you? "Let every tennis player identify simply as a tennis player and let their tennis speak for itself?" What would happen at Wimbledon? Men would win and women would be utterly squeezed out. The spectrum does not favour those who are weaker physically nor those who have historically been oppressed. The spectrum will only exacerbate inequalities and force the weak to fight a losing battle to be honoured.

The greatest example of this in the speech came at 4:52

I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body

It prompted the first and loudest bout of applause. It was chilling to me to see a talk on equality garnering such enthusiastic support for the oppression of the weak. What a travesty for women to applaud the 'rights' of the strong to eliminate all those little girls, simply because the strong can. 

I hope though that we can see how this pro-choice slogan fits perfectly with a 'spectrum' mentality. Richard Dawkins identified the chief problem with the pro-life position as 'The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind'. Dawkins insists that we not think in binary catergories - life or non-life - it's all on a spectrum. The status of the child in the womb is not on an on-off switch but on a dimmer. We must be pragmatic about when we accord the child the right to protection.

In other words, it's a spectrum. With this spectrum it's very obvious that there is a strong end and a weak end but, crucially, it's down to those at the weak end to prove themselves worthy of honour and protection. This is where it heads when we don't have God-given categories like 'life', like 'man', like 'woman.' Without these givens (and hear the word grace in the word 'given') we must earn and prove everything.

"He For She" is a great idea. But it's completely undercut if you make "He" abandon his "He"-ness and "She" abandon her "She"-ness. These have been given to us, not as 'opposing ideals' but as a complementary pairing. We are called, in all our distinctives, to a one-ness of love and mutual respect. #HeForShe works. #SHEEEHEEEESH does not. The spectrum is a spectre - it's the tyranny of the continuous mind.

15 thoughts on “#HeForShe and the Spectre of Spectrums

  1. Jess

    You don't actually explain why you think that "I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body" exacerbates the oppression of the weak.

  2. Glen

    Hi Jess, 'a woman's right to choose' concerning her own body is a catchy-cry of the pro-choice movement. I don't think there's any doubt that the phrase was both intended and understood as a pro-choice slogan by the applauding crowd.

    But if the child inside the woman is simply a part of her body which the woman can choose to eliminate, I take that to be an oppression of the weak.

  3. Si

    Also that it is a woman's right to choose has given invitation to men to sleep around without any care about impregnating the woman or care for any children that may be theirs - "it's her body, she's the one who makes the choice, it's nothing to do with me".

    And so what seems to be a feminist victory has made it even more the case that men can have sex without consequences but women can't - the very thing that the 'right to choose' was to try and stop.

  4. Glen

    Brilliant point Si! The woman can have sex but only if she embraces a "choice" which the man washes his hands of. She's embraced one kind of liberation at the severe cost of another kind of slavery

  5. Esther

    Hi there, a friend shared this on Facebook. This article is misguided in so many ways. Since the other commenters affirming your point of view are also men, I thought the perspective of a Christian woman may be of value to you (or is it?). I find the benevolent sexism in your article offensive. If the intent was to demonstrate love and respect for women, it unfortunately comes across as male superiority and condescension.

  6. Glen

    Hi Esther,

    Welcome to the blog. Hard to know how to respond... sexism is the opposite of my intention here. Can you give me a concrete example in the article?

  7. Servaas Hofmeyr

    Hi Glen, you have pretty much written my thoughts out on paper here - even up to the point where tennis is used for analogy. :) I'd also love to hear why some perceive it as male superiority and condescending? My suspicion is that many (not necessarily Esther) in the church do not hold a Biblical view on gender, and see genders as 'competing' instead of complimenting and 'in need of' one another for the flourishing of society.

  8. DJ Rodger

    Esther, I'm not sure where the sexism was in the article. Many women would make the same arguments as Glen has above, just because a man says something doesn't render it obsolete. Arguments don't have genders, people do.

    Slogans such as 'my body, my choice' are also in reality vacuous. After-all no one thinks being autonomous means one has the 'right' to do whatever they wish nor that because an action is chosen makes it de facto a good choice. In fact in many instances choosing something freely is worse than being coerced into it.

    It also begs the question by assuming something about preborn human.

  9. Esther

    Hi Glen, the whole article is the example, but if I had to pick a quote, it would be "Do women really want to abandon the particular protection of a given identity – one which they can proudly claim as 'born that way'..." Google "benevolent sexism" and I think you'll see that it's an accurate description of your mindset.

    Servaas, superiority manifests itself in the belief that the fate of women lies entirely in the hands of men, as in "a woman’s greatest hope of liberation and flourishing is for the men in her life to learn self-control", and the assertion that women will continue to be dominated unless they submit to the protection of men.

    DJ, there is no denying that many women subscribe to benevolent sexism, as a way of rationalizing away inequality. I'm pointing it out because I'm in a better position to identify microaggressions than those inflicting it. I'm not sure if the other paragraphs are also directed at me, and if so, what your point was. All I can say is that while I am personally opposed to abortion and hope I will never be in need of one, it is never a simple choice. Often, it is a painful decision, whether it is in consideration of the mother's health, the circumstances of conception, or the baby's future quality of life. I can't speak for women who get abortions as I've never been in their shoes; how can men speak for them if it is impossible that they will ever be in their shoes?

  10. Glen

    Esther, I Googled "benevolent sexism" and can see why we disagree. If we're not allowed to notice the differences between men and women or if we have to attribute them merely to socialisation and historic injustices then I don't really know what to say. If seeing distinct giftings in the sexes is "sexist" then, for instance, every "difference feminist" (like Carol Gilligan) is a benevolent sexist! That makes no sense to me.

    Equality does not mean interchangeability. Thankfully, with the triune God, we have the conceptual categories to deal with distinct differences that are, nonetheless, upheld in bonds of eternal love. The Persons are different but equal. Equal but not interchangeable. There is a flow to their life. So it is with God, so it is with male and female made in God's image.

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  12. Esther

    Thanks for taking the time to look it up. I just wanted to create awareness of alternative perspectives that are still biblical. Rachel Held Evans has done lots of great analysis and writing on this topic.

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