Behind The Hashtag: #HeForShe

Behind The Hashtag: #HeForShe
By Kim Goulbourne

“It’s a deceptively simple premise, a women’s rights campaign without a single woman,” Brad Roseberry, chief creative officer at Publicis Dallas told the New York Times in March 2014. He was referring to #HeForShe, a campaign that his agency created on a pro bono basis for UN Women.

The goal of the initiative, according to UN Women’s Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality, is to bring together one half of humanity [read: men] in support of the other half of humanity [women], for the benefit of all. This will be considered a successful pursuit if they gain the support of 1 billion men—or about 1/3 of men worldwide.

Yet, the campaign’s original premise didn’t hold true for long. The HeForShe program launched in March 2014, but it didn’t get much fanfare until a woman, Emma Watson, announced her role as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador on July 7, 2014, to her 13.6 million Twitter followers.

And promptly crashed the UN Women’s website.

As UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka explained in a speech a couple of months later, on September 20, 2014, at the UN Headquarters in New York City, “These are the young people that we can’t always reach in our conventional approaches and who we want to talk to.”

Emma Watson made her own speech at that event. It has 1.7M views on YouTube and spurred extensive media coverage.

She followed up this speech with a tweet the next day calling for men to declare their support for the campaign using #heforshe.

The social media floodgates opened, and @EmWatson’s call was answered by many a male celebrity (listed in chronological order):

Douglas Booth must have been responding to Emma’s speech or a personal request as his tweet pre-empted Emma’s call. The two did work together on the movie Noah, which had come out earlier that year.

Another person with a heads up was Forest Whitaker, who even had a fancy HeForShe graphic, including a photo of him looking pensive and a lovely quote, to go with his tweet. Whitaker is a UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace & Reconciliation and is a spokesperson for HeForShe Arts Week, taking place right now. More on that later.

Then, Emma Watson put out another tweet promoting her speech. This is her most popular #HeForShe tweet to date:

The celebrity support kept flowing from there:

Another Noah co-star, Logan Lerman:

The star of Noah, Russell Crowe:

Tom Hiddleston:

One Direction’s Harry Styles, the strongest endorsement as far as social media metrics are concerned:

The celebrity endorsement of another Harry, this one actual royalty, was shared by the official campaign Twitter account, @HeForShe, and was their most popular tweet of all time:

There may have been other celebrity supporters, but these were the most popular and/or the most notable. Interestingly, the celebrity social media support tended to skew young, white, and British, in a way that aligns with the Goodwill Ambassador herself.

Not long after the male celebrity photo challenge peaked, Twitter got in on the action by incorporating the social media campaign into their décor:

[Early] Criticisms of HeForShe

In the campaign’s early days, the support was clear in the numbers, but criticism came from feminists all over the world.

An American communications professional noted that there was no place on the HeForShe website for women to participate and that the campaign had no clear tie to action.

Another American writer reacted to the campaign’s explicit reinforcement of a gender binary and the implicit positioning of men as women’s saviors.

An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald called Emma’s HeForShe launch speech “hardly a game-changer”, part of a “gently, gently” feminist approach that fits nicely within patriarchal structures.

And the British criticism ranged from snarky and forthright to more subtle.

While these arguments all have merit and perhaps added to a productive, valuable conversation, other negative reactions reflected the dark side of internet fame—including the threat to release nude photos of Emma Watson, a threat that was later deemed a hoax.

As of late, Emma has proven herself to be well informed and inclusive, referencing the work of bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, and Rebecca Solnit. She also is not backing down from the naysayers. She told Esquire UK, “…there’s a willingness now to be like, “Fine. Call me a ‘diva’, call me a ‘feminazi’, call me ‘difficult’, call me a “First World feminist’, call me whatever you want, it’s not going to stop me from trying to do the right thing and make sure that the right thing happens.”

Furthermore, some, but not all, of the feminist community’s early concerns have been addressed by HeForShe, many in their website, which was relaunched in January 2016. First, they have opened up the pledge to women supporters. Second, HeForShe has been careful not to reinforce a gender binary any further by introducing things like a write-in option on their pledge form. Next, the website lists six major gender equality issues (education, health, identity, work, violence, politics) and allows users to both vote for those that are most important to them and to find resources on how to take action on each. Last, UN Women has launched an IMPACT 10x10x10 pilot initiative that engages [male] leaders around the world to drive change by making gender inequality an institutional priority. More information can be found in this PDF. The dense HeForShe Corporate Parity Report (PDF) launched at Davos 2016 shows a first step toward goal setting and tracking for IMPACT’s 10 corporate partners.

Twitter’s COO, Adam Bain, is a notable IMPACT Champion due to the campaign’s social nature. According to Twitter, after Emma Watson’s campaign launch speech at the UN, “the volume of Tweets about ‘feminism’ increased 115% and the number of people discussing the topic nearly doubled.” They also plan to “leverage the Twitter platform to drive towards HeForShe’s 1B target.”

Other IMPACT Champions have contributed to international support. Koç Holding has taken specific efforts to further the movement in its home country of Turkey, introducing a Turkish Twitter handle, @HeForSheTurkiye. Tupperware “…spurred almost 400 men in the Tupperware Mexico network to join HeForShe and resulted in more than 11,500 shares and likes on social media.” And support from international hotelier Accor has resulted in posts from their hotels all over the world (example from Grand Mercure in Da Nang, Vietnam).

HeForShe Today

As mentioned earlier, we’re in the midst of HeForShe Arts Week in New York City, and the social media response has given new life to a hashtag that had been lagging a bit since its strong launch (more info on the hashtag’s trends can be found here).

Emma Watson’s Arts Week speech had more than half a million views on Facebook a mere 9 hours after it had been posted. She and Chirlane McCray turned the Empire State Building HeForShe Magenta in honor of the week and International Women’s Day, capturing the attention of more than just eyeballs glued to a screen.

Even Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, got in on the action, tweeting a thank you to Emma Watson for her advocacy—in both English and French .

In a the recent conversation with Esquire UK referenced earlier, Emma Watson announced that she’s going to take some time off from acting in order to focus on HeForShe. She’s working on promotion already: the interview was part of Esquire UK’s Women & Men issue, a special intended to delve into modern feminism.

Because of her 21.2M followers on Twitter, 32.4M FB likes, and 7.35M followers on Instagram, Emma Watson is a powerful ambassador with the ability to influence many a digital conversation to come.

The Brand, The Movement

While diving into the use of #HeForShe feels mostly like a review of Emma Watson’s social media presence—the success of the initiative from a metrics standpoint falls squarely on her digital shoulders, which are far broader than her physical shoulders—the official HeForShe channels are no slouch.

They have 307K followers on Twitter and 450K Facebook likes. Over 150K photos on Instagram have been tagged with #HeForShe. Their website claims 1.3 billion HeForShe digital conversations have taken place thus far, I was #711,001 to pledge my commitment to the campaign on March 7, 2016. Moreover, they had a major coup recently when Twitter created a #heforshe branded emoji that was released on March 8, 2016, presumably in honor of International Women’s Day.

Tied to their digital presence is HeForShe’s distinctive branding. The movement’s identity is deliberate—UN Women even went so far as to work with Pantone to come up with a “new” color to represent HeForShe. HeForShe Magenta (PANTONE 18-1945, Bright Rose) was chosen as a way to symbolically walk the line between the traditionally male color of red and the female color of pink. Importantly, magenta is used to represent men rather than women in many of their marketing materials, challenging historical gender norms. HeForShe Magenta is visually paired with gray scale colors, from white all the way to black, which makes the bright color pop even more.

At this point, HeForShe is no longer considered an effective social media campaign, which suggests a beginning and an end, but is talked about as a global movement, alluding to the shift in thought and action that HeForShe hopes to inspire—one pledge, one follower, one hashtag at a time.

This article was originally written as part of the “Behind The Hashtag” series for Hashtags Unplugged. An exhibition that takes a look back at 10 memorable hashtags through art.

Check out the microsite here: series.hashtagsunplugged.com/heforshe

Get tickets to the exhibition: hashtagsunplugged.com/tickets

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